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The Seer

Malbeth the prophet of Arthedain

"Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness."
The beginning of the words of the Seer
from The Return of the King V 2, The Passing of the Grey Company

In Middle-earth, it was not unusual for Elves or Men at times to experience a sense of 'foresight', in which they dimly glimpsed some possible future event. Only rarely,1 however, did a true Seer emerge to provide detailed predictions reaching over hundreds of years. The only such person recorded by name was Malbeth the Seer, who played a part in the royal court of Arthedain during the reigns of Araval, Araphant and Arvedui, the last three Kings of that realm.

At the time that Malbeth gave his prophecies, they were little understood, but nonetheless his abilities as a Seer were clearly recognised. It was Malbeth, for example, who gave Arvedui his name, which means 'Last-king'. According the Seer's prophecy, a great decision would be taken, and regardless of the outcome Arvedui would be the last King in Arthedain. This was later proved true: Gondor lost its own last King in direct succession and considered accepting Arvedui as High King. Had he been accepted, he would have become King over all the Dúnedain, but in the event the Gondorians rejected him, and his kingdom was destroyed shortly afterwards. (The fact that Arvedui's father Araphant would accept Malbeth's counsel when naming his own son, especially with such a portentous name, shows the high regard afforded to the Seer within the royal house of Arthedain.)

At least one prophecy of the Seer was well remembered at the end of the Third Age, if not fully understood. It foretold a coming darkness spreading across the land, and spoke of the awakening Dead and the hour of the Oathbreakers. These words meant little in the time of Arvedui when they were recorded, but in the War of the Ring their meaning became clear to Aragorn.2 Following the Seer's guidance from a millennium in the past, he braved the Dark Door and walked the Paths of the Dead, and thus helped bring about victory in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.


It's not entirely clear how a Seer's power of prophecy worked, but it is absolutely established that this kind of foresight did exist in Middle-earth. We have numerous accounts of prophecies or foretellings, and these do tend to be fulfilled, though (as is the traditional nature of prophecy) often in unexpected ways.

Before Arda itself was made, the beings who would become the Valar beheld the Vision of Ilúvatar in which, before the World was actually created, they saw how its history would unfold through its younger ages. Thus it was natural for the Valar to see into the future (or, more accurately, to remember what they had seen in the primordial Vision). What is less clear is how the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves or Men, were also able to foretell events to come, though one simple explanation would be that their foresight came as a direct gift from the Valar. Indeed, in some cases we know that this is literally and directly true, though we cannot be sure it applied in all circumstances.

It is perhaps notable that this power of foresight in the Third Age seems to work somewhat less precisely than it did in earlier times. As an example of a more detailed early prophecy, at Vinyamar in the First Age, Ulmo was able to foretell the coming of Tuor so precisely that he could specify exactly what arms and armour he would need, though Tuor's birth still lay more than three centuries in the future.

By the time of Malbeth the Seer in the Third Age, however, predictions seem to have become rather more qualified and vague (Malbeth knew, for example, that a great choice would be made that would affect Arvedui and his kingdom, but he could not predict the outcome of that decision). Similarly, Glorfindel at the Battle of Fornost could correctly foresee that the Witch-king would not be slain by the hand of a man, but it would be a thousand years before the meaning of that prediction became clear. It may be relevant that the Vision of the World seen by the Valar faded before the Dominion of Men was fully established, so their knowledge of the future - and hence any insight they could offer Elves or Men - would presumably become less sure as history ran into the Third and future Ages.


Notes

1

We have no way of knowing how regularly true Seers arose, but they were clearly rather uncommon. According to Aragorn, Malbeth was the last such Seer in the lands of the old North-kingdom, and he had lived a thousand years before Aragorn's time. This is from an earlier version of the text of The Lord of the Rings (from The History of Middle-earth volume 8), so it may not be completely reliable, but it shows that Seers were hardly to be considered commonplace. It also makes it clear that Malbeth was not the only Seer known: if he was the last of the Northern Seers, he necessarily cannot have been the only one.

2

Realistically, Malbeth's prophecy was probably not entirely opaque to Aragorn even before events brought him to the Dwimorberg and the Paths of the Dead. It's notable that, once reminded of them, Aragorn can immediately quote the Seer's words from memory. Indeed, the prophecy contained allusions that seemed to point to Aragorn himself, or at least to Isildur's Heir ('The heir of him to whom the oath they swore...', The Return of the King V 2, The Passing of the Grey Company) and we might expect that he had already pondered the meaning of the prophecy to at least some extent.

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  • Updated 27 June 2018
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