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Foreshadowing in The Hobbit

Instructor: Brittany Cross

Brittany teaches middle school Language Arts and has a master's degree for designing secondary reading curriculum.

Foreshadowing is a technique used by many authors to engage readers. In this lesson, you'll examine how J.R.R. Tolkien uses foreshadowing in ''The Hobbit'' to propel this adventurous plot and keep readers guessing what obstacles come next.

A Writer's Toolbox

When an author sits down to write a story, one question that must be considered is how to keep readers interested. A writer has a toolbox of techniques that can aid them in achieving a desired affect for their stories. Among these tools is a literary technique known as foreshadowing. This is a key way for authors to give hints to the audience about future events. In other words, leave them wondering...what might come next?

Have you ever heard the saying: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards? When it comes to foreshadowing this idea relates perfectly. It can be far easier to look back on events and say 'Oh, now I get it' or 'I should have seen that coming!' By foreshadowing, or giving suggestions or hints about what may happen, authors can help to create suspense and motivate a reader to think about what is coming, urging them to stay engaged and read on. Usually once a reader has finished a particular section or the whole book, they can look back and see how all of the pieces and clues fit together. Let's look at J.R.R. Tolkien's use of foreshadowing in The Hobbit.

Adventurous Bloodlines

In J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, foreshadowing is used from the very first chapter when the narrator begins to describe the main character Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who has both Baggins and Took blood in his veins. This is significant because in theory, hobbits are not the types to ever have adventures. They are homey creatures who like their peace and comfort. Yet, in this tale, Bilbo is not only a hobbit who will have an adventure, he is the one who saves many others. His bright future as a successful burglar is doubted often by the dwarves in his party, but he continually proves them wrong beginning with his willingness to get out the door and join in the adventures, despite his family name:

  • '...Certainly there was something not entirely hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures.'
  • 'Still it was probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his old and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his make-up from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out.'

And something did come out of Bilbo Baggins. Throughout the novel, he continues to prove others wrong about his skills and his usefulness and becomes an invaluable part of the group.

Danger Ahead!

Much of what is foreshadowed in The Hobbit is meant to give suggestions of the danger that Bilbo and the dwarves will face on their quest. When they discuss their journey to the secret door of the Lonely Mountain:

  • 'Only Gandalf had shaken his head and said nothing. Dwarves had not passed that way in many years, but Gandalf had and he knew how evil and danger had grown and thriven in the Wild, since the dragons had driven men from the lands, and the goblins had spread in secret after the battle of the Mines of Moria.'

This first prediction of unknown dangers gives readers specific examples, such as dragons and goblins, that will probably be encountered before the end.

One part of their journey will take them on a path through Mirkwood Forest. There is much anticipation and hesitation as the time approaches to enter the dark wood. However, the group has faith they can come out of the other side as long as they heed the words of their host, Beorn, who warns them:

  • 'There is one stream there, I know, black and strong which crosses the path. You should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for I have heard that it carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness.'

He additionally encourages them not to stray from the path for any reason. And again, more warnings about the path come from Gandalf. As he departs he warns twice more:

  • 'Don't stray off the track!-- if you do it is a thousand to one you will never find it again and never get out of Mirkwood'
  • 'Be good, take care of yourselves-- and DON'T LEAVE THE PATH!'

Naturally, with warnings such as those, the party soon leaves the path and chaos ensues. Bombur falls into the enchanted stream, they are attacked and nearly eaten by giant spiders, and then find themselves held prisoner by the wood elves.

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