Sep 20 2021, 8:58pm
I agree with your loose confederation idea, perhaps bringing together Woodmen and Beornings in times of need, such as against a common foe. In one of the rare bits of secondary world geopolitics in The Hobbit, we get the interesting tidings of Beorn becoming "a great chief afterwards in those regions and ruled a wide land between the mountains [the Misty Mountains] and the wood [Mirkwood]..." ('The Return Journey').
Taking the speculation a small step further, what else do the we know of the ethnonyms 'Woodman' and 'Beorning'? The Woodmen are named in The Hobbit a couple of times, in lower case, in the story itself ('Out of the Frying-pan into the Fire'); and, capitalised as a proper noun, on the map of the Wilderland. There's nothing to suggest that they're not one and the same group, although the map references strike me as doing a slight injustice to the range of the Woodmen, who are also described in the text as living "among the more pleasant woods in the valleys and along the [Anduin] river-shores", not just the western eaves of Mirkwood (as per the Wilderland map)
In the reference to Beorn becoming a 'great chief' that you alluded to, these Woodmen are the only Men in the story that reasonably fit the bill when it comes to who it is that Beorn comes to rule over. And these then become the best candidates for the eponymous 'Beornings', who make their first appearance as a titular group in LotR, when Glóin relates news of northern Wilderland to Frodo, during the latter's sojourn in Rivendell. In this 'debut', Beorn's son, Grimbeorn is described as " the lord of many sturdy men" between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood ('Many Meetings').
Was this the end of the Woodmen then, named in The Hobbit, unlike the Beornings, and therefore an older construct in the legendarium? As we know from LotR, not at all! The Woodmen survive into the Third Age and beyond, named as co-beneficiaries with the Beornings in the post-War of the Ring carve-up of the territory of Mirkwood, then renamed Eryn Lasgalen ('Appendix B', LotR). Collectively, they are "given" by Thranduil and Celeborn the forest between the Mountains of Mirkwood and The Narrows, amounting to approximately 50% of the entirety if this vast forest. I'll pause awkwardly on "given" for a moment, as the Wilderland map makes it clear that the Woodmen were already living in part of that territory - confirmed in later works such as LotR ('The Shadow of the Past') and Unfinished Tales ('The Disaster of the Gladden Fields'). I say awkwardly, as it looks a lot like the Elven lords were granting at least some land that wasn't exactly theirs to give!
Anyway, what does all this tells us or enable us to speculate? The Woodmen and the Beornings are still separate peoples in III.3019, although clearly closely aligned - certainly enough of one mind to take joint ownership of half of Mirkwood. They are certainly close in ethnicity too. As described in LotR ('Appendix B'), the Éothéod, ancestors of the Rohirrim, are "in origin close akin to the Beornings and the men of the west-eaves of the forest [Mirkwood]' - the latter being our Woodmen. In one short sentence then, we have three groups of 'Northmen', descendants of the distant kin of the Hadorian Edain, according to Gondor's scholars, all handily named and tied up together. As for the speculative bit, I'll put it that the Beornings were a relatively recent group, having only banded together under Beorn's chieftainship in III.2941 - Beorn hitherto being something of a loner. And this new group was derived from Woodmen 'stock', being that part of the Woodmen who moved further north into the Wilderland and had accepted the rule of Beorn and his descendants. That these Beornings remained closely aligned with their Woodmen kin, to the point that they jointly settled and ruled central Eryn Lasgalen, should therefore not be surprising.
There's no evidence that Beorn's descendants 'ruled' over their Woodmen kin, either before or after the War of the Ring, However, a looser political relationship, such as a confederation, seems likely. This certainly goes with the grain of their Northmen forebears, whose dispersed populations were ruled over by many different princes. Some groups within this larger 'Northmen' ethnos later coalesced around dynasts ruling over specific territories, eg. Vidugavic Rhovanion, Dale, Éothéod and Rohan, but this in turn underscores the diversity in play. The Northmen could, and indeed had, divided and subdivided on numerous occasions over the Third Age. The Beornings were possibly just the latest in this long process of 'foundations', with the Beornings and Woodmen maintaining distinct identities as well as close collaboration, against a backdrop of close kinship.
Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk