Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Woses - and other Races in Middle Earth

This could get controversial... I'm just thinking out loud here. (Mostly anyway) and I will say as a disclaimer something that I should put at the beginning of all my posts really. LOL. And that is that I can often express views that are not actually my own, just for the sake of exploring the subject to it's full extent. I do *not* think that Tolkien was racist. I'll say that now! But I do think that the subject is worth exploring, for the sake of understanding those who believe he is, and for ourselves to learn more about the books we love.

And with that said, let's get on.


This post was inspired by Gramma's BS this morning.

The Woses fascinate me. I suppose because they are mysterious, and one of the things that drew me to Archaeology in the first place was the chance to explore the mysteries of our ancestors and the way they lived.

I don't know if Tolkien was a subscriber to Creationism or Evolutionism.. (or neither!) But from his description of the Woses, and other stuff that he says about the different kinds of men, there is a hint of Victorian Evolution Theory in his work.

Many in the 19th/early 20th C believed that man's brain was constantly expanding/evolving, and that earlier man (I'm not talking about other species of hominid ancestors but actual Homo Sapiens Sapiens like us) was less man-like in all its ways than we are.

The World of Middle Earth, encyclopedia describes the different races in steps like this:

The Woses, communicating by drum beat, and living so in tune with the wild that they are seen as ghosts by those men who have since forgotten how to do the same, fit into the catagory of stone-age men. (The Dunlendings and other kinds were also of this early kind though of a more advanced type then Woses, say mesolithic or even Bronze-Age). Then you have the Breelanders and Beornings. And then the Eorlingas, taller and more 'noble' yet still seeing glory in battle.
And then the great men of Numenor such as Aragorn and the men of Gondor and Arnor, who have a longer life as well as a mind tuned more to the things of science and literature than to war.

I can see where the writer of the encyclopoedia got his interpretation from. No one could doubt that the men of Rohan find glory in battle..

At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise Riders of Theoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red-day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

and that the men of Numenor seek higher things than that.

"War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise." Faramir - the window to the west TTT

But I don't think that Tolkien was meaning to say that the Woses were any less intelligent than the Gondorians/Eorlingas. Far from it, when Ghan-buri-Ghan meets Theoden, we see that though he is not so good at Westron (often - as any tourist in a foreign land will know from experience - bad language is confused for bad intelligence) he is far more clued up about what is going on than Theoden is.

Still, I've often wondered what Tolkien meant exactly by giving different races different levels of greatness...
I know some who would see that as racism, but even if Tolkien was saying there were different levels of man (and I do not really think he was), I am sure it wasn't racism. It was just the generally held view at the time because of limited understanding of Evolution. Even now Archaeologists battle to demonstrate that the earliest civilizations (eg the builders of Stone Henge) were just as intelligent and able as we are in the 21st century. For example an article appeared in the Telegraph last saturday beginning with:

"[many] Archaeologists assume a smooth progression in human development from primitive hunter-gatherers to sophisticated city dwellers. But this cosy theory has been undermined by the work of [amongst others] a professor of engineering."

So if that is still a struggle now, we can hardly object to earlier generations mistakenly believing the same thing as many still do today.


The Woses built amazingly beautiful stone statues at Dunharrow (or at least the impression is given that they were the ones involved in building them). ""

That gives the same impression of longevity in the land as you get in Western Europe where such decorated standing stones are commonly found. And again, until very recently it was believed that each new culture was a wave of immigration - or invasion - from another land. That still may be true, but some are suggesting it was far more complicated than that.

One of the things I like about Tolkien's story is the hints of what came before that are scattered all over it. Think of the remains of the watchtower at Weathertop, or the great statue of a Gondorian king whose head, wreathed in flowers gives Frodo such joy at the crossroads to Minas Morgul.

But as in LOTR - where the Numenorians became the Gondorians, and before that were the Edain the earliest men (see bottom) - there is a sense that the more recent things are just a continuing of that which came before.

- - - - - - - - - -

On a slight aside (if you'll pardon me) as an example of how the 'cultural evolution' theory is changing, the article I mentioned describes something wonderful. At Newgrange in Ireland is a circular structure built about 1000 years before Egypts great pyramid, predating any city in western Europe by about 2000 years. A single shaft was carefully constructed there so that the light of Venus would penetrate into the central chamber once every eight years giving the engineers who designed it a calendar so accurate that it can be beaten today only by the use of atomic clocks.

Not only that, but there has recently been discovered a 'Megalithic Yard' (mega-lithic means 'big stones') that is a measured length used in building stone age structures that seems to be the same in all the sites throughout Europe. It is equal to 82.96656cm. It is believed that it was measured using a pendulum (though it was beyond me how you converted time in to distance... I'm sure the book the article was based on tells you nicely). You didn't have to count the number of pendulum swings, you just had to recite a poem say to it.

Remember those poems you used in the playground? "Eeny meeny miny mo, catch a baby by the toe, if it squeels let it go, eeny meeny miny mo." Well, it is now believed that that particular poem - at least the eeny meeny miny mo bit, is a left-over from one of the earliest forms of language in the world. (awesome huh?)

But anyway, someone had the bright idea of taking a tenth of a megalithic yard, and making a cube out of it (just like we make a litre by making a cube of 10cm x 10 x10). And found that the volume they ended up with was equal to 1.005 pints! In fact, comparing it to earlier measurements of pints gets even more accurate results. Henry VII (1485-1509) pint was closer to the megalithic pint than it was to the modern one - with a difference less than on part per 1,000. Not only that, but the pint in Elizabethan times in 1601 was identical to the Megalithic one.

Then they checked it against other measurements from around the world. The Spanish vara is very close to a megalithic yard. 1,000 Japanese shakus fit 366 megalithic yards with an accuracy of 99.8%. Ancient Egypt's standard measurement was the "Royal Cubit" and the Great Pyramid was built using a measuring wheel that had a circumference of one Mesalithic Yard, and a diameter that was half a royal cubit. And in the Indus Valley (in India), the earliest form of measurement was a gaz which is as close to a megalithic yard as to make no difference..

Isn't that amazing?!

- - - - - - - - -

back to Tolkien then..

So, we have the Woses, the original inhabitants, then in come the Dunlendings - perhaps - who are then driven out by the arrival of the men of Rohan and the war that took place at that time. Of course the men of Numenor (who became Gondor and Arnor) had already arrived, but they entered from outside and were seen as closer to elves. Indeed there is a lovely passage in the Silmarillion, if ONLY I could remember where, which says something like 'in those days men and elves were much alike'

Ahh I have found it!

"In those days Elves and Men were of like stature and strength of body, but Elves had greater wisdom, and skill and beauty; and those who had dwelt in Valinor and looked upon the Powers as much surpassed the Dark Elves in these things as they in turn surpassed the people of mortal race...[and they] were allies and held themselves akin, and there were some among Men that learned the wisdom of the Eldar, and became great and valiant among the captains of the Noldor. And in the glory and beauty of the Elves, and in their fate, full share had the offspring of elf and mortal."

To me that says that men were on a parr with the dark elves who had not moved westward following the call of the Valar, and those who became the men of Numenor became greater still through drawing close to the Noldor - the High Elves. And all men, Woses to Gondorians are all descended from the same Men who first rose as the Second Children of Eru.

So here is the answer. Tolkien isn't saying that different men are on different levels. He is saying that man has it in him to become great, as those who drew near to the Noldor did. They grew apart from their fellow men through their deeds, not through an intrinsic superiority. That is a very suitable message for a Myth. Which indeed is what this whole Middle-earth saga is. We can all become greater than we are.

And no one could doubt that Tolkien felt the glory of the ride of the Rohirrim, or that the reader too is stirred and thinks of great things as they read it. Indeed it is one of my personal favourite passages! Their glory in battle is a good thing, not an inferior thing, even though he does suggest that it is better for men to hold on to what they fight for, rather than revel in the fighting itself.

I once met a lady who said that the more she delved into LOTR the more concerned she became of its racist content, and though she would still read it to her children, there were passages that she believed she would have to sit down and explain to them, or even renounce. This made me a little sad, because I was sure that she was seeing something that isn't there. Now I know that if she had delved deeper, she would have seen that the racist concept was purely superficial and due to bad interpretation..

Let me leave you with what Ghan-buri-ghan says on the matter.

"Wild Men are wild, free, but not children,' he answered. 'I am great headman, Ghan-buri-Ghan. I count many things: stars in sky, leaves on trees, men in the dark. You have a score of scores counted ten times and five. They have more. Big fight, and who will win?'"

And from what we know of Tolkien's love of trees, leaves, and stars.. Indeed from his various writings we could say that he loved these more than anything else. So we see here that he admired the Wild Men perhaps even more than any other, because they could count what others see as un-numberable.


At September 15, 2004 at 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful essay!

Just one question, peripheral to your main one. I thought the megalithic yard was a concept created by Alexander Thom a good many years ago (I had a chance to buy his biography at Kilmartin in Scotland in July but passed on it -- it was an expensive hardback -- I'm sorry now!) I'm under the impression that current thinking is that the standard measurement of the stone circles, etc., was simply the length of a man's stride, not some arcane mathematical formula as Thom thought. (Which is not to say that the people who built the stone circles and tombs and all weren't extremely capable mathematicians and engineers.) I remember an archaeologist I worked with makng a rough measurement of the site by simply pacing around it.

- Lily Fairbarn

At September 15, 2004 at 2:04 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...


Yes, Alexander Throm was the one who originally came across it. (What a shame you didn't get his autobiography! That would have been quite a read!) He died in 1985. But his findings were virtually ignored until more recently.

Two archaeologists recently decided to study his work and see where he got the idea from (Christopher Knight and Alan Butler) I do believe they've written a book of their findings, but I don't know what it's called. I'm sure you'd find it on Amazon if you looked.

They said this about how they measured it.

"Our shortliest of possibilities for any naturally occurring unit of measure came down to just one candidate: the turning of the Earth on its axis which enabled early man to measure the passing of time. But how could a unit of time be converted into a linear unit? We eventually realised that the answer lay in pendulums.

At the heart of the traditional clock lies the pendulum. The dial on the clock-face is simply a convention to give us a standardised means of reading off units of time. When we stripped away the modern aspects of a mechanical clock we realised that it is, in essence, nothing more than a swinging pendulum.

All we needed to create a hypothetical prehistoric timepiece was for two of us to take turns to swing a pebble on the end of a piece of twine with our hands while the other counted off groups of completed beats. For example, a small stone coud be put in a line for every hundred beats. This "man-clock" would work well enough to allow for accurate astronomical calculations to be carried out over several days if necessary."
I *think* what they are describing here, is that they march to a beat. Either that or they measure the width of the pendulum swing (bearing in mind that all pendulums swing at the same speed when left to their own devices) But that would have it's own problems to do with string length... But I imagine you would have to read the book to be sure what it was they did. That extract just came from an article in the newspaper that they had written, and unfortunately it doesn't give any more detail than that as to how they calculated the 'Megalithic Yard'.


At September 15, 2004 at 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'll see if I can find more information on the subject. Maybe the Thom book is on Amazon, too -- I should have known I'd regret not buying it!

Lily Fairbairn

At September 15, 2004 at 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*tries to remember mechanics lessons*

Now that was pre-megalithic!

With a simple pendulum, the PERIOD of the swing (ie how long it takes to do a full swing) is only dependent upon the length of the string (and gravity, but thats pretty constant). So maybe the yard was the length of string which would give a certain number of swings in a given time - maybe the length of time to recite a poem?


At September 15, 2004 at 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. It's posts like yours that keep me coming here.

I like that. 'Man has it in him to become great, as those who drew near to the Noldor did.' I would add that the Noldor became great when they drew near to the Valar and the Valar grow in greatness the more they understand the mind of Eru. See where I'm going? it's where I think Tolkien was taking us.


At September 15, 2004 at 2:08 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

I would agree with that..

it all stems from that place of relationship with the Divine. :-)

what a nice thing to say, thank you! *blushes*

At September 15, 2004 at 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent essay!

Cool stuff about the measurements.
I hadn't really ever heard the Tolkien-is-a-racist thing, but I can see how someone might make that mistake. Nice analysis, Amatire, even the technical stuff, which you are able to talk about as someone who truly loves her work.

- Alassëa Eruvande

At September 15, 2004 at 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

VERY interesting! Thanks!


At September 16, 2004 at 6:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your aside I especially liked. Go Ireland, it's your birthday... not really... party anyway!


This of course is not to say that the rest of your essay wasn't as exciting; it was!

No, Tolkien was not a racist. I think we can see that in the famous passage where Sam, in the middle of the oliphant battle, sees a dead Easterling and wonders all sorts of things about him. He doesn't see this Easterling as the enemy, or a man whose skin color is different (not sure if the Easterlings are black, Latino, Asian, Indian, or Arabic), but as a human being with a home and family.

Certainly it would be hard to blame the Easterlings, who live in an arid land, to want to possess Gondor. It would be even harder knowing that they probably had very little information about the West, and if they had any, it was most likely Sauron's propaganda. Tolkien was not racist, but was rather looking at Middle Earth in a historical perspective.

He would also be a man of his time, so the idea of Victorian evolution would have been what he might have learned in bio (if he took it).

But as I see it, the differences in all of the races of men are not so much superiority and superior evolution, but a cultural evolution. One day the Woses and the Easterlings will be asked to modernize, but, as history teaches us, the valuable "primitive" knowledge will be lost. Or Wose children will eventually get tired of memorizing things, and join Gondor or Rohan and learn the culture. So the Rohirrim are all blonde. So what? It's called inbreeding. And I imagine that after Eomer, there would be intermarriage with other countries. Eomer married Imrahil's daughter, right? How old was Imrahil? How old was his daughter when she got married? (It would be kind of weird to get married to one of your best friend's daughter...) Eventually Middle Earth would move into globalization (especially with the other continents that are sort of mentioned) and they'll get into the same, big ol' mess we did. ;)

Thanks for making all of us think, Ammie! And it was a really great essay.


At September 16, 2004 at 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


First thing that comes to my mind is latitudes and attitudes. One of the things I noticed from your essay (FANTASTIC, by the way!) is how each of the cultures of Middle-earth are represented during the war, and each do their part according to their situations and development.

Just like the Fellowship, each contributed to the success of the quest/war, and their unique abilities and propensity made them all strong allies.

I don't think Tolkien was a racist. He lived in a time where social classes were strictly defined. As with Sam serving Frodo... to be in one class (or kind) doesn't mean your subservient or flawed. We all have a part to play... and we're stronger when united.


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