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.