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There's no doubt that in Tolkien's world, foresight really exists. There are many examples: Aragorn correctly predicting that "the years of [Elrond's] abiding run short at last"; Malbeth the Seer foreseeing thousands of years before that Aragorn would ride the Paths of the Dead; the prediction that the Witch-King would not fall "by the hand of man", and so on.

So, within Universe, how does this work? We know that not even the Valar know the future in detail, as they are ignorant of Eru's plans for the end of the world. Does this knowledge come from outside - from Eru himself? Are these examples of foresight Eru intervening in minor ways to help his time-bound creatures?

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    As far as I understood it from the Silmarillion, the Valar were with Illuvatar when he composed all of time. So while none of the Valar may know in detail the extent of time, they know how it should "sound". Of course, this has little to do with foresight with non-Valar characters. – Gorchestopher H Jul 6 '12 at 12:52
  • There's something about foresight in LoTR Appendix A, but I don't currently have the book to hand. – TRiG Nov 30 '12 at 20:33
  • The Valar don't know about the end of the world, but they know a lot. By way of comparison, in the bible, Jesus seems to say that even he doesn't know when or how the world will end. But we certainly aren't supposed to think Jesus was ignorant about anything else. The same goes for the Valar- there are a few things that they don't know, but the things that they do know are far more expansive. – Wad Cheber Jun 8 '15 at 6:28
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In The Silmarilion, Eru propounded a great theme to the Ainur and they turned this theme into music. The Valar are a subset of the Ainur, all of whom participated in the making of the music which Eru afterward transformed into the world. So they were there, heard and played the music, but they know only as much as they created or heard and the portions in which they played little part they know only incompletely. Not all of the Ainur entered into the world, so not all of the great music is known completely to any one individual. Some Elves in LOTR spent ages with the Valar and learned some of this music.

In the book, one of the most powerful beings depicted is Tom Bombadil and, though Tolkien admitted he was an something of an anachronism ("In historical fact I put him in because I had already 'invented' him independently [...] and wanted an 'adventure' on the way."), it is obvious that his power derives from music.

Outside this canon, one can presume that those who are well-versed in the music can anticipate the modes and movements. At least in shorter intervals.

The obvious implication of this is that the music has fixed the fate of the world.

  • I disagree about the importance of music. Bombadil's power was limited to a certain small area. And we don't see anyone else using music as the source of power. I'm inclined to think of the Ainulindalë as a metaphor. – Daniel Roseman Jul 7 '12 at 21:07
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    I agree, the music is generally a metaphor, but Tolkien frequently uses the language of music and sometimes, as in the case of Bombadil, explicitly shows music. See also, Luthien, the songs of power between Finrod and Sauron etc. In any event, the question is not of the power of music, but rather the knowledge of "The Great Theme" as it relates to foresight. – horatio Jul 10 '12 at 14:39
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    @Daniel. Music is used as a source of power, such as in the two musical duels in the tale of Beren and Luthien. – TRiG Sep 15 '12 at 13:59
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It is limited foresight - prophecy, which indicates events that are to come, without (usually) being specific, although the details are cleared after the event. However, in other cases, it is simply wisdom applied to situations.

Aragorn on Elrond: It was becoming clear to Aragorn that things were changing in the world, and that the reign of the Elves was drawing to an end - his own presence being a part of this. So he predicted that Elrond would leave ME shortly - a prediction that anyone with some insight could have made.

Paths of the Dead: This was a significant shortcut route, so it was reasonable that someone would find themselves forced to use it eventually. It would have to be someone of Aragorns stature and significance to make it through. Many others had tried and failed.

Witch-King: Prophecy in the truest sense. One that was emphasised because it made him seem invincible.

I think it is a case of Eru providing wise people to guide and support his creation, and, at times, intervening to make relevant prophetic words come true (like the Witch-King).

So I think there are two things going on. Firstly, prophecy is much easier to interpret after the event, which is when most of it is confirmed. Those that are seen to be true are identified as fulfilled, those that are not are forgotten. Think Nostradamus.

Secondly, Eru provides wise people, who can see the way events are going, and can predict the future course of events to an extent. It is like when you predict what is going to happen in a film, not because you have seen it before, but because you know where it is going.

  • I don't quite agree with this. Most "prophecy" in LOTR is not simply educated extrapolation. – Gorchestopher H Jul 6 '12 at 12:55
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    The examples given could be - which is not to dismiss it. There is also some Eru-given insight into the entire structure of the time-line. And I do not dismiss prophecy - as with the witch-king. I just think that not all fore-sight needs to be raised to that level. – Schroedingers Cat Jul 6 '12 at 15:03
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    While I agree that not all the claims may be true prophecies, I think that the 'Paths of the Dead' one was true. Even though it was a significant shortcut route, why would anyone need the shortcut? Also the prophecy mentioned that Aragorn would be the one capable of rousing the old and fulfilling their destiny etc. To predict all this, I think that counts as a true prophecy. – Dharini Chandrasekaran Jul 6 '12 at 16:20
  • OK - I may have got some of them wrong. The Paths of the Dead might come into this. – Schroedingers Cat Jul 6 '12 at 17:13
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I guess it depends on whether you believe more in fate or free will but, since Tolkien's world was created from the pre-established themes of the music, I tend to lean more towards fate. In that context, I would think that these prophecies or foresights were simply subtle themes that existed in the music by design rather than exceptions or interventions by external forces.

  • Tolkien certainly believed in fate, in the sense of divine providence. I'm just wondering about the source of that knowledge. – Daniel Roseman Jul 7 '12 at 21:08
  • @DanielRoseman - keep in mind that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. The Valar not knowing when the world will end is very similar to Jesus' apparent statement in the bible that even he does not know how or when the world will end ("Even the Son of Man does not know the hour or the day...", or something to that effect). But the bible certainly isn't saying that Jesus is stupid - he knows almost everything. But there are limits, for whatever reason, whether you are the son of god or a Vala. – Wad Cheber Jun 8 '15 at 6:55
  • And it goes without saying that the ultimate source of all good knowledge is Eru himself. Everything that happens does so in accordance to his will. – Wad Cheber Jun 8 '15 at 7:00
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There is another possibility which is that in Tolkien's world, the words of a seer have the same power as the words of an oath, i.e. to make a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We know that in Middle-Earth words (and song) have power, power to fulfill each being's innate spiritual power (fëa) in the Unseen World and effect the physical world through the body (hröa).

We also know from the Silmarillion (apart from the references in LOTR and the general medieval literary setting) that oaths have power once taken, as do curses; and that the power of an oath somehow derives from its appeal to Fate, i.e. the Music. When sworn on a powerful creature, the oath-taker is calling upon that being to witness his or her oath. That is why Tolkien suggests (and medieval thinkers decreed) that oaths should rarely be taken, as they have power just like song.

In this context it is possible that prophecy works the same way, i.e. a manifestation of the spirit world upon the physical world through speech, foreordaining a certain conclusion.

People who subscribe to a certain type of magical thinking in real life are very common, to wit, not wanting to make it real by predicting it (i.e. jinxing it). To be a prophet in Middle Earth, one would presumably have to be inspired (i.e. have some glimpse of the Music, through vision or otherwise).

Making false prophecy would presumably carry the same penalty (or curse) as taking oaths in vain. (Note that the curse example can be seen as the penalty exacted by he who to an oath is sworn upon the oath-keeper.)

Supporting Example from the Text (to back up my hypothesis): When Fëanor says "this thing I will not do" in promising not to relinquish the Silmarils, Mandos ominously decrees "So it is doomed".

This could be a prophecy or a promise; either way, when invoked, Mandos accepts it as if it were an oath; in reality, he knows (more or less) what the outcome will be.

Note: while looking up the exact quote, I found this: Green Eggs and Silmarils

Fëanor: I'm Fëanor.
More skilled than any Elf before.
These are my sons: one, two, three, four,
five, six, and seven – maybe more!

I made these gems: one, two, and three.
They are the best. Don't you agree?

You may not hold a shiny gem.
You may not even look at them.
I do not want you at my door.

Valar:
Can we have your jewels, please?
We need to fix our dying Trees.

Fëanor:
I will not give them for the Trees.
Not even if you say "oh please."
You cannot have them here or there (...)

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