Magical animals play a significant role in various legends and mythologies. Signalling proximity to the borders of Faërie, these beasts always appear for a reason and are a sign for those characters encountering them.
Faërie animals can be of different species, but in many legends magical beasts from beyond the lands of mortals are white. White is a special colour. In many cultures it is a sign of purity and Celts deemed it the colour of the Otherworld. Most myths and legends lay a special emphasis on the nature of the beasts’ colour: it’s always an unearthly, intense shade of white not typical of the lands of mortals. In The Mabinogion tales Prydery and Manawydan pursue «a shining white boar» (The Mabinogion, p. 89) and Pwyll encounters a pack of white dogs chasing a stag in the forest:
Pwyll at once remarked the pack’s colour, without bothering to look at the stag, for no hound he had ever seen was the colour of these: a dazzling shining white with red ears, and as the whiteness of the dogs shone so did the redness of their ears.
(The Mabinogion, p. 46)
Both encounters with the shining white animals are followed by even more magical encounters with the inhabitants of Faërie.
J. R. R. Tolkien brought the significance of white animals into The Hobbit: it is white deer that Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves meet in Mirkwood. In folklore and mythology a white deer is an elusive, yet a very desirable prey for hunters. In a never-ending, heated pursuit it is never possible to catch such a deer, but, drawn by the splendour of these beasts, pursuers are led further and further away into the land of Faërie to meet its inhabitants and take part in adventures. Very often following a white deer signifies a spiritual quest, where new insight and knowledge can be gained, and a deer becomes a foreboder of great changes to follow.
This symbolism permeates the whole scene of Bilbo and the Dwarves encountering a white hind with fawns in Mirkwood:
Suddenly on the path ahead appeared some white deer, a hind and fawns as snowy white as the hart had been dark. They glimmered in the shadows. Before Thorin could cry out three of the dwarves had leaped to their feet and loosed off arrows from their bows. None seemed to find their mark. The deer turned and vanished in the trees as silently as they had come, and in vain the dwarves shot their arrows after them.
(Hobbit, p. 170)
It is obvious that such an encounter is not a usual one. Snowy white deer gleaming in the darkness and enchanting the Dwarves into spending all their arrows in vain are clearly the inhabitants of Faërie. The hind and the fawns stand in direct contrast to most of other things and creatures in Mirkwood: it is notable that almost everything in the forest is black – squirrels, moths, bats, water in the Enchanted Stream, a boat and nights. The white deer are also a contrast to the dark hart Thorin shoots just before the white company appears. John D. Rateliff points out how differences in the creatures approach show differences in their nature: while the Dwarves hear the dark hart (that may or may not belong to Faërie) well before the animal appears in sight, the coming of the white deer – the genuine creatures of Faërie – is never heard at all.
But well before the appearance of the white deer Bilbo and the Dwarves hear the first echoes of their drawing closer to the inhabited realms of Faërie: there are sounds of a great hunt. At that point the travellers have almost reached the eastern edge of Mirkwood – not far from where the Wood-elves dwell, thus they have come very close to strolling into the Elvish realms and meeting the Elves themselves. This proximity is clearly symbolised by both – the sound of the hunt and, of course, the white deer – the hints which Bilbo and the Dwarves fail to take. Very soon the signs become more prominent: the travellers start hearing strange voices in the distance:
At times they heard disquieting laughter. Sometimes there was singing in the distance too. The laughter was the laughter of fair voices not of goblins, and the singing was beautiful, but it sounded eerie and strange, and they were not comforted, rather they hurried on from those parts with what strength they had left.
(Hobbit, p. 171)
Unsurprisingly, very soon afterwards and come the night, Bilbo and the Dwarves see the lights illuminating the Elvish feast. Just as hunters in myths are drawn to white deer, so do our travellers – persistently and vigorously – try to catch the elusive lights but all in vain: when they think they have come within the shining circle, the lights disappear. Thus the travellers are led astray from the path, which they were forbidden to leave, and end up meeting giant Mirkwood spiders and getting imprisoned by the Wood-elves.
Along with the travellers’ meeting the inhabitants of Faërie face to face, there is also a spiritual quest unfolding. It is Bilbo Baggins who is undergoing the most dramatic inner change. Bilbo’s part in the quest is indeed a very personal one. Chosen by Gandalf and being rather unwilling to accompany the Dwarves to Erebor, Bilbo finds himself acting strangely for his usual self from the very start. However, it takes him a while to finally discover and demonstrate his adventurous side. Following constant inner struggles and fits of desire to be back in his Hobbit-hole, Bilbo’s Tookish side finally gains advantage over the Baggins side when the Hobbit first unsheathes his sword.
Bilbo’s battle with the spiders becomes a turning point in his journey and, probably, in his whole life too. After putting his sword to its proper use – that is fighting – Bilbo «felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder» (Hobbit, p. 181). For a quiet Hobbit overfond of his Hobbit-hole killing a few giant spiders and saving his friends is a significant achievement and no wonder Bilbo felt different: when faced with a serious challenge he handles it perfectly. It is only natural that inspired by his newly found self, Bilbo goes on to perform more wise and courageous deeds and earns significant respect on the Dwarves’ behalf.
Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encountering the white deer in the dark forest of Mirkwood becomes a classical mythological foreboder of changes to come and the forces of Faërie being in action nearby. Meeting the inhabitants of Faërie can be perilous for mortals, yet Bilbo and the Dwarves get the most they can out of it: they lose their way only to find it – and themselves – again to get closer to their destination, while Bilbo brings to light new sides of his character.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- John. D. Rateliff – The History of the Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2011 (E-book edition).
- Jeffrey Gantz (transl.) – The Mabinogion; Penguin Books; 1976 (E-book edition).
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