Before coming to college, my brother had me completely convinced my life was a series of connected events over which I had no control. To me it seemed evident that there were two options: either event A directly led to event B (a rock pushed off a cliff will fall), or event A had no affect on event B and event B was completely random. In either situation, it seems like “choice” is not in the equation at all. I looked at my life and realized that many of the things that I thought defined me were in fact strongly influenced by events out of my control. The fact that I joined the track team in high school was in part because my parents were runners in high school and college as well. The reason I played the cello growing up was because I wanted to be like my brother who played the violin. Nothing, it seemed, was entirely in my control.
My friends also appear to follow logical paths. If my friends acted in an entirely irrational manner I would find hanging out with them extremely difficult. Tolkien finds most people incalculable in general but admits that people in relatively fixed circumstances are more likely to behave in a predictable fashion. The hobbits, for him, are the perfect example of a “simple and calculable people in simple and long-settled circumstances (Letters 240).” By sending hobbits on a journey, Tolkien is attempting to demonstrate the importance of choice in even the simplest of rational beings when placed outside of their comfort zone. This is alluded to in the Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf says: "My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch."
Tolkien believes exercises of will do not necessarily have to be large, life changing events. Any exercise of the will, no matter how small, saves us from what he calls a “plantlike state” of a helpless passive sufferer (Letters 239). Will, it seems, is what separates us from plants. How much of our choices are actually left up to us to decide? Being rational beings, most of our decisions are made either out of habit (as in the case of the hobbits) or out of a series of logical steps. Just because we don't always recognize the source of the motivation for doing something doesn't mean the source isn't there. The characters throughout the story all appear to have logical explanations for their decisions whether it is Frodo leaving the Shire under the encouragement of Gandalf, or whether it is Faramir letting the hobbits continue on their journey.
Where is our power of choice and control then? Tolkien likens human behavior to that of a seed (a somewhat funny comparison since the whole point is that we are trying to escape a plant-life existence). He states that a seed contains all of basic innate characteristics of each plant much like humans display a certain amount of basic character traits throughout life. Both the seed and humans are affected by the environments into which they were placed. Yes, I am a runner and a cellist most likely because I grew up in an environment surrounded by runners and stringed musicians. But the power of choice comes from the idea that we are also our own gardeners (Samwise?). We have the ability to recognize our own traits and tendencies and modify them how we see fit. The degree to which we are able to change does depend largely on the starting seed, but the idea that we can change our own character is a powerful thought.
Some situations, however, are not conquerable by will alone just as certain seeds are unable to grow in unforgiving climates. When Frodo finally brings the Ring into Mount Doom, he is presented with a hopeless situation. Tolkien believes in these impossible situations and believes that the Lord's Prayer explains it well: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We hope to not be presented with situations that will tempt our will, but we must also recognize that we are sometimes placed in terrible situations. In this way, Frodo did not “fail” in casting the Ring into the fire as success was not an option for him. Instead, his character got him to the point in which the object of his quest could be achieved (Letters 326).
Tolkien used a the story of a journey in the Lord of the Rings as both a literary devise and an agent with which to disturb the otherwise routine lives of some of the characters. Through the story we can begin to recognize our own journeys and the decisions we make along the way which define us. We can recognize Sam's undying loyalty and, even if we were not endowed naturally with his strength, we can tend our own garden and grow ourselves into what we admire most. It is this exercise of will that separates us from the plants outside the window. Though our decisions may not affect the entire outcome of Middle Earth, they help define and shape us into who we are today even if we are not fully aware of the consequences they will have later on down the road.