Tolkien in Pawneeland

Real Myth and Mithril, May 19, 2013 (Photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

Real Myth and Mithril, May 19, 2013
(Photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

One of my grandmothers was Skidi, and my other grandmother had English and German ancestry.  So I found it fascinating and meaningful when I discovered that my favorite author, JRR Tolkien (who was English with German ancestry), made use of certain obscure Skidi traditions in his writings.  As I studied the evidence for this, I slowly came to the conclusion that between 1919 and 1942 Tolkien drew on at least six Skidi Pawnee stories to sculpt subtle aspects of characters and events in The Book of Lost Tales, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

In the course of this research, I was fortunate to have the support of the Grey Havens Group – a circle of friends who gathered each week to discuss and appreciate Tolkien’s writings.  They encouraged me to present my ideas in May 2013 at our symposium, Real Myth and Mithril.  I followed this with a longer talk in July 2013 at Mythcon 44, an annual conference of the Mythopoeic Society.


The Pawnee oral traditions that inspired Tolkien were preserved through the efforts of a Skidi named James R. Murie.  He narrated stories to the staff of the Field Museum of Natural History, and an anthropologist there edited and published them in a 1904 book called Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  A copy of this book made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and into the collections of Oxford University in England.  And in 1919, after Tolkien began working as a researcher at Oxford, echoes of various Skidi narratives began to enter his writings.

Roaming Scout

Roaming Scout

Two of the stories that interested Tolkien were told to Murie by an old man named Roaming Scout, a leading kurahus or priest.  Roaming Scout was born about 1839, a member of a royal family among the Skidi and a son of a priest named Mud Bear.  He held the name Tah-whoo-kah-tah-wee-ah, and in the late 1880s he married a young woman named Stah-pe-chicks-sah.  If they had any children, none survived into adulthood.

It must have been about the time of the 1892 allotment that Tah-whoo-kah-tah-wee-ah took the name Kee-lee-kee-lee-soo-lah-kah-wah-lee, or Roaming Scout.  In A Dictionary of Skiri Pawnee linguist Douglas Parks renders the name as Kirikiirisu Rakaawarii, meaning Scout Roaming the World.  Among the Americans, Roaming Scout also became known as Pawnee Tom.  Confusion grew around his Pawnee name because he had a nephew known as Running Scout who died in October 1888 – many Pawnees today are descended from this nephew.  Roaming Scout died in June 1914.

In 1906 Murie recorded Roaming Scout’s life story on wax cylinders at the American Museum of Natural History.  This autobiography begins with a story about a party of men who suffer from hunger.  As they kill and cook an animal they engage in a philosophical debate on the role of faith versus a lack of faith.  Their debate centers on a concept termed “kawaharu,” a spiritual power in the universe that can bestow both blessings and punishment upon humankind.  As Roaming Scout relates in the story, “We are not the ruling power, we people who are living, it is the power in the heavens, Tirawa[hut], and the power ready to give, Kawaharu, they are the powers who send forth game to us and through them we eat.”

Sharing his stories and the events of his life with James R. Murie, Roaming Scout sought to pass along his sense of piety and his perspective on life.  He had been born in a time when thousands of Pawnees had built earthlodge cities in their ancient homeland.  And he had witnessed the evaporation of this realm all through his life.  By 1900 it seemed fitting to predict a continuing decline of the Pawnee population and to foretell the end of the religious traditions that he treasured.  These circumstances must account for Roaming Scout’s willingness to share what he knew with Murie, to record his stories and memoirs.

Pawnee Earthlodge Art

One day in early 1919, just a few years after Roaming Scout died, my research shows that JRR Tolkien opened the pages of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  What he found there intrigued him.  And in the decades that followed, he drew from two of Roaming Scout’s stories and from a handful of other Skidi traditions to shape various details in his emerging mythology of Middle-earth.

I believe that Tolkien borrowed from these Skidi narratives in order to add a certain antiquarian tone to his storytelling.  Some of the stories touched by Skidi colorations include Tolkien’s creation story in The Book of Lost Tales, the story of Beorn in The Hobbit, and the construction of aspects of Gandalf in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I do not know what Roaming Scout would have thought about Tolkien’s use of his narratives.  But in many ways the two men were kindred spirits.  Roaming Scout was a veteran of a bitter total war, a prominent ceremonial leader, and a renowned storyteller.  Tolkien saw military service in the trenches of World War I; he was a life-long devout Christian; and he became a world-famous storyteller.  Both men were highly respected teachers of tradition in their different worlds.

Pondering what my discovery might signify, I traveled with colleagues from Grey Havens to Mythcon 44 in Lansing, Michigan.  I thought of my two grandmothers as I sat down to reveal what I had learned.  The discussion that followed was very positive and lively, and through the rest of the conference a steady succession of people introduced themselves to me, saying they either attended my talk or heard about it. All the folk of Mythcon were extraordinarily gracious and amiable.  And they all seemed to grasp what my paper signified.

Drawing inspiration from the Skidi stories to enrich the artistry of his mythmaking, Tolkien created a marvelous legacy of writings that slowly grew into a world mythology.  And with my discovery of the Skidi elements in his tales, it has become evident that Tolkien integrated Pawnee and Northern European traditional literature into a unique mythological legacy, a new narrative of global culture.  In this narrative we glimpse a social world shaped by a sharing of symbolic essences that transcend our notions of nationhood and ethnicity.

The literary endeavors of JRR Tolkien have woven together the mythological truths of Middle-earth and Pawneeland.  In this weaving of culture, when we open the pages of Tolkien’s books, we encounter a subtle Pawnee magic that has the power to enchant the imaginations of people worldwide.

When Roaming Scout sat down long ago to tell his stories to James R. Murie, he could not know what the future would hold for the stories he told.  But he was a very religious man.  He saw the mysticism of kawaharu in every aspect of life.  And I suspect that he would be pleased to see how Skidi traditions have changed the world.

Itskari, Many Wild Potatoes River, July 2013

Itskari, Many Wild Potatoes River, July 2013