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I am re-reading Tolkien's The Hobbit (in anticipation of the movie), and was wondering if there was some further significance to the appearance of the white stag/deer. In the chapter "Flies and Spiders" after the dwarves and Bilbo ford the enchanted stream they hear horns of a hunt and the deer appear; the dwarves shoot at them, missing completely. This would lead me to believe that the deer were phantoms, or at least enchanted. Tolkien then writes that:

if they had known more about it and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared on their path, they would have know they were drawing towards the eastern edge

Other than the fact that the deer are white, which are traditionally considered magical (eg Narnia, Native American tales), is there another reason that the hunt and the deer should be a signal of the end of the forest? Is there a piece of Tolkien lore I am missing?

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Besides the magical associations of white deer, their whiteness also contrasts with the other melanistic animals that the dwarves and Bilbo had encountered within Mirkwood. That could be taken to mean that they were nearing an edge of the forest, that an animal not native to it was wandering there.

The sound of horns was a sign of other people, something they had not encountered up to that point during their journey through Mirkwood. The next time they do actually encounter others are the elves' feasts they stumble upon in the forest. I don't have a map handy to check if the elven stronghold was shown, and if so how near the edge of Mirkwood it was depicted, but if so that could also have been an indicator that they were approaching the edge.

  • Thanks. I wasn't sure if it was something as simple as creatures not black or more to the appearance. The hunt can later be assumed to be the elves but at that point of the story it seemed as though the hunt and deer could both have been enchanted (reading with no other knowledge). So, it is simply the physical 'reality' of the white deer and humanoid sounds in contrast to the forest, not some mystical foretelling. – Wayne Weibel Nov 28 '12 at 19:02
  • @Wayne: The manner in which the scene is described certainly contributes to the eerie feel of the forest, that they are "near the borders of faërie", but I'm not aware of any specific mythical significance of the elements. – sugaredlightning Nov 28 '12 at 22:17
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    @sugaredlightning: actually, white stags are chock-full of mythical significance, in all sorts of mythologies. It seems obvious to me that Tolkien was referring to one of them, I just have no idea which one. (The Hungarian origin myth involves two brothers hunting a white stag, just for example.) – Martha Nov 28 '12 at 23:01
  • @Martha: Good point. I am more familiar with Tolkien's mythology than I am with real-world mythology, so there are plenty of other associations I may be missing. – sugaredlightning Nov 29 '12 at 5:14
  • Thanks again everyone. I was familiar with other stories of white stags (mostly Narnia), but wasn't sure if there was some crossover, or certain Tolkien mythos in addition to its appearance. – Wayne Weibel Nov 29 '12 at 14:10
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Aside from inspirations from the Kalevala and Beowulf, Tolkien had many sources of inspiration. Tolkien himself admitted to borrowing ideas and bits and pieces from other epics, legends and tales. Many of the best author's do this and you can see similar influences in J.K. Rowling's work and C.S. Lewis' works as well. Even the Legend of King Arthur itself has echos similar to viking legends AND the story even echos that of the Christ as Arthur is expected to return when he is needed again. In Tolkien's books and others, to truly get the most out of the symbolism, it is helpful to know at least some of the source inspirations.

Tolkien, does reference Arthurian Legend - Aragorn is a dead ringer in many ways to the legendary King Arthur himself. The hunt for the White Stag is one example of these kinds of references. In the Arthur Legends the White Hart often is a portent of one of the knights having crossed a forbidden boundary (as the hobbit and dwarves have just done in crossing the river into the elven king's territory). It also often appears before a change in circumstances or just before a new adventure ensues (which you can certainly say happens forthwith in The Hobbit as well).

Lastly, to many cultures of the Classical and Medieval age, the deer represents life or a power that is life-giving. The group stumbles across the deer when they are in the most need of a little hope as they are hungry and down trodden at this point in their journey. Tolkien is probably capitalizing on this association as well here to tell the reader that a hunt is occurring nearby and hope will arrive.

For an essay on signs of Arthurian Reference in LoTR click here For more information on the symbolism of the white hart or white stag in mythology click here.

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One source , a paper from the 1930's on 'The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians'[by J. G. McKay, Folklore, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1932), pp. 144-174], goes into much detail about the faery significance of the white hart ... in the Arthurian association it is a sign that there was some sort of transgression committed in the hunting of the hart ... and the Grail Quest was embarked upon to right this wrong ... in the Hobbit i would suggest that it was akin to this legend that the dwarfs shoot at the thing ... and then encounter bad luck with the elves, it is also symbolically linked to the journey quest - the dwarfs are righting great wrongs in the history of middle earth by questing after the dragon in the Hobbit.

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