Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Issues with Free Will

One of the main distinctions between Elves and Men in Tolkien’s world is that Men have free will, and are therefore not bound by the Music of the Ainur, while Elves are not. Men are able to shape their lives beyond that of what Ilúvatar envisioned, unlike the Elves, who have set fates that are already worked into Ilúvatar’s plan for Arda from the beginning. While the role of Men in Arda aligns well with contemporary Christian philosophy, (that God does not predestine and control all of one’s actions), it does not seem right that the Elves, as human beings (human being different than Man) do not share in this gift of free will.
Besides the fact that it just doesn’t “seem right” for Elves not to participate in free will, there is a logical contradiction in the prospect of one species having free will and another not. If Elves were the only beings in the universe, then it is plausible for all their actions to be predestined and controlled by Ilúvatar, being for lack of a better metaphor puppets on his strings. However, if Men are factored into the equation, and have the ability to disrupt the actions of Elves, what happens to Ilúvatar’s predestined plan? By interacting with the Elves, do Men essentially go above Ilúvatar’s head? How do we explain this, given that Ilúvatar gave men the power to disrupt his own plan? How is it possible for two beings to interact if one’s actions are predestined while the other’s are not? One of these beings would have to conform to the other, with either the Elves being brought out of their sphere of predestination, or Men actually not having free will, but only the illusion of it. There are many complicated questions that arise from this discrepancy in free will; how can we reconcile them?
Tolkien addresses the question of free will and creation himself in his Letters, #153. “Free Will is derivative,” he states, “and is therefore only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it” (Letters pp.195). This doesn’t appear to say much about the differences between Elves and Men, but it does provide insight as to what Tolkien’s conception of free will actually is. That free will is “only operative within provided circumstances” means that free will is a gift, and the creator is free to give it or withhold it, depending on his whims. By saying free will is “derivative,” Tolkien seems to be saying that it should not be taken for granted, and must be derived from a higher power. It is this concept that he seems to be toying with when he created the distinctions between Elves and Men. Tolkien’s world is a thought experiment as to how two species would interact if one was endowed by free will, and the other’s actions were predestined by their creator. While this explains the origins of Tolkien’s thought, it does not provide much insight into solving the dilemmas that arise from it.
            Verlyn Flieger expands on the intricacies of this though experiment in Chapter 15 of her work Splintered Light. She says here that “The interactions of Men and Elves [...] are to involve and embody the interplay of free will and destiny” (Splintered Light pp.129). She goes further than Tolkien in showing how this concept works, explaining that “the destinies of the Elves will affect the free choices of Men, while the free choices of Men will have the power to alter the destinies of the Elves.” Though this argument clears up the issue of two different beings living in the same world with different amounts of free will, it still does not solve the puzzle as to how it can be that Elves do not have the ability to control their actions.
One possible solution to this puzzle is this: Elves do have free will at the micro level, but do not the macro level. When Fëanor is given the choice between unmaking his Silmarils to save the two light-giving trees Telperion and Laurelin, and keeping them whole to treasure for himself, he is actually given a choice within himself to act in two different ways. He can listen to the good inside of him, give them up, and follow the greater good, or he can keep them, hoard them, cherish his ‘precious’ treasures while turning his back on the rest of the world. One can argue that this choice was all determined in the Music of the Ainur, that Fëanor would have to face this decision and would be predestined to reject Ilúvatar’s works to hold up his own. But, Tolkien emphasizes the importance of Fëanor’s decision so much that it would seem unlikely for this to be the case. Even though unbeknownst to Fëanor the Silmarils have already been stolen by Morgoth, his choice between light and dark matters immensely to the purity of his soul, a fact that Tolkien makes blatantly obvious.
            Though it is shown through Fëanor that it is possible for the Elves to have free will at the micro level (such as matters of the purity of the soul), heaps of textual evidence indicate that it is impossible for them to have free will at the macro level. Ilúvatar says himself after the creation of the earth that Men “should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else” (The Silmarillion pp.41, my emphasis). It is clear that while men are free to roam and make the world as they wish, the actions of the Elves are eternally bound to the Music of the Ainur. So, we have that the Elves are free to deliberate inwardly, and to make their own choices in their souls, but the efforts of the race as a whole are predestined by the Music.­­
            Elves are therefore not simply puppets on Ilúvatar’s strings, but simply a group of free-willed individuals who are bound as a race to have a certain purpose throughout time. Each one of the Elves is able to live their life as freely as they so choose, but will be a part of a grand plan for the history of Arda.

            As a side note, it is interesting that towards the end of the Third Age, when Men are becoming more and more influential in Middle-earth, the Elves feel the need to depart over the sea. Is this really a result of the Elves “waning,” or is it simply because in a world where the free will of Men runs rampant, it is difficult for beings without free will to avoid being tossed and turned by the whims of Men? Perhaps this is the result of Tolkien’s thought experiment: beings with free will and beings without are not able to fully cooperate, and in the end must drift apart.

-Tate Hamilton


  1. Hi Tate,
    I think you bring up some interesting points about free will. It is confusing to understand the difference between the elves and the men, when they interact in the legendarium it does not always seem like they behave differently. One thing I found intriguing in LOTR are how some of the elves regard advice and how they discuss the future, and I think the elves’ position in free will can be further exemplified by their actions in the trilogy. When I initially read the books, I was struck by how the elves, though wise, were often reticent with advice. When Frodo and the hobbits find the elves in the woods outside the shire, Frodo talks for a while with Gildor, and asks him for advice. Frodo then quotes a parable, “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes’ (94). Gildor in general does not like to because Elves have “their own labours” and aren’t concerned with the ways of things on earth (94). This could speak to how the elves are concerned with different issues than the hobbits, but it also appears that the elves do not desire to act or advise outside of their realm of knowledge. They do not find it necessary in a way to give advice, because what will happen, will come to be. Though one person may act in his or her own realm of action, ultimately the larger picture is set. Galadriel tells Frodo that “the fate of Lothlorien you are not answerable, but only for the doing of your own task” (410). I think part of the free will question too is that the elves realize that there are greater forces than their own actions. I wonder if part of this has to do with pride. Are men usually more prideful or ambitious than elves? Do elves simply recognize what is in their own power, whereas men often try to act outside of their capabilities? Also, when Frodo asks what Galadriel would like to happen, and she tells him,“that what should be shall be” (410). The elves accept and appreciate their limited free will. It seems that Galadriel takes comfort in this. I think you bring up interesting ideas about the elves’ limited spheres of action, and I think looking at the text in Lord of the Rings can shed further evidence for this.

  2. Dear Tate,

    Thanks for tackling the issue of free will and predestination with such a sensitive and nuancing eye both toward the letter (153) and the substance of the myth. While you initially set up the problem as a strong dichotomy (free men vs fated elves), it is quite right to see this cannot be the correct dichotomy, and that something more complicated is going on.
    Your final view bears insight, I think, that elves both have a free choice (e.g. Fëanor) and are fated, though perhaps on the micro and macro scale respectively.

    Two questions occur to press this further: As you found with Fëanor, the elves have more freedom and the men more fate than a simple dichotomy would have it. First, what do we do when men fall under fate? Do we account Turin Turambar’s fate to his father’s fighting with elves’? What about the ‘doom that awaits’ Aragorn, (according to Elrond)? (Ap.A Lay of Aragorn and Arwen, pg1059)

    Secondly, the questions of free will and predestination in the West largely put the micro scale on center stage, dealing with question of Christian theology of grace. Is Tolkien primarily dealing with freedom and fate in these terms of salvation, the will, and grace?

  3. Flieger has an essay in Green Suns and Faerie that you might enjoy that goes into this question further, on how Tolkien uses the Elves and Men to meditate on the tensions between Fate and Free Will. --RLFB

  4. Hi Tate,

    You did an awesome job in comparing and contrasting the idea of free will and how it is enacted in the lives of Men and Elves. I particularly liked your discussion about Feanor and his decision regarding the Silmarils and how that tied into a more micro idea of free will. This reminded me strongly of Galadriel’s mirror and the manner in which she tests herself in resisting the power of the ring.

    However, that lead to me wonder what free will meant in the context of how easy the wills of Men and Elves are to bend. Based on what we see in the Lord of the Rings, Elrond is able to resist the lure of the Ring (after Isildur cuts it from Sauron’s hand), as is Galadriel when Frodo offers her the Ring. Does that mean that although Men are allowed more free will, their wills are easier to bend than that of the Elves? Is it that the Elves are incapable of exacting free will or do they choose not to because they understand the lures of evil, embodied in objects like the Ring, that will make it easier to bend their wills and eventually lead them to paths of wrongdoing? Is it a situation where Tolkien is making an example of the Elves and showing how their playing by the rules makes them less susceptible to the draws of evil even if they have to forego some free will as part of that process? Or is he actually giving them more agency and stating that the elves, in spite of being created by Illuvatar are able to make choices of free will, even in a macro context but choose not to know the danger and trouble it could cause? I don’t know if that makes any sense but it was just something that I started thinking about upon reading your blog post.

    Thanks for a great read!