Sitting down one day in Britain long ago, JRR Tolkien decided he would stage a minor battle in the First Age of Middle-earth. This skirmish would occur on a rocky eminence he named Amon Rûdh, Bald Hill. This hill would also host the new home of his first dwarf, Mîm the Dwarf – a long-languished character from The Book of Lost Tales. Pondering the various roles Tolkien chose for Mîm, we glimpse mysterious and unexpected truths about the making of Middle-earth – about both the original version of that world, and about Tolkien’s final unfinished visit there.
Mîm the Dwarf first appeared in Tolkien’s legendarium sometime between 1917 and mid-1919. A brief mention and one swift scene in “Turambar and the Foalókë” brought the dwarf into “the caves of Rodothlim” where he is “an old misshapen dwarf who sat ever on the pile of gold singing black songs of enchantment to himself.” Tolkien decided that Mîm would take custody of the treasury of Glorund the dragon, recently slain by the magic talking sword of Túrin, son of Úrin.
This version of Mîm can readily be identified as an incarnation of a dwarf named Mime, adapted by Richard Wagner for a role in his epic opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. Tolkien became a fan of Norse and Germanic storytelling early in life, studying the same mythological sources consulted by Wagner. It is remotely possible that he came up with “Mîm” on his own, but in choosing that name, he more likely tipped his hat to Wagner and Mime. Tolkien’s interest in Wagner at that point is unclear, but he was probably drawn to Mime because the various medieval accounts of dwarfs and smiths hinted at ancient tales told long ago around Germanic fireplaces across northern Europe.
In the wake of World War Two Tolkien decided he did not appreciate being thrust into the same literary light as Wagner. In a February 1961 letter Tolkien denied that Wagnerian influences had any hand in shaping The Lord of the Rings. An ever-growing analytical literature has since emerged to question that assertion. The Mîm / Mime connection has also been noted on occasion, adding to the argument that Tolkien’s engagement with Wagner’s legacy dates back to the early materialization of his Middle-earth legendarium. But the 1961 letter underscores Tolkien’s frame of mind during the years after publication of The Lord of the Rings. That is, he had no wish for others to make too much of likenesses between his mythmaking and Wagner’s.
This may help to explain Tolkien’s decision to reshape the tale of Mîm sometime in the years around 1961. Tolkien must have known of Wagner’s appeal in Nazi Germany, as well as the criticism Wagner received after World War Two for his attitudes toward Jews. In Leon Stein’s The Racial Thinking of Richard Wagner (1950), for example, we find consideration of the Nibelung dwarf characters as representing “on the authority of Wagner himself, the Jews who having robbed the world of its gold, are determined to dominate it.”
With the issuing in 2007 of the final incarnation of Mîm – in The Children of Húrin – we can see how Tolkien’s new configurations distanced Mîm from Mime. Now he is not just a dwarf; he is a “Petty-dwarf.” We find him residing in a secret underground mansion inside a hill new to Middle-earth, Amon Rûdh. There he has two sons. They are beset by Túrin’s band of outlaws, and Mîm eventually betrays them to Orcs, “emissaries of Morgoth,” who attack the men. This Mîm differs noticeably from the original Nibelung-like Mîm.
For the setting of this new tale, we can guess that Tolkien’s imagination could have been sparked by the several thousand ancient hill forts that dot Britain’s hilltops – one researcher has noted the faint silhouette of a hill fort in The Lord of the Rings; another has outlined Tolkien’s experience with the barrows at Berkshire Downs. I am unaware of any research that examines Amon Rûdh for any arguable echoes of an actual site in Britain. But if Tolkien had in mind hill forts, Amon Rûdh doesn’t much resemble such places – it is at best a fantasy version of a hill fort.
Tolkien could have adapted the term “Rûdh” from Irish dye traditions. In Eugene O’Curry’s On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873) we find an interesting note: “In order to dye the same ‘rimed’ wool of a splendid crimson red, they cultivated a plant in ancient Erinn which they called Rudh and Roidh; but as the plant is not now known in the country, I cannot designate it by any more intelligible name.” Tolkien’s rûdh was intended to mean “bald” but on the bare summit of the hill we find in bloom “the red seregon that mantled the stone.” This flower can be found nowhere else in Middle-earth; it seems to have been invented for Amon Rûdh.
With this possibility in mind, we might look for some further connection to ancient Ireland. In an 1842 publication of the Dublin Archaeological Society, for example, we find reference to “Clanna Rudhraighe” as associated with “Eamhain Macha, the name of their ancient palace…” This publication concerns the Battle of Magh Rath, and in a paper published in 1856, JW Hanna postulated that this battle occurred near Crown Rath, where we find “a mass of solid rock” and the “debris of a ‘King’s House.’” To make use of such materials, Tolkien would have had to mine assorted texts – none of which seem to have contained a convenient clustering of elements that then reappeared at Amon Rûdh. Tolkien did in fact weave together diverse materials to create his Middle-earth legendarium, but it is not ideal to suggest that he selectively extracted widely scattered obscure details to produce a given narrative setting.
There is an identifiable candidate for the raw material that could have given rise to the Petty-dwarf mansion at Amon Rûdh. During the late 1920s Tolkien prepared a short contribution to a report on an archaeological site at Lydney, Gloucestershire. This was a Roman temple complex with an adjacent hill fort overlooking the River Severn, and it had an ancient name: Dwarf’s Hill. The two hills are very different, but decades later Tolkien could have taken inspiration to build his own version of a Dwarf’s Hill.
These various postulated contexts are interesting, but there is more to consider. In 2013 and this year I issued Tolkien in Pawneeland, a book showing that from circa 1914 to 1942 Tolkien made occasional use of a 1904 collection of Pawnee stories. I describe in detail clusters of parallel textual elements shared between specific narratives in George Dorsey’s Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee and specific texts authored by Tolkien. This technique of comparative textual analysis is a typical procedure in Tolkien studies, and following this analysis, my major findings touch on shared elements that are substantial and unusual. I think it is clear that Tolkien did consult this Pawnee publication. More recently, reading The Children of Húrin, I realized there were indications that in the course of reconstituting Mîm the Dwarf, Tolkien drew on another story in that Pawnee collection. This particular visit to Pawneeland may have been motivated by a wish to use exotic source-material to counter a comparison to Wagner, shifting Mîm away from Mime.
In “The Moon Medicine,” told sometime before 1904 by a Skidi Pawnee priest named Roaming Scout, a war expedition traveled to a “high hill” called Pawnee Rock. As Roaming Scout described it: “There was only one path up to it, and the other side was rough and rugged; on the north there was a steep bank and a creek running by.” Tolkien’s Amon Rûdh rose above “a broken land” and its “steep grey head was bare.” Only Mîm and his sons knew the single path up the “steep slopes” to “a bare flattened top”; and on the north side was “a shelf,” and “sheer cliffs” dropped away east and west. But on the north side lay a path to a place “fed by a spring[.]” Both sets of descriptions focus on a stony hill accessible from one side only, with an associated water source.
Tolkien has one character ask about the bleak sight of the looming hill, “Do men hide on a hill-top?” The answer is yes; in each story a wandering party of warriors ultimately takes refuge on a prominent stony hill. The Pawnee expedition becomes trapped, seeking refuge at the summit of their hill, and Túrin’s company of outlaws also finds a safe haven – both Pawnee Rock and Amon Rûdh prove quite suitable for companies of men.
Scouts figure in both narratives. In the Pawnee story there are “scouts” who “lay upon the high hills” and observe the coming of enemies. And they are observed by enemy scouts who “went back and reported” that the Pawnees had been found. In Tolkien’s story Morgoth sends “his most skilled scouts” to lurk about, spying on Amon Rûdh.
Both Roaming Scout and Tolkien report on similar furtive negotiations. In the Pawnee story two men descend from the hilltop to negotiate in secret with the enemy; in Tolkien’s story Mîm and his son descend from Amon Rûdh to make a secret deal with “the servants of Morgoth.”
In the Pawnee story a key development occurs when the leader of the expedition receives magical help from Spider Woman – help that enables their escape from Pawnee Rock. When Mîm is asked about how the men “shall go out” and “how shall we return” he makes an interesting observation: “Do you fear that you have followed a spider to the heart of his web?” He next offers to serve as a guide to the men, just as Spider Woman provides guidance to the Pawnees on how to safely escape their rocky haven.
Spider Woman helps the Pawnee company by pointing out to the leader “a great rock that is loose” – this great rock plays an important role in the story. In Middle-earth, when Túrin’s trapped outlaws do battle with Orcs, a few retreat “to the centre of the summit, where there was a standing stone” and there they make their last stand. The Pawnee standing stone proves very useful, but Tolkien’s British version feels unfinished as a narrative element, a merely sketched-in idea.
In the aftermath of the Orc battle, Mîm “ran to the brink of the cliff and disappeared: he fled down a steep and difficult goat’s path…” And in the Pawnee story, “a little fellow who was errand man for them rose up and ran down the hill.” The fates of these variously “Petty” and “little” fellows differ, but both cases proceed down similar paths. As acts of desperation, a dwarf and a little fellow both run down their separate paths from similar hilltops.
Many major differences exist between the two stories, but the range of shared features is notable. Given the existence of these parallels, what are we to make of them? To begin, Tolkien did not retell the Pawnee story; he did not cut and paste sentences; he had no evident intention to cultivate in his audience any sense of appreciation for Pawnee tales. For that matter, as far as I know, he never mentioned any kind of literary inspiration for his evolving tale of Mîm the Dwarf – even Wagner failed to get any kind of nod from Tolkien.
In the chronicles of human history there have surely been many battles on many remote hilltops. Tolkien had no need to visit far-off Pawneeland for his hilltop massacre. He had no need to visit any historical battleground in order to create the fighting that occurred on Amon Rûdh. And yet the strange fact remains. Tolkien’s depiction of Amon Rûdh features elements that look borrowed from a Pawnee story. These elements are mutually clustered – meaning that in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee they can be found in one story over the space of about four pages; these details reappear together in two sequential chapters in The Children of Húrin.
It is possible that some or all of these shared traits are pure coincidence. In this kind of textual analysis, coincidence can never be completely ruled out. But its explanatory authority diminishes as the list of parallels grows; the interpretive power of coincidence withers when shared materials are unusual. We can evaluate the likenesses and contrasts of the compared traits; we can judge whether the comparisons are fairly drawn or stretched beyond reason. In this case, we must ponder a diverse list of traits: stony hills in remote lands with access up one side only; wandering warriors who occupy that hill; scouts sending in reports; enemies surrounding the hill; references to spiders who act to guide men; two people conducting secret talks; great stones upon the hilltops; and smallish people running down the hill in distress.
Some of these points of convergence do not seem particularly unique – like the roaming warriors occupying a hilltop, enemies surrounding that hill, and the mention of scouts. As war stories, we might reasonably expect to see certain kinds of overlap. The accumulation of weak parallels may draw notice, but the challenge is to explain the spectrum of more unique conjunctions. These include the comparable nature of the two stony almost inaccessible hills, the deployment of spider imagery, the two-member teams of clandestine negotiators, the standing stones, and the small individuals running off their hills in concert.
These diverse coexisting circumstances do not feel like elements that one would commonly expect to see repeated in war stories. We might well find them all randomly scattered among war stories worldwide, but what should really draw our interest are instances where a group of shared features appear in a more concentrated context, as with “The Moon Medicine.” It is plainly evident that this is a meaningful clustering of unusual features, quite remarkable for two stories that are not supposed to have any connection.
In this case, given the range of congruent elements, the idea of coincidence is a difficult proposition to argue. It is indeed fair to conclude that a Pawnee source connection is more than just possible; deliberate borrowing offers a better explanation than a model of independent unrelated invention. This view is strengthened by another factor. In Tolkien in Pawneeland I explore other examples of similarly parallel constructions – that is, we find various components abstracted from a single Pawnee narrative and dropped into a single Tolkien story or poem. These borrowings happened between circa 1914 and circa 1942.
Tolkien’s periodic interest in Pawnee mythological tradition is clear enough. In the present example, the evidence discourages the likelihood of incidental similarity. In the other circumstances I describe in my book, we find much stronger cases with even more detail, unique and convincing. Pondering this history, I favor a definitive conclusion. We can feel seriously doubtful about what happened only if we simply can’t accept what happened.
Mîm the Dwarf started off as an arguable incarnation of Mime, a dwarf character in Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. Later in life, resenting comparisons to Wagner, Tolkien decided to surround Mîm with a different narrative setting. To launch this project, he may have given thought to Dwarf’s Hill at Lydney. The name for his hill could have come from some Irish text mentioning a dye tradition about rudh, a forgotten red flower. For additional help he turned to a very obscure Pawnee tradition. The borrowed details can be readily identified as elements from George Dorsey’s Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, a book that enjoyed a brief heyday in Britain during Tolkien’s youth, but which was long forgotten by the 1960s.
Tolkien’s handling of these matters came to a close in a leaf-mould of randomly piled papers. He never completed the legend of Mîm the Dwarf. It is a curious tale. As JRR Tolkien’s first and last dwarf, Mîm traversed the making of Middle-earth – and his journey took him through the heart of Pawneeland. We can only wonder what Tolkien would have done further with Mîm, had he completed the story. Peering into the pages of The Children of Húrin, we only see a half-glimpsed hooded shape wandering in a forever unfinished dusk.
My related Pawneeland essay: “The Moon Magic”
My related essay at The Wandering Company: “The Spider’s Springs”