Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk
The first time I noticed traces of Pawnee mythology in Middle-earth I dismissed the notion. For many years it seemed a mere curiosity. When I finally took a serious look, the evidence immediately grew into something that couldn’t be ignored. It has since been a surprising journey, tracing the evidence, wondering what to make of it.
The most recent outcome of my research involves a project that Tolkien labored over late in his life. In those days as he carefully crafted the forever unfinished details of his Silmarillion legends, it is evident that he consulted a Skidi Pawnee tradition titled “The Moon Medicine,” a hilltop adventure at a place called Pawnee Rock. I have explored this in a post at Tolkienland, and at Pawneeland I have set forth how the Pawnee tradition evolved into a tale of great cultural significance for the Pawnee people.
It is no doubt just a coincidence that Tolkien drew on a story about the erosion and invasion of Pawneeland for a story about a Dwarf whose homeland was overwhelmed and renamed by invading Elves. This coincidental similarity is curious, but it is also interesting to ponder the differences. The Pawnee story is a hopeful account of the benevolent mystery of the Moon, of survival against insurmountable odds. Tolkien was not interested in retelling this optimistic Skidi story. He decided instead to draw from it to write a dark tale of men doomed by their evil choices, cursed by the machinations of a malevolent satanic divinity.
As far as I know, Tolkien had no interest in the esoteric dynamics of Pawnee mythmaking. In this instance, his use of “The Moon Medicine” most likely had to do with shifting a character named Mîm the Dwarf away from association with Richard Wagner and Nazi Germany. In my essay on this topic at Tolkienland I have drawn attention to Tolkien’s Mîm and Wagner’s Mime, and I have identified a series of convergent details between “The Moon Medicine” and Tolkien’s tale.
I suspect that what drew Tolkien’s attention to “The Moon Medicine” was mention of Spider Woman. My research reveals that Tolkien drew on Skidi Pawnee traditions about Spider Woman as early as circa 1914 for the creation of his first monster, a spider set in a fantasy version of Vinland. Evidence for a secret connection between the spider imagery of Pawneeland and Middle-earth can be found in The Book of Lost Tales and The Hobbit and in an almost invisible reference in The Lord of the Rings. These hidden conjunctions receive detailed analysis in my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland.
My argument rests on comparative textual analysis – that is, assessing the degree to which echoes can be read as deliberately extracted inspiration versus coincidental independent invention. Some potential conjunctions are difficult to evaluate. A good example of this can be seen in how spring-water appears in association with the Skidi Spider Woman and Mîm’s Dwarf-mansion. At Amon Rûdh Tolkien set a “spring” that flowed like “white thread” out of a wall. And a few pages later Mîm the Dwarf paused to compare himself to a spider. This echoes an endnote in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee specifying that Spider Women served as the source of mountainside “springs which furnished sweet water.” Did Tolkien encounter this comment? Did it inspire the white thread spring in his story?
In my Tolkienland essay on the topic I did not list this example as a conjunction because it seemed a little too subtle. It is a conjunction, of course, but for it to be reasonably read as a borrowing, Tolkien would have had to scan the endnotes closely to find that comment about Spider Woman and springs. This is possible, but I feel doubtful that he read the Skidi traditions closely, studying them, making notes. To be sure, it isn’t very clear exactly how he went about borrowing textual materials, and we know that he drew inspiration from quite a lot of mythological narratives.
Whatever we might make of Tolkien’s creative strategies, we can readily identify a handful of more notable parallels between Pawnee Rock and Amon Rûdh. These are diverse; some are unusual. I conclude that coincidental independent invention is less likely than intentional borrowing.
What we make of history and myth deserves to matter. The nuanced inner geography of our storytelling situates us in the world, nurturing our sense of wonder and our selfhood. “The Moon Medicine” is a story of survival, and its telling once mattered in Pawneeland. We can also appreciate the artistry of JRR Tolkien and his view that the production of mythic legendry should matter. Finding our way in life and making meaning from that, we need many kinds of insights; we need the magic of unexpected journeys in our storytelling.
My related Pawneeland essay: “The Moon Magic”
My related Tolkienland essay: “Mîm and the Moon Medicine”