Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Free will in LOTR: The Calvinism of Gandalf

A central question, still unresolved, of not only class discussion, but discussion between characters in The Lord of the Rings, and additionally between Tolkien and others in his correspondence, is the question of free will. What is it? Do the characters have it, if any? To what degree do they have it or can they exercise it?
            Fundamentally the struggles of The Lord of the Rings come down to will and its exercise or the control of it- power in the context of the novel is power over will. Whether in the Ring’s ultimate power over anyone’s (save Tom Bombadil) individual will, in oaths of loyalty from Pippin and Merry to Gondor and Rohan, respectively, in Sauron’s control of orcs and evil beings, Saruman’s control of Wormtongue, or the previous pair’s control over Théoden, the struggles of The Lord of the Rings are all about will and its control.
Interestingly, while free will is a value that the “good” characters seem to set a lot of store in, justifying their struggle with the Enemy as against the enslavement of the peoples of Middle Earth, and a conflict to preserve free will, they also value destiny very strongly. For all their merits as “good” characters, and strong ones who not only exercise their own free will, but protect that of others, they believe very strongly in destiny, and often speak of it governing their own or others’ actions.
Gandalf, one of the wise, tells Frodo that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case [Frodo] also [was] meant to have it” (56). How is it that Gandalf, defender of free will, opponent of Sauron and Saruman who seek to impose their will on others, believes in a benevolent imposition of will? It is not Sauron, the greatest evil on Middle Earth (at the time) who imposes this destiny, but some other power, could he possibly mean Eru?
At the same time, there seem to be avenues for these characters to exercise agency, however they end up not doing so because of their “destinies.” For example, when Frodo offers the Ring to Gandalf, even though nothing is actually preventing Gandalf from taking the Ring, he refuses because of his (rightful) fear that he would become evil himself because of it (a view corroborated by Tolkien himself in Letter 246), his free will to take the Ring is stopped by Frodo’s destiny to bear the burden, as he says, “[Frodo has] been chosen” (60). Chosen by whom? Even when these characters make apparent free choices, such as to bear the burden of the Ring, they end up being justified as having been meant to be, or some destiny or fate of some grand plan. Another example of this is at the end of the first volume, when Sam insists on following Frodo to the point of threatening to stop Frodo from leaving at all, and Frodo, relenting, states “It is no good trying to escape you... It is plain that we were meant to go together” (406). Frodo seems to have exercised his free will, by leaving, and Sam too, by following, but it turns out to be their shared destiny all along. How could this possibly be free will then?
This leads to an essential question not just in this universe, but in our own as well, as to whether such a universe is deterministic or probabilistic. This is a question that philosophers, theologists, and physicists, among others, have meditated on for millennia, and no one has conclusively solved this yet. A deterministic universe would be governed by fate, whereas a probabilistic, or selectionist, one leaves doors open to chance, and instead of a deterministic one cause one outcome model, events can have multiple outcomes, that are selected for.
These interpretations would seem to rely on rules governing that universe, in this case, rule seems to emanate from Eru Ilúvtar, the One. As Tolkien discusses and alludes to in Letters 191 and 192, Eru can and does intervene at times, but otherwise mostly stays out, which further confuses the situation. Does Eru control everything that happens? If Eru intervenes does that counter free will? Or support it by requiring his direct opposition?
This would seem to go along with the general Judeo-Christian views on free will in our own universe: God is all-powerful and can and sometimes does intervene, but mostly leaves his creations to their own devices. The main difference is that Eru has a lot more powerful or wise helpers on Middle Earth, who are almost god-like themselves. They also exercise not Eru’s will, but their own, although they may be there on his orders. Gandalf, for example, is not only sent there, but reincarnated, by Eru, however, he exercises his own will, and seems to not know Eru’s own plans or will. Gandalf is able to control and influence others, in a similar was as other Valar such as Saruman and Sauron, who are clearly in defiance of good or Eru’s intentions (presuming Eru is good, but that’s a completely separate discussion).

All these assumptions come around to the question of why anyone really does anything at all? This is one of the central paradoxes of Calvinism, where all souls are supposedly predestined to a heavenly or doomed fate, yet the “good ones” somehow decide anyways to pursue a prescribed “enlightened” lifestyle. The characters of The Lord of the Rings have a similar paradox; they all supposedly have inescapable destinies, yet claim to make free choices, and fight to the death to preserve the rights of others to express their own free wills. This is not an easily resolvable question, solved not by the characters in the book, Tolkien himself, or millennia of thinkers, but Tolkien’s work at least provokes us to think of its intricacies.

SB Chhabra


  1. S.B.,

    I think you're on to something here, but your terminology gets a little inaccurate. I think predestination and fate (or “doom” as Tolkien the Anglo-Saxonist prefers) are closely entwined. Given the omnipotence and omniscience of Eru (like the Judeo-Christian God), some form of predestination has to exist, right? Even before Creation, Eru is telling Melkor, “Discord all you like, man, it’ll make the song better in the end.” And he does so with absolute certainty. Because he knows the course of creation before it happens, presumably.

    This Tolkien connects with the Music of Ilúvatar, right? Essentially, it's the score of all history, to which the universe is fated to conform—except Men who are given an unusual dispensation. That doesn't mean that their ends are not known to Eru, merely that they can actually work at odds with (or simply outside) his plan. (Hold on while I take some aspirin trying to sort out what all this means.)

    Gandalf's discussion of Frodo's being “chosen,” I think, admits two possibilities, one the far more likely, as Gandalf's a Maia (i.e., a messenger, ἄγγελος, of Ilúvatar), is that he’s speaking of Frodo’s having a Providential role. That somehow the Ring's coming to him is a happenstance ordained by benevolent fate. The other possibility, which I don’t see as likely, is that he’s speaking of the Ring’s own choice (since it has its own will, since we’re told it abandons both Isildur and Gollum of its own accord).

    So I think we can speak of a “doom” here in the sense that the results of free choices seem to play out in ways which bespeak a Providence—though how much this involves action on the part of Eru and how much is accord with the strains of the Music which have been playing before Time is impossible to say. On why Eru seems to act at certain times and not others takes us into theodicy (Erudicy?) which we have nowhere near enough basis to speak (other than by analogy to Judeo-Christian principles).

    Calvin is a slightly different kettle of (not so sweet, juicy) fish, with his doctrine of double predestination, foreordaining the damnation and salvation of every individual. I don’t think this applies to Middle Earth, in which choices are so freighted and Gandalf the angel keeps insisting on the theological virtue of hope, rather than resignation.

    Tolkien, as a Catholic lover of the north, was probably trying to synthesize the Nordic idea of “doom” and willful resistance even to a fated defeat and the Christian theology of hope and predestination—but a predestination along Catholic lines, which the 1992 Catechism discusses as:

    To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination," he includes in it each person's free response to his grace: "In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place." [Acts 4:27–28; cf. Ps 2:1–2] For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness. [cf. Mt 26:54; Jn 18:36; 19:11; Acts 3:17–18], CCC 600.


    God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance..."., CCC 1037.

    I'm not sure this wizard completely gets what he's after, but for my money, you're very right to locate it, and free will, at the very center of the moral concerns Tolkien is exploring.

  2. So I read this, decided I wanted to respond to it, and then saw Bill's phenomenal comment above which said most of what I wanted to say, but better. Despite this, I will press on with my (significantly inferior) thoughts.

    Ahem. Anyway.

    I think the issue you're discussing is a very real one with no easy answers either in Middle-Earth or Regular Earth. That being said, the way that I had been reconciling free will and destiny (in Middle-Earth - I'll get back to you when I figure it out for Regular Earth, or maybe just send you a copy of the award-winning book I'll write when I do) is by returning to the Music of the Ainur. Eru directed the music, and all of it stemmed from Him and was aimed towards His glory, but He didn't play it, or rather He didn't play all of it. Rather, He just presented the themes, allowing the Ainur to play music in ways that fulfilled those themes. There were lots of different ways they could do this, and Melkor certainly tried his best to rebel, but even then his discord only served to highlight the greater beauty of Eru's theme.

    Similarly, I imagine Frodo as a melody woven into Eru's theme (this would also be a fantastic time to note that I know nothing about music, so if that's not a thing that melodies do then I'm very sorry). I'm not sure how much Eru, as opposed to the Abrahamic and particularly the Christian God, is concerned with the individual, but what I figured was that Eru's theme meant only that someone like Frodo would get the Ring, that eventually Sauron would fall, that eventually the forces of good would triumph. This is not, of course, to remove value from Frodo's actions by saying that just anyone could do it - it matters that he did it, and the particular way in which he did it shaped his melody into a unique praise of Iluvatar, a fraction of a psalm. Once he has started his work, however, he must follow through, much as you can't stop a song halfway. Frodo's work champions free will, making the music it produces so much more beautiful.

    By way of comparison, the forces of evil in Middle-Earth are far more deterministic than those of good, and in a significantly less fulfilling fashion. If we'll recall, the music of Melkor and his ilk was not only discordant - it was repetitive, composed only of a few notes repeated over and over. Not only that, but it failed to accomplish its intended goal, instead performing the same role as all other music by glorifying Iluvatar. Evil is not only, well, evil, it's severely limited, and for all its vaunted "independence" cannot play a single note that does not, in its own way, glorify Eru. Eru, through His themes, determines what happens, but His Children, through their freedom of will, determine how it happens.

  3. Daniel (for whom I thank for his undeservedly kind words) makes some very good points here. With respect to his last paragraph, Tolkien may have had the same insight as the French mystic, Simone Weil, who wrote (at about the exact same time):

    Le mal imaginaire est romantique, varié, le mal réel morne, monotone, désertique, ennuyeux. Le bien imaginaire est ennuyeux ; le bien réel est toujours nouveau, merveilleux, enivrant. Le Pensateur et la Grâce (1947), 83.

    which is to say:

    Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Gravity & Grace (1952), 120.

  4. I think this is a really interesting and rich topic of inquiry. I think that largely stems from what everyone has already identified as the extreme difficulty of answering this question. That being said I think that Tolkien would have viewed this with a far more catholic approach rather than Calvinist. I largely say this because I think that free will is very important to the story which is unfolding in Lord of The Rings. If everything is already predestined so that good triumphs over evil, then there is no real peril in the struggle which unfolds. The crisis of the moment is only created because defeat is a possibility. I think Tolkien tries to emphasis the role of free will through Bilbo’s decision to spare Gollum. Bilbo decides to let Gollum live and this is what ultimately allows the ring to be destroy, it is Bilbo’s mercy which decides the fate of the ring. But what is important here is that Bilbo had a choice, he didn’t have to spare Gollum. I don’t think this should take away from the idea of an overarching narrative which is driving the story insofar as the right combination of right choices will result in a good outcome. Even free will narratives have an element of predestination, but the ultimate outcome for the individual is uncertain and is contingent on the choices they make.

    -Blake Alex

  5. The interrelated concepts of free will and fate (or doom, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s words) are central to many Western (and perhaps Eastern) works. The best example of this is probably Oedipus Rex. Was Oedipus truly fated to murder his father and sleep with his mother? Or did the actions of his father in leaving him to die of exposure lead to the fulfilment of the prophecy? From one perspective, Oedipus Rex is a story of the inescapability of Fate; but from another, it is an examination of unforeseen ramifications. To bring this back to Tolkien, Frodo may or may not have been fated to bear the Ring. However, Bilbo’s choices, from using the Ring, to sparing Gollum, to leaving the Shire, placed the burden on Frodo’s shoulders. Then Frodo assumes the doom of the Ring. However, the choices he makes along his journey lead to the events in Mt. Doom. But they don’t necessarily shape the events in Mt. Doom because said events were fated to occur in such and such a manner, rather they shape the events because that’s what all actions do. Actions have consequences, seen and unseen. The mercy shown to Gollum and the subsequent betrayal at the Forbidden Pool both lead to Gollum’s attack of Frodo and the destruction of the Ring. Does that mean that Frodo was fated to break before the Ring and Gollum fated to save him? I don’t know, and since there is no way to alter The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible to know if Frodo’s and Gollum’s fates were actually fated. In my opinion, the events in Mt. Doom were not the works of fate, but the products of action between two related characters.

    - Peter Alexieff