Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Intention, Free Will, Good, and the discovery that no word adequately conveys Non-Good

The importance of the intention behind an action has been something that has stuck with me since we began to read The Silmarillion and it has become even more important to me as we have examined the questions of free will and sin. I have been wondering: how exactly do we determine whether something is good or not? Is it in its end result? (If you will let me return to SOSC and econ for a moment): is it purely in its utility? But if this is the case, bearing in mind the connected nature of history and stories (consider, for a moment, Sam’s realization that technically he and Frodo are still part of the tale of the Silmarils, just in a different chapter) at what point do we establish that utility? For it appears that the story has not ended even in Three Ages of Middle-Earth (if not more) and probably will not reach a conclusion until the end of the world, at which point the plan of Eru will be fulfilled. But at this point, Eru’s plan will have been realized, for he claims that “no theme may be played that has not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (The Silmarillion, 6). So it seems that, at the end, everything will have been completed according to Eru’s design, which means that the end result has led to an ultimate good, so we cannot judge an act based on how it fits into the larger picture.

In that instance, should one use intention to define whether or not something is good? Growing up, I always heard sin described as an act done by an individual who possesses full knowledge that s/he is acting against God’s wishes and willingly does so anyway. In this segment of Catholic tradition, then, it appears that intention determines how evil an act may be*.  This seems like it is an easier answer since Melkor’s evil is defined by the fact that he desires to go against the music of Ilúvatar and the others and to create externally of the plan─ an attempt in which he is (according to Ilúvatar) unsuccessful. And at the end of The Lord of the Rings, I think everyone would describe Gollum’s last act as the opposite of good (although maybe not fully evil) and would describe Gollum himself as a bad individual (again, not evil) even though it is apparent that only his completely selfishly motivated act, which defines the good by his own desires, is ultimately what completes the Quest.  But to return to a point we made in class, how does one then qualify Fëanor’s choice to create the Silmarils? For his original intent was merely to preserve them, which would appear to be a good act, especially since the narrator claims that it could have been motivated by an external entity (“it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near” [The Silmarillion, 69]). However, the actions that he later takes regarding their safekeeping and their use increasingly become less good and selfishly motivated. Does one split up the acts and judge each separately? Or can a glimmer of bad be found in the original intent when one considers it retrospectively?** While intention appears to be the best option, both because Tolkien appears to use that as his standard and because it is a concept with which the culture of our Primary World is familiar, it can only take us so far in an analysis and ultimately, in Tolkien’s world at least, we are dependent upon the information the narrator may or may not choose to share with us. We have already acknowledged that the legendariums have been created from a very specific viewpoint (for the most part, from the view of the Elves) which means that we are already operating within a certain filter and bias. Furthermore, many long years of history divide the early ages from the time of their recording. How does one factor this into the question of whether or not something is good?

But now let us step away from that question and examine the very thing which allows one to make a good or a not-good decision: free will If one considers the structure to which Ilúvatar refers when he is chastising Melkor, the question appears of how much free will actually exists in Middle-Earth? I realize I am treading dangerously close to theological issues in our Primary World which I do not fully understand, but based on my reading of The Silmarillion, it appears that if you just keep making the scale big enough, all freedom exits the picture and we are left looking at a truly master plan and everyone’s actions, whether or not they intended to do so─ even if, as in the case of Melkor, they are aware of the greater plan and knowingly and willingly defy it─ fit into and help to build this plan. Even the Children of Ilúvatar, which appear to have free will in the sense that we in our Primary World know it, seem to be restricted and bound within Ilúvatar’s plan. For they are given “a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest… ‘These too in their time shall find that all they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.’” (The Silmarillion, 35-36). So it appears that while Men may exist outside of the plan and the Music of the Ainur, which had its origin in Ilúvatar but is not the full extent of his song, they are still bound within his plan and Music and will ultimately aid him in completing the world; but he appears to know how this will be done and that it will be accordance with his plan.

So are they free? Or is the plan shifting to fit them and their acts?

Clearly, I myself do not have any answers to these questions; I suspect, however, that because Tolkien’s Universe is so rich and diverse and fraught with legend and history, anyone who comes up with an answer may find that it will be contested by another person’s interpretation of an issue’s importance; who knows, maybe they’d even find another draft of the story laying around somewhere.

So my conclusion will just be another question. For ultimately, I guess, we have to take a step back from our own analyses to ask how large we can expand each part of the story. Shippey’s Road to Middle-Earth has an interesting analysis of this question as he traces why Tolkien was incapable of truly finishing The Silmarillion simply from a literary point of view: because, at some point, the story becomes too big. In order to make the universe bigger, in order to expand upon those delightful side-stories and backgrounds that make Middle-Earth rich in history, tradition, and spirit, and which ultimately give it its depth (Road to Middle-Earth, 229), many things have to be expanded and made more coherent. But in order to achieve that expansion and connection, the tales actually have to be condensed and simplified (233, 235). And if Tolkien, the creator and master and interpreter of the world of Middle-earth was incapable of expanding it to the appropriate levels and condensing and simplifying those traditions which can be trimmed, how much more will we struggle when we enter the big picture? How big do we dare to make it?

J. Trudeau

*For the record, I absolutely adore the point that was made in class that the word for sin in Hebrew is the same as the word for “missing the mark.”

**I became very frustrated with this paragraph because I could not find a good antonym for “good.” “Evil” was too strong, “bad” doesn’t appear to have the correct weight or intention, “terrible” is just out of the question, “immoral” is an entirely separate context and a debate which I don’t want to enter… anyone merely have a suggestion as to an alternate word?

^I apologize for the way in which my posts and arguments tend to develop tangential points within them. Anytime I try to analyze any part of Tolkien’s work, though, I feel as though my brain attempts to scurry down the alternate paths he has created (or at least alluded to) in his great mythology.


  1. I don't know whether you intended it (!), but this is an excellent description of the problem of the relationship between predestination (a.k.a. Ilúvatar's plan) and free will (a.k.a. acting as subcreators) exactly as Augustine (and Calvin and many others) struggled with it. How is it that we can act apparently out of choice and yet God can have foreknowledge of what we are going to choose without somehow determining our choice? To my mind, Tolkien explores this question poignantly in the way in which he sets up Fëanor's choice to unmake the Silmarils: since Morgoth has already stolen them, the choice cannot change what has happened, but it can change Fëanor--and does.


  2. This was an excellent post! I really liked the first part, the one about "good" and "non good", so I'll put my two cents in and kind of answer the question about how we determine whether an action is good or non good.

    Personally, I think that determining the "goodness" or "badness" of an action comes from the action itself, whether the intent was good or bad. Your examples of Fёanor and Gollum were very good because they both (at least to me) signify a good and a bad action, respectively. I think a key point, however, is that once a person decides to act on a decision, things can go either way from there. Take Fёanor: his intent was good, and I think his action was too. There was a chance that it could have gone well, and that he wouldn’t have gone all possessive on the jewels. There was also the chance that it might have gone bad, which is what actually happened. So, even though it all went to hell because of what he did

    Another example might be a situation in which a person kills another person to save the life of someone else. The intention was good, and although the action might have saved the life of someone, the action alone is considered “bad” (by most people, I hope).

    So, I think that what I’m trying to say is that in the end, I think the “goodness” or the “badness” of an action must be determined by an action alone, regardless of intent or result (both short-term and long-term).

    Seleste M.

  3. Once, when I was taking a Greek class on the Oresteia of Aeschylus, I translated the word hamartano as ‘to sin’. It set the professor onto a tirade about how I was giving it portentous Christian meaning. It, in fact, means ‘to miss the mark’ (I think the root image is of an arrow missing a bull’s eye, in Greek the telos, whence our ‘teleology’ – but I may be quite wrong on this). Back to point, there is a problem about importing the Christian terms, about assuming their applicability. There have been many Christian solutions to the question of where guilt inheres (e.g., in intent, in consequence), and often different ideas coexisted at the same time. To avoid a digression on these options, I concur with the point you make after your assay at resolving the problem: the myths in themselves will admit too much variability of interpretation. The problem may be that we’re asking the myth to do something that it can’t do. I thank you, moreover, for pointing out an error I’ve been making in my understanding and responses. I’ve been emphasizing how mythologies are built, but I’ve probably over-stressed the coherence that a mythology takes (cf. your last paragraph). Suddenly I remembered that mythologies aren’t coherent. It only sometimes becomes so. In fact, incoherency within the legendarium as a whole is more faithful to how mythologies are actually constructed. They get too big for coherence, and their ‘meaning’ can’t circumscribe what they actually contain.

  4. Dear Ms. Trudeau,
    I have been troubled by the problem of free will as well. My own nebulous ideas about 'free will' and determinism have often caused me to stray away from any sort of dogmatic understanding of cosmology. My personal theological convictions aside, in Tolkien's cosmological framework Illuvatar 'appears' to know all; he is the All-father and 'first-thinker' that makes his imagination into an incarnate reality. As Nikolai Berdyaev states: “God created the world by imagination.” From this it seems that nothing would have free-will since all has its origin in the expansive and foundational mind of Illuvatar. Moreover, creation is still malleable; there are many parts (including the Second Music) that are preordained in the imagination of Illuvatar but are yet to come into being.

    I think the problem of free-will is even more problematic because it is really hard to describe. Most of us probably conceive of 'free will' as a metaphor for 'the power to act in accordance with one's own absolute choice.' Yet, given this definition, no one has free-will because we all make choices that are affected by external influences. In other words absolute free will is purely illusory since our choices are not absolutely objective; they are subject to our own inner leanings which are in turn subject to things like environment, tradition, etc. Moreover, I think we also tend to imagine determinism as volitive imprisionment, like some spectacled and firm-browed God is sitting over an abacus and dictating our every move. This is clearly not the case with Illuvatar, whose creations grow and express their own latent potentialities in accordance with their own characteristics and those of Ea.

    Andrew Manns

  5. Congratulations on your post! That was a very delightful read!

    The question of free will in Tolkien's work is extremely curious. I still can't quite pin point a formula to it. However - and below follows my reasoning - I believe that free will per say plays a minimal role than one (myself included) would otherwise like to believe.

    I have in mind the power of a curse which, as we have seen with Feanor's house and so many others, seems inescapable. When one is cursed in the Silmarillion, it is not to be taken lightly. As a reader, you have that foreboding feel that sooner or later, no matter how hard the character tries to escape his fate, it will catch up to him - even in the most unexpected ways.

    I now have the legend of Turin Turambar in mind. As a man, he is one with a gift - i.e. the "gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it" (Silmarillion, 36). The race of men therefore, would seem to rejoice in being less bound to the Music of the themes of the Ainur which "is over all" (Silmarillion, 9) in the world.

    What is more, the Music created (although it may sound constraining) was not even finished - that is, "the history was incomplete and the circles of time not full-wrought when the vision was taken away." (Silmarillion, 9). One could easily make the assumption that free will may exist after all - and especially for Men.

    However, this question becomes complicated again when we look into Turin's tale. We recall that he was allowed to move as he would about the land and engage in whatever endeavors he deemed fit at the time. He is therefore, a man that exercises his will and has a tendency to avoid being tied down to any given societal structure.

    Nonetheless, at every attempt made by Turin to act in accordance to what he deems best, the result of his actions always turn out to be tragic. Turin seems incapable of escaping his curse, and comes to a point where he seeks to abandon his own identity. He decides he will "remain in Brethil hidden, and put his shadow behind him, forsaking the past." (Silmarillion, 260)

    It would seem at this point in the tale that Turin, by way of exerting his own free will, was able to escape any curse or disgrace which may have been woven in his fate. Free will prevails! All fares well with Turin - until that fatal moment where he becomes aware of the incestuous life he had led unknowingly.

    "Turin knew that doom had overtaken him" (Silmarillion, 270) and the prospect of a character of free will is once again frustrated.

    - J.Machado

  6. I'm so glad I stumpled across your post. I hope you will forgive me that I have never been through the entire Silmarillion, though I do consider myself a Tolkien fan.

    In any event, my husband and I were debating the free will defense to the problem of evil last night and my internet browsing today on that topic led me to this post of yours. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the Middle Earth connections.

    I now find myself wondering what exacty it is about free will that we so instinctively find of great positive value. Why is a Middle Earth in which man is free to choose, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, more appealing to us in some way than a world in which man automatically and inherently chooses the right (perhaps because of the influence of a greater prior force such as Feanor or some different version of the Silmarils)?

    I can't figure out how to articulate the "good" inherenty in free will, but I sure do feel it is so.