Friday, May 2, 2014

Free Will

            I found the issue of free will to be a very interesting one in these readings, in the way in which Tolkien approaches it and in the way in which he is clearly influenced by Christian theology.  As Shippey states, “The Silmarillion [is] a ‘calque’, though on the history of Genesis rather than the history of England” (235).  But, I think that, the story can also be an exploration of, not only the one book of The Bible, but to the nature of God and of free will that is so prevalent through all of Scripture.  It seems to me that this question of free will in the creation of the Valar, the elves, and the men was a physical parallel to the question of free will in our world especially for Christians, and was a way for Tolkien to explore this. 
First of all, there is the question of Ilúvatar’s theme and the way in which he allows Melkor to corrupt the music, as well as the way in which he seems to know that this will occur and yet allows it seemingly because he will use it to further glorify himself in the end.  Similarly in the Christian tradition, the question remains, did God know that Adam and Eve would eat of the forbidden tree?  (On a side note, for the purpose of clarity and simplicity, I will use the literal reading of the story to avoid the issue of how much of the Genesis account is literal versus what is a story, and avoid raising an unanswered question.)  But, what was God’s part in the serpent’s temptation of the original humans, and how can an omnipotent God allow things that are not directly of or in His will?  Also, there is the issue of how Melkor became evil, and how in The Bible Satan and his followers fell from the Will and grace of God.
            I think that the key point Tolkien raises is the aspect of free will in the creation of the Ainur, in his story, and the commentary this is regarding Christian theology.  Shippey’s quotation of Lewis shows that Adam and Eve, as well as the Ainur in The Silmarillion have free will, and can act in whatever way they choose.  It is a choice for both of these groups to follow their respective God, and Tolkien gives a presumable story of the fall of Satan and the angels that follow him.  That is, if Melkor, with free will could become corrupt of his own volition, that is desire power and then act on this desire, then Satan’s story may be much the same.  As a man studied theology, Tolkien has some authority in issuing these suppositions.  Of course, though, he is also not presuming to be correct, but rather to be giving a human understanding of a divine event and a way of thinking about the nature of God.
            Interestingly, this then ties into the discussion we had regarding the nature of the Valar.  I think that this understanding is a reason to regard the Valar mostly as angels.  I do not think that Tolkien meant to make the Valar a direct parallel to any being spoken of in Scripture, but that he considered them most akin to angels, who have power and authority, but are created by God and are not to be the object of praise.
            To return then to the discussion of free will, specifically in man, there are interesting connections in the nature of evil and the choice that man has.  A few times now, humans have been mentioned as being given the gift of mortality.  It is very interesting that mortality is presented as something that is good; the goodness lies in the way in which they leave Arda upon their death and will be present in the end of current Arda and the new Creation of Ilúvatar following.  This is a very obvious connection again to the Scriptures; for Christ will return, and there is the telling of the new heaven and the new earth in which all men will glorify God and sin will be no more.
            But the result of man’s free will is that he may not only fall from God’s purposes himself, but also that he may be deceived and led astray.  Tolkien addresses this aspect as well in very clear ways throughout his works.  The Bible contains many references to Satan or the devil as a deceiver and tempter or proclaimer of falsehood.  Revelation 12:9 says of the Devil, “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.”  Likewise Melkor and Sauron do much of their evil by this same method.  For example, Melkor tricks the Valar into letting him out of captivity after his time in the void by acting like he really has had a change of heart.  And in the history of Numenor, Sauron brings about its fall by leading the men to think the elves are withholding from them.

            So, the story of the creation and the time until the awakening of the Children of Ilúvatar and the creation of the Silmarils becomes an exploration of Christian theology.  Tolkien explores the nature of good and evil, its origins and its manifestations in the enemy.  This last aspect on the enemy is a very interesting connection, for me, because the enemies in Tolkien’s story and the enemy for Christians, becomes nearly the same character.  Their natures and actions are much the same, as are their origins and methods of corruption in the world.  This now gives the rest of the stories in Tolkien’s legendarium a sense that they too are explorations of theological questions. This then, begs the question, what can we learn about theological questions of good, evil, and he way to act by studying this fantasy world.

~ Brendon Mulholland


  1. I really liked your post and enjoyed thinking about some of the Christian parallels Tolkien used in The Silmarillion. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that Iluvatar “allowed” Melkor to corrupt the music, and fall into evil, for the purposes of His own glory. Without the fall allowed by free will, there is so much we would not be able to see or understand. (I am not saying the fall of Adam and Eve was a good thing in itself, but I believe God brought good from its painful results). How could we know the incredible grace and mercy of God if we couldn't see the evil in ourselves or the world? Or how would we know good from bad and be able to see that God is good as well as just? In allegory (which I know Tolkien would dislike), how would we know light without darkness, or heat without cold?
    I would guess that Tolkien was probably aware of this idea and used it in his stories, just like he used parts of Christian theology and fundamental ideas from scripture.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your post and good job!

  2. I think you're largely correct that Tolkien is exploring certain aspects of Christian theology in these parts of the Silmarillion, but I worry that your argument is a little too fragmented. While each point you raise is a ground for worthwhile contemplation, all too often you jump to another point without digging more deeply. For instance, you raise the interesting issue of the relation of free will and mortality, which I think is really worth thinking about. The elves are considered the more "fated" race in Tolkien's world, while men are free. Is there some fundamental connection between this and the fact that elves are immortal (perhaps simply "fading away" in the end) and men fated to die (interesting that there is one sense in which men definitely are fated)? As you note, death is not presented as entirely negative, it is in some sense a gift, how? These are the sorts of deeper questions that it would have been wonderful to see explored, rather than simply raised.

  3. I fully agree with the earlier commenters; you raise a number of interesting parallels in this "fundamentally Christian" work that merit further exploration. Free will is an interesting concept--truly, how is it that beings limited in scope can perceive the Will and Nature of the One who is truly infinite? To our understanding, mortal men are not merely automata--I make the distinction because, as noted in the comments, the elves are considered "fated"--and thus are possessed of control of their faculties. It becomes a big question of faith: how can God have a plan for the world while we have free will within His creation?

    It certainly can be tied to the idea that we are transient. We live, we think and act--create our legacy--we die and fade. Because we're not around forever, it is easy to see how ideas may grow and fade, accumulating towards a cohesive whole. The elves, however, have life so long as Arda has life. They are apart--consider, ideas may grow, develop, fester, for millennia without fading. They deepen, sure, but they do not readily overturn. Could this be why the elves were fated to leave Middle Earth? They are fixed in time and though, while men are capable of free development?