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.