Africa, Bag End, Bodleian Library, Boromir, Chanson de Roland, creative misreading, Elephants, Greenway, Harad, horn, Mumakil, Oliphaunt, Oliphaunts, Savanna, sugar cane, sugar loaf, Sunlands, Swanfleet, Swertings, Tharbad, Tolkien, tropical, Umbar, war-horn
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
In our last posting, through a piece of “creative misreading” we saw a hat on Bilbo’s hallway table as a sugar loaf
and, before you knew it, we were thinking about where the sugar behind the cakes, seed cakes, and tarts in his pantry came from.
Sugar cane is a tropical plant
so, logically, we began to consider where, on the Middle-earth maps we have, tropical might be.
In our world, that would be south, of course, and, looking as far south as we can go, we reach Harad, a name which actually means “south” in Sindarin. It consists of two big regions, Near Harad and Far Harad.
As far as we can find, JRRT has left us no detailed geographic information about this region. On page 413 of The War of the Ring, we are given the clue that, when the Corsairs of Umbar are driven back,
“all the enemy that were not slain or drowned were gone flying over the [?borders] into the desert that lies north of Harad.”
This would suggest that at least Near (as in “near to Gondor”, as we presume that our cartographers were Gondorians) Harad might be imagined as being like our world’s North Africa—
with some fertile coastline, backed by the Sahara. And we can’t resist including this view of the Sahara from space here.
And, just as in our world, the whole south can’t be desert, since people from Harad are associated with elephants—or “oliphaunts”, as Sam says:
“But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ‘em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”)
This would suggest more fertile land south of the northern desert, a savanna, or region of great, grassy plains. Such an area forms one of two habitats for elephants in our Africa.
South of the African savanna lies the rain forest—the other African elephant habitat.
Sugar cane, a little research tells us, can grow in savanna lands
as well as in rain forest (which, in our world, is being destroyed to provide more space for growing it—here’s a LINK about that). Thus, we imagine that this must be the point of origin for Bilbo’s sugar. From its growing and processing point (for something about those things in our world, please see the previous posting), it might then be shipped to the city of Umbar and from there to Gondor.
As to how it reaches Bilbo, well, we know that there must have been some trade up and down the old North-South Road/Greenway, as Saruman has a supply of pipe-weed from the South Farthing, with “the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”), which takes us as far as Isengard. From Gondor to Isengard? Packhorse up the Greenway to Bree? Butterbur tells Frodo & Co that “”There’s a party that came up the Greenway from down South last night” (Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)—though he then says that “that was strange enough to begin with”.
As we said in our last, this is all based upon a “creative misreading”, so we admit that there are some gaps here and there–just as there is a gap in the North-South Road at the Swanfleet, where the great bridge at Tharbad is down, but that’s what we get with such a “creative misreading” of a hat!
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
But another thought—not based upon a “misreading”, but rather upon The Lord of the Rings, so, at the posting’s end we can have at least something a little less speculative.
There is another medieval spelling of “oliphaunt”—“Olifant/oliphant”, with its own specific meaning: a horn made from an elephant’s tusk, like this one, which is just over a thousand years old and is in the treasury of York Minster.
This is a drinking horn, but such horns could also be used for signaling, the most famous being that of Roland, the hero of the later-11th-century Old French epic poem, the Chanson de Roland. Here is a page from the oldest known ms, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
(Here are links to two translations in English, one in prose, one in verse.) If you don’t know the poem, its main action is a rear guard defense of a pass by a group of Carolingian soldiers commanded by Roland. He has an olifant and can use it to call for help, but refuses to do so until the last moment because, in his view, asking for reinforcements would be cowardly. As a consequence, the Carolingians, including Roland, do not survive the battle, as Roland blows the horn only at the last moment (and blows it so hard that he bursts his brains in the process—there would be those who might argue that someone who sacrifices his troops on a point of honor doesn’t have much in the way of brains to begin with!).
Warriors and horn-blowing immediately make us think of Boromir.
His horn is just called a “war-horn” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”), with no further description, but, as medieval horns in our world can be made of elephant tusk, why mightn’t Boromir’s be made of the equivalent, mumak tusk?