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?
*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.