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The Science of Middle-earth: The Kine of Araw
-- Olog-Hai

Years before my great and coextensive friend Henry Gee wrote The Science of Middle-Earth (Cold Spring Press $14.00 trade paperback, ISBN 1593600232), I did my doctorate on the mammals that lived in Britain during the last Ice Age. This was a long and varied period. As you would expect, the Ice Age included sharp spells of extreme cold during which most of Britain was a polar desert rather like modern Greenland. Less expectedly, there were intervals in which Britain was much warmer than it is today. 125,000 years ago, hippos and elephants wallowed in the river Thames, in what is now the heart of London, and lions stalked game on the banks.

I recently went to an academic conference on Ice-Age Britain and got rather nostalgic about my graduate-school research, which concentrated on the large bovines that once lived in Britain. None now survive, but at various times in the past million years, Britain was home to enormous herds of bison to rival anything on the Great Plains, as well as gazelles, saiga, musk oxen and aurochs -- which brings me to the subject of this column.

Back in what palaeontologists call the Middle Pleistocene, 750,000 years ago or thereabouts, the typical large ungulate in Britain was an odd kind of tall bison with spindly legs. About half a million years ago there was a truly terrific glacial episode, in which the advancing Ice Sheet displaced the more northerly-flowing Thames into its present course, rearranging the landscape of Britain and opening the way to a long period of warmth and a whole new range of animals. The old-style bison disappeared, and the aurochs (Bos primigenius) was the predominant species of large bovid. As the millennia wore on, this species was generally replaced by a more modern type of bison. This in turn became extinct in Britain just before 20,000 years ago -- the main, savage pulse of the very last interval of cold -- and never returned. As far as we know, the modern European bison (Bison bonasus) never reached Britain. The aurochs, however, did get to Britain before the rising sea level made it an island once more. These creatures survived into Neolithic times, but a few thousand years ago they were replaced once again, by domestic cattle. The aurochs, you see, is the wild ancestor of today's cattle.

Domestication must have been quite a feat. Aurochs are rather far removed in both size and temperament from the docile Buttercup and Daisy of today. They were immense creatures, more like large rhinos than cattle, proverbially ferocious and with very long, curving horns. They were very much larger than the contemporary form of bison. Imagine the bulls bred for bullfighting in Spain, and add half as much mass again.

Wild aurochs lived in Europe until relatively recently. Like the fast-disappearing European bison, their last refuge was in the dense forest of eastern Poland. Bison still survive there, just about, but the aurochs, sadly, did not. Despite earnest conservation efforts, the last aurochs -- a cow -- died in 1627, in the royal forests of Jaktorowski at Mazowsze in Poland. (Other accounts paint a less rosy picture, that the last auroch was shot to death).

Tolkien had a fondness for extinct creatures, especially those with less spectacular modern-day relations. Perhaps the most famous is the Mûmak of Harad, the 'Oliphaunt', a huge species of elephant straight out of a medieval bestiary. Although Peter Jackson's oliphaunts have been inflated to improbable dimensions -- a cross between dinosaurs and the Imperial Walkers out of The Empire Strikes Back -- there were, once, elephants of the size described by Tolkien. Mammuthus trogontherii, a larger predecessor of the smaller and hairier woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) of the later Ice Age, fitted the bill admirably. Mammuthus trogontherii were contemporaries of the aurochs, and they, too, have a bit part in Middle-earth.

Boromir's great horn, cloven at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, is said to be 'a wild ox-horn bound with silver' and had been an heirloom of the Stewards for a thousand years before the story opens.

“'Verily,' said Denethor. 'And in my turn I bore it, and so did each eldest son of our house, far back into the vanished years before the failing of the kings, since Vorondil father of Mardil hunted the wild kine of Araw in the far fields of Rhûn.'" (Lord of the Rings V, 1).

Appendix A of the Lord of the Rings notes that Vorondil died in 2029 Third Age, adding as a footnote: “'The wild kine that were still to be found near the Sea of Rhûn were said in legend to be descended from the Kine of Araw, the huntsman of the Valar... Oromë is the High-elven form of his name.'"

These two, fleeting references to the Kine of Araw are full of clues suggesting that Tolkien had modelled these creatures directly on aurochs. The first was their location, far to the east. 'Rhûn' simply means 'east', and it was in Eastern Europe that some of the ancient Ice-Age mammals of Europe found their last refuges. Aurochs and bison hung on in eastern Poland. Recent research shows how woolly mammoths survived in remote parts of Siberia -- the far east of Middle-earth -- until almost historical times, alongside the spectacular giant deer or 'Irish elk' (Megaloceros giganteus), a creature that bore antlers of amazing size.

The second is the hint of extinction in remote and yet historical times (at least from the perspective of the participants). The footnote in Appendix A suggests that the kine of Araw were 'still to be found' in the east in Vorondil's day, with the implication that by Denethor's time, a millennium later, they had become extinct. This parallels the true history of the aurochs, which survived in the east of Europe until historical times, before being driven to extinction.

The third could be one of those linguistic puns of which Tolkien was fond -- puns that draw us away from Middle-earth and, rather knowingly, pull us back into the real world. I am thinking of words such as Sahóra (South) and Atalantë (the story of Atlantis). In this context Araw sounds very reminiscent of Aurochs.

In the index to The Silmarillion, the Quenya word Oromë is translated as 'Sound of Horns', deriving from the root ROM- (The Etymologies in The History of Middle-earth V) , indicative of a loud noise or horn blast. Araw is simply the Sindarin cognate of this word -- the name of the Vala derived from the sound of a mighty blast on a horn taken from one of these great beasts, from which one might imagine the name being transferred to the beast itself.

-- Olog-Hai


Gee, H. Bovidae from the Pleistocene of Britain, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of Cambridge (1991).

Stuart, A. J., et al., Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth, Nature 431, 684-689 (2004)

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