TT: The Most Complex Race on Middle Earth

JANE: One of the things I thought made Middle Earth particularly rich was that we get glimpses of different well-developed human cultures.  There are the Dunedain, the Men of Gondor, the Men of Arnor, the Black Numenoreans, the Cosairs of Umbar, the Haradrim , the Easterlings, and the Woses.

A Wide Variety of Humans

A Wide Variety of Humans

ALAN: In other words, the social and political divisions within Middle Earth are just as confusing and messy as they are in the real world.

JANE:  Yep!   As one comes to expect with Tolkien, the same people/culture may have many names, which can be confusing.  For example, the Dunedain and the Numenoreans are different names for the same people.

ALAN: Tolkien did this all the time – I am firmly convinced that it was a conscious literary device that he used in order to add verisimilitude to his story. We’ve already seen how place names in the real world work like that, but so too do the names of tribes and nations.

I was born in the UK so therefore I am British. But I was actually born in England, so it would be equally legitimate to call me English. However, I tend to think of myself as a Yorkshireman, and Yorkshire people often refer to themselves as Tykes. In another context, you could also consider me to be European. On the other hand, I’ve legally changed my nationality, and I no longer use a UK passport because now I’m a New Zealander. So I’d be happy to have you refer to me as a Kiwi or, depending on the circumstances, a Pakeha.

Do you have a theory as to why Tolkien used such a plethora of names for the various humans of Middle Earth?

JANE: Before I answer your question, I just need to say “Wow!”  I love your example of how one person can have many cultural identities – and how all can be perfectly correct.

Going back to Tolkien.  Tolkien often dates the development of a new sub-group to some historical event.  For example, Gondor and Arnor are both descended from the survivors of the destruction of Numenor, so new names develop for a changing peoples.

ALAN: I think Tolkien is deliberately drawing literary parallels here. Just as Gondor was founded by those who survived the fall of Numenor, so too was Rome founded by those who fled from the destruction of Troy, and a whole new world-dominating culture arose from that disaster! Virgil wrote an epic poem about it (the Aeniad). The legend of Aeneas was so important to the mythology of Rome that Julius Caesar claimed to be directly descended from him.

JANE: And through Aeneas to the goddess Venus, please remember.  Julius Caesar could claim a pedigree worthy of a hero out of myth…


Indulge me in a small sketch of how Tolkien worked through his histories.  The Numenoreans were called so because of where they lived: the island of Numenor.  They were also called the Dunedain, which means Men of the West.

A small aside…  Many of Tolkien’s races had a “directional” name.  The Haradrim are also called the “Southrons.”  Sauron’s human forces are the “Easterlings.”

ALAN: I wonder why we never hear of the heroic deeds performed by the Northeast-by-North-erlings? And what about those villainous Southwest-by-South-erners?

JANE: Evil!  True evil is in bad jokes…

But you bring up something that has always bothered me about these directional names.  They’re relative to where you live.  For the first part of my life, Texas was emblematic of the American West.  Now that I live in New Mexico, it’s just another eastern state.  <grin>

Getting back to Tolkien’s history…  Numenor was sunk into the sea for reasons that boil down to the Elves thinking them uppity for wanting to be immortal, too.  (Imagine!)  Some of the Numenoreans who had not challenged the Right Way (which was that Men die and Elves don’t) survived.  They founded Gondor and Arnor.

The people of Gondor and Arnor in turn intermarried with various other groups, creating new cultures.  To pick one at random, Jim is particularly addicted to the Riders of Rohan.

ALAN: Oh yes! I vividly remember when I first read the books, I was sitting alone in a room. My parents were in the next room watching something on the television, but I was so immersed in the books that I left them to it. And just as the fellowship arrived in Rohan, my father came in and insisted that I go to bed because it was late. Oh, no! I was devastated!

Guess what I read by torchlight under the sheets that night?

I’ve had a very soft spot for the Rohirrim ever since, and I think it says something about the impact that the Riders had on me that more than fifty years later I still vividly remember the emotion of that moment.

JANE: I also like the Riders of Rohan a great deal.  For one, they’re the only culture in the entire massive block of print to produce a female main character: Eowen.

That aside, they remind me of all the good things about Vikings, without the random looting, pillaging, and such.  If you can have idealized Vikings, then the Rohirrim are they.

Are there any other human cultures you like in particular?

ALAN: Well we can’t leave a discussion about the Races of Men without talking about one man – Aragorn, the King who returned in the last book of the tale. Tolkien talks a lot about Aragorn’s lineage (Aragorn, son of Arathorn… blah, blah, blah) and it’s certainly one of the many reasons why he was able to reclaim the title of King.

JANE: I’d go further than that.  I’d say that this heritage – and the powers Aragorn inherited with it – are the reason everyone is supposed to accept him as king.  It is to Tolkien’s credit that he created such a fine character that we all want Aragorn to win the throne, rather than wondering why a guy who has spent most of his life wandering around in disguise should be expected to be able to run a massive empire.

ALAN: Again this heritage is a reflection of how things used to work in the actual world we live in. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, can legitimately trace his family back to William the Conqueror and there is a medieval manuscript in the archives that details William’s descent from God. So Boris would seem to have impeccable credentials, if you happen to believe in the Divine Right of Kings…

JANE: But we don’t – and as you and I earlier discussed – the behavior of monarchs, modern and otherwise, contributes a great deal to our lack of faith in the divine right of kings.

ALAN: And quite right too.

Although Aragorn was of the race of Men, he always seemed a bit Elvish to me. While he was certainly not immortal, he was very long-lived and there was a grace, dignity and nobility about him that was very Elvish.

JANE: In a sense, Aragorn is sort of Elvish, since the Elves granted magical powers and long life to the Dunedain after they sided with the Elves in an earlier Really Big War Against Evil. See above as to what happened when the Dunedain (now also Numenoreans) decided this wasn’t enough.

Before we close here, I’d like to take a brief look at one of the most overlooked human races in the novels: the Woses who, by the way, are also – confusingly – called the Druedain.

ALAN: I must confess I draw a blank here. I don’t recall the Woses at all. Can you enlighten me?

JANE: Okay… Think back to when the Riders of Rohan have finally finished squabbling and are racing to aid Gondor.  They are halted by a terrifically huge group of Orcs.  All seems lost until arrows come from nowhere, felling the Orcs.

The source of those arrows was the people the Riders had contemptuously called “Woses” and had hunted as annoying beasts.

That the Druedain (or Drughu as they call themselves) would have come to the rescue of people who had treated them so badly shows their intelligence and awareness of the bigger picture – an awareness the ostensibly more sophisticated Riders had been slow to accept.

In fact, the only reason the Riders of Rohan arrive in time at the Battle of Pelennor Fields is because of the Woses.  And the only reason Sauron’s forces are defeated is because the Riders arrive in time.  So one could argue that the Woses – short, ugly, twisted, and primitive as they are – are the twig that turns the flood.

Once again, Tolkien makes the point that those who are not obvious heroes have an important role to play.

And you forgot them…

ALAN: To my sorrow, so I did. I promise that it won’t happen again.

JANE: As was mentioned in the comments when we started this discussion with Hobbits, Hobbits can be considered one of the human races – one that, like the Woses,  has taken a wildly divergent path.  So, in a sense, we have come full circle…  Perhaps this is a good place to close.


7 Responses to “TT: The Most Complex Race on Middle Earth”

  1. Jay M. Says:

    “if you happen to believe in the Divine Right of Kings…”

    The American epic (Star Wars) slides close to that Divine Right of Kings thing when you realize that you have two competing priestly traditions who both keep trying to recruit/coopt the other side’s warrior-priest-lords … and there is actual “divine” birth … and you’re waiting for one or another member of the same divine-right family to win and rule.

    As for Aragorn being ready to rule, I think book-Aragorn is clearly ready, as he has been doing a Henry V thing for the previous 5 or 6 decades, checking out all of Middle Earth and seeing how it all works (or doesn’t) in preparation for his ascension. Movie-Aragorn, on the other hand, isn’t doing that and just wants to read books in Elf-lands and kiss Arwen. (Come to think of it, I think movie-Aragorn might be wiser.)

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Good point, outlining the differences. I do, though, wonder how someone who has spent that much time free would feel to have people constantly saying: “Sire, please, a moment. I need you to sign this document…”

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I really didn’t realize, before reading this, how much thought Tolkien must have put into the backgrounds of his various races. No wonder his works are classics of the genre, and so often imitated (but not as well done as the originals).

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Yes, Tolkien was having fun. On the other hand, there’s the Silmarillion, which isn’t quite so much fun. It is interesting that so many of the races, except (I think) for the dwarves and the ents, had multiple names, often multiple “ethnic” groups. That certainly seems to be true for elves, humans, and orcs.

    As for hobbits being humans…yeah. I guess we’re in the wolf, coyote, great dane, and chihuahua area here. Tolkien’s elves and humans could interbreed, and orcs and humans could interbreed. Hobbits and humans or hobbits and dwarves? Not so much. It’s interesting that humans and hobbits are therefore considered the same species, while the others are different species. Perhaps size matters more than species? And dwarves are a separate creation, no matter what. Does that make them more cats or badgers in the metaphor? Or is it just because they’re the only ones with beards, and that’s why they’re stuck with their own kind?

    Yes, I know it’s a creation and they were all given separate afterlives. So what?

    I also love Jane’s point about the woodwoses. I hadn’t thought of that before, and it’s a good point that needs to be made more often. Primitive isn’t the same as simple, either in technology or in people.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Maybe Merry and Pippin, being taller, would have more luck with “out species” ladies…

      I could see brooding Frodo becoming a sort of Byronic romantic figure, if he’d chosen to come out of his shell.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      It’s odd that so many seem to miss this, but that apparent variety of names is purely indicative of the linguistic variety Tolkien created – in fact, that was his starting point, since the whole thing got under weigh as the backstory of the History of Elvish. So Numenoreans, Dunedain and Men of the West are exactly equivalent [although Tolkien actually cheated in using the -ean ending familiar to Anglophones. I don’t think it’s grammatically correct Quenya]. The first is High Elven, the second Grey Elven and the last, of course, Mannish, but they all translate to ‘men of the West’. In the same way, Grey-Elven Haradrim translates literally as ‘people of the south’, or Southrons. Edain is ‘men’ [in the sense of ‘humans’], so the Druedain are the Men of Dru – and there you’ve got me, because I have no idea what Dru means 😉

      And so on. Each of those various terms marks a linguistic distinction. And which term you used marked your own origin, social class and educational level – Tolkien was, after all, very much an
      Edwardian Briton. Wose, BTW, is Rohirric, if I may be permitted the term for the language actually spoken in the Mark of the Riders. The association of the Rohirrim and Vikings is apt: the language depicted in the books is strongly reminiscent of Old Norse.

  4. Paul Genesse Says:

    Excellent post. It makes me want to read the books again.

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