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.

Further reading:

On the significance of the Enchanted Stream in The Hobbit

On the significance of the dark forests in Tolkien

On the perils of Faërie

Works consulted: 

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
  2. John. D. Rateliff – The History of the Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2011 (E-book edition).
  3. Jeffrey Gantz (transl.) – The Mabinogion; Penguin Books; 1976 (E-book edition).

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

14 thoughts on “Spotting the white deer.

  1. This immediately made me think of the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I once found a white rabbit on my farm, and followed it to its burrow. I was terribly disappointed when nothing happened next.

    1. The White Rabbit is a great example. The symbolism is so strong. It also reminded me how Tolkien disagreed with the idea of falling to get into the lands of Faërie and opted for forests for that matter.
      I do understand the disappointment, though. A couple of weeks ago I was walking in the forest and instead of finding Faërie stumbled upon two abominable creatures in the shapes of men who were cutting down beautiful tall trees.

  2. By coincidence, the Ig Nobel Prize in physics was awarded today to a team who discovered that white horses have coats that reflect unpolarized light. (Horses of other colors have polarizing coats.) This matters because blood-sucking horseflies find their prey by looking for polarization, so white horses suffer less from the diseases they carry. The results aren’t specific to horses.
    No word about gateways to Faërie, alas.

    1. That’s really interesting. Good for them to have this advantage as being a rare white animal doesn’t seem to be fun at all with all these downsides like being too noticeable for predators, desirable for hunters and especially vulnerable to ultraviolet.
      That’s a pity, really. Harder work is needed in that field 🙂

  3. This observation that magical animals signal proximity to the borders of Faërie is intriguing! I feel like this helps illuminate the mysterious sentient fox in Lord of the Rings Book I, Chapter III, who watches Frodo, Sam and Pippin sleeping outside and thinks “There’s something mighty queer behind this.” The fox isn’t white (I assume) and the hobbits don’t see it, so there’s no sign to the characters … but is this a subtle hint from the author to the audience that the hobbits’ first time sleeping outdoors is a kind of crossing over into Faërie?

    1. I guess you are spot on here. It seems that this fox doesn’t have to be white to show that Faërie is close at hand – the fact that it’s a sentient fox points to it being no ordinary animal. And the Hobbits meet the Elves quite soon after the fox passes them by, so the animal indeed shows that they’ve stepped into Faërie. Or that some creatures of Faërie are about.

  4. In the newly released edition of Tolkien’s poem, “The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun,” we see another “white doe” that “glistered in the sun[.]” Aotrou is filled with “a longing strange” as he chases the doe “into the twilight under leaves[.]” Tolkien wrote this poem circa 1929-1930, just a couple years before we find white deer glimmering in Mirkwood. Editor Verlyn Flieger mentions other medieval deer scenes – a “white hind” in Marie de France’s lai of Lanval, and the deer-bride of “the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhal[.]” In this instance Tolkien took his white deer from the original Breton lay that inspired his lay, “Aotrou Nann Hag ar Gorrigan.” Tolkien also bestows a quality upon his “witch” that is not present in the original. She wields “spider-craft.” In my book, “Tolkien in Pawneeland,” I have shown how all of Tolkien’s spider monsters derive from Pawnee tradition – including the deleted scene of the spider silk ball carried by Bilbo in the original manuscript of “The Hobbit.” It seems likely to me that Tolkien’s spider-witch in “The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun” also learned her magic in Pawneeland.

    1. These white deer are so significant in a lot of mythological and medieval writings. It’s a beautiful and deeply meaningful symbol.
      I haven’t yet read “The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun”, but I hope to do it as soon as possible. I’d like a good read of that poem with commentary.

  5. The Mabinogion connection is well-observed. Tolkien quotes from the story of Prince Pwyll in ‘English and Welsh’. I feel his relationship with Welsh culture was slightly ambiguous. He seems to be arguing that the Welsh writer made the story far too sunlit: “a very practical man, with a feeling for bright colour”. Earlier he suggests the job would have been done better by an Anglo-Saxon poet: “it is easy to imagine how he would have managed it: ominous, colourless, with the wind blowing…”

    In ‘Author of the Century’ Shippey suggests a debt to John Milton’s masque ‘Comus’: “this close dungeon of innumerous boughs” >> galadhremmin ennorath, tree-tangled Middle-Earth. But also there is the fairy feast (a recurring theme in Tolkien): “Mean while welcom Joy and Feast, Midnight shout and revelry” (Comus 102-103).

    Browsing ‘Comus’ I found another suggestive passage. There is a healing herb: “The leaf was darkish, and had prickles on it, but in another Country, as he said, bore a bright golden flow’r…” (630-632). Apparently it works on necromancers (648).

    The idea of the forest, in which you are lost, and cannot see the sky or stars, drives Comus. I’d suggest it’s not far from Neldoreth and Melian’s girdle

    1. Thank you!
      It’s curious how Tolkien was fascinated by the Welsh language, but didn’t seem to be very fond of the Mabinogion tales.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.