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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 Silmarillion, 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.

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  • 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.

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    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
  • Halbarad said that he foresaw that his death lay beyond, following Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead, and he did indeed die in the battle in Gondor. That's not just extrapolation, since you could extrapolate that some or many of them would die, but not specifically who. – Mary Dec 16 '20 at 0:08
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There are several fine answers here, but no one has pointed out that Tolkien made a direct statement in The Silmarillion that greatly illuminates the question:

And many other things Iluvatar spoke to the Ainur at that time, and because of their memory of his words, and the knowledge that each has of the music that he himself made, the Ainur know much of what was, and is, and is to come, and few things are unseen by them. Yet some things there are that they cannot see, neither alone nor taking counsel together; for to none but himself has Iluvatar revealed all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling, for they do not proceed from the past. And so it was that as this vision of the World was played before them, the Ainur saw that it contained things which they had not thought. And they saw with amazement the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, and the habitation that was prepared for them; and they perceived that they themselves in the labour of their music had been busy with the preparation of this dwelling, and yet knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty. For the Children of Iluvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Iluvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making.

Sp the Ainur (which includes the Valar and the Maiar) thus have considerable foreknowledge (though it is most likely to fail or be incomplete when Elves or Men are involved.) For the Ainur, foresight is memory.

For others like Malabeth, things are foggier as he seems to have been either Elf or Man and thus not to have the foresight of the Ainur. Other Men and Elves also, at time, show similar foresight. E.g., Glorfindel in one of the appendixes to LotR:

'Then the Witch-king laughed, and none that heard it ever forgot the horror of that cry. But Glorfindel rode up then on his white horse, and in the midst of his laughter the Witch-king turned to flight and passed into the shadows. For night came down on the battlefield, and he was lost, and none saw whither he went.

'Eärnur now rode back, but Glorfindel, looking into the gathering dark, said: "Do not pursue him! He will not return to this land. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall." These words many remembered

I'm afraid that the source of this foreknowledge will remain a mystery, though a special gift of Eru seems to be the most likely.

And likewise Aragorn's realization that Elrond's time in Middle-earth drawing to a close -- if is anything more than a shrewd observation.

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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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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.

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  • 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
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    @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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