Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Free Will(e)

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.

B. Wille


  1. I think Sartre's conception of Free Will lines up with Tolkien's view of free will really well. The concept that because we choose are actions, our decisions, we are thus wholly responsible for what happens because of them. "The essential consequence of our earlier remarks is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being." I think this quote from Sartre and this implication of free will is extremely applicable for the story of Frodo.
    Frodo does feel the whole weight of the world upon his shoulders. While Sartre feels this weight because he realizes the implications of free will upon mankind, Frodo feels this weight because he literally does have the fate of Middle Earth in his hands. Frodo's decisions not only affect his individual journey, the affect the outcome of the war against Sauron.
    Frodo's journey is an existential quest, there is no guide for him, his only guide is Gollum who eventually tries to end his life. He is all alone with the ring and with the weight of the responsibility. He is all alone in making his choices, all alone with the responsibility of said choices.
    While Tolkien did despise allegory and he did write Lord of the Rings independent from the influence of existentialism, Frodo's journey demonstrates the existential angst that free will and responsibility can bring upon a person.

  2. I like how nicely you summarize the many different sentiments Tolkien expresses about free will, and I’d like to see how the ideas intersect with each other. Tolkien says that sending the hobbits on a journey is the perfect way to see how different environments affect decisions. Does this mean that journeys, by releasing us from our plant-like existence, assist us in becoming the gardeners of our individual seed? After all, as you mentioned in your anecdote about running and playing cello, it is easy for us to rely on our environments to shape us.
    I feel like the idea of journey as a catalyst is somewhat correct; for instance, in the case of Gimli and Legolas. It is obvious throughout Tolkien’s work that Elves and Dwarves do not normally get along. Indeed Legolas and Gimli’s friendship often astonishes the other inhabitants of Middle Earth. However, despite this stigma, by being forced together in the journey of the fellowship, Legolas and Gimli learn to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and quickly develop a close friendship, second only to that of Sam and Frodo. Many other characters, Pippin and Merry especially, experience similar character development throughout LotR.
    However, I’m not sure if this idea is suitable to Sam and Frodo. To me, it almost seems that as they journey to Mount Doom, they discover traits they always had deep within, rather than deliberately cultivating them. Frodo discovers just how long he can resist the ring’s power and Sam discovers the true depth of his devotion to his master. Do these developments represent cultivation or more environmental influence? An interesting question to consider.


  3. An excellent meditation on the metaphor of the seed for understanding the effects of environment on choice! I particularly like the way in which this metaphor helps us understand what happens to Frodo at the end: not all seeds can express themselves in all environments, thus, indeed, we pray not to be led into temptation. And yet, even then, we still have the ability, if not the strength, to choose what we will do.


  4. It’s true that logic can exercise a kind of compulsion (as we learn from Socratic dialogues, where the interlocutors seem to say only, “Why, yes, of course, Socrates”). But it can be part of an argument as well, an argument that is involved in making a choice. I think you’re very much on to what the heroic journey may be about: establishing scenarios of impossible choice. It is this kind of choice (outside of one’s comfort zone, as you say) that not only tests character but expands it. If we think that Frodo can resume his old life in the shire at the end (after overcoming initial obstacles), we would be wrong. For the journey has changed him along the way. To use an image of T.S. Eliot, by the time the cure gets to the patient, the patient is already different. In a way, the line of the Lord’s prayer, “lead us not into temptation,” is a prayer not to be a hero. Many of the great religious saints sought temptation, temptations that they could resist, but also temptations that would demand their blood (martyrdom), the willing choice to accept death now, at any moment. An alternative translation of this line is ‘do not put us to the test’ – which I think means never to confront us with a choice that is not a choice, a choice that operates under the guise of free will but is either way destructive. When it creates the chance for heroism, we can understand it; when it doesn’t, it’s more troubling. Frodo acts as a hero should, by stepping further and further into temptation. The heroic choice affirms a freedom that precedes all morality. In this way, I agree: the failure is irrelevant.

  5. One thing that came to mind when reading this post was sparked by the comment about the nature of hobbits. It is true that hobbits are very simple creatures who live by tradition and routine and do nothing very much outside of the ordinary. Even when the hobbits leave the Shire, they attempt to preserve their old forms of life, which becomes something of a problem when they want to eat something like seven meals a day while on the road. This creates many problems in respect to the hobbits trying to adapt to these extraordinary situations when they themselves are so incredibly ordinary. Yet I would argue that it is these qualities exactly that allow Frodo, and later Sam, to hold out as well as they do against the power of the ring. They have been ingrained so thoroughly with a certain mode of behavior that the ring is hard pressed to overcome it. In a way, it is the simple lifestyle that Frodo lived in the Shire that saved him from the influence of the ring and got him as far as he did before giving in to temptation.

    C Carmody