The idea of free will plays a major role in Tolkien’s mythology yet it is also largely controversial. All conflict that arises in Arda can be attributed to it, yet it also accounts for much of what is considered beautiful. I found that the discrepancy between the sins of Aule and Melkor depicted both sides of free will in an interesting light. What was it about Aule’s mistake in the creation of the dwarves that made it forgivable while Melkor’s discord was impossible to reconcile with the Great Music? The answer to this question may even hold more interesting implications about the nature of free will and its place in Tolkien’s universe.
There is much common ground between the creation of the dwarves and that of discord. Melkor’s sin in adding discord into the Great Music was an act taken in disregard for the nature of the Music as well as an attempt to seize greater authority than Melkor was endowed. When Aule created the dwarves, he too went against the themes of the Great Music and acted beyond his jurisdiction. Even so, we established that the intention of Aule’s actions separated them from Melkor’s actions. While Melkor sought to demonstrate his power in the creation of discord, Aule’s actions were motivated by the desire to share his knowledge and the lack of patience to wait for the emergence of Illuvatar’s elves. Aule’s motive, while nobler, does not alone excuse his actions, however. It was Aule’s ability to repent for what he had done, to the point that he was willing to destroy the creations he loved so dearly. This repentance not only earned Aule forgiveness, but also allowed for the dwarves to be granted true independent life.
If beings of free will as knowledgeable and powerful as the Ainur can stray so easily to sin, how can there be any doubt that such weaker, easily tempted creatures as mankind would not do the same? To bestow free will upon man is to accept the inevitability of their sinfulness. This must have been apparent to Illuvatar from the moment Melkor began to stray from the other Ainur, if not prior to that. This makes for an interesting question, one that is present throughout both Tolkien’s mythology and Christian theology. Is the gift of free will is worth the price of sin or not? Aule’s dwarves would certainly help make the case that it is. The dwarves, though originating from sin, were, in the long run, a beautiful addition to Arda. Free will can add diversity and excitement to the Great Music that would otherwise be lost. But does this diversity go so far as to even encompass Melkor’s discord? One could argue that it does, to an extent. For the in the Great Music, even this discord was able to be woven into the rest of the song and create something new as a result. Perhaps through overcoming the mistakes free will necessitates, a deeper beauty can be reached.
If this were the case, why not give all beings free will? What benefit is there to bind the elves to fate that free will cannot compensate for? Perhaps it is simply to insure that there will be a race to follow the plan of the Great Music. If Melkor’s discord were to overwhelm the rest of the Great Music, it would have surely been catastrophic for the nature of the universe. Perhaps for beauty to be achieved, the variance of free will requires a standard to play off of. Free will acts as the catalyst for new and potentially beneficial additions to the world, while fate can keep it in check should things begin to get out of hand. Diversity seems to be something Tolkien appreciates and it would be logical that it would extend to aspects that are intrinsic to the very the nature of the races themselves. While having races entirely of free will could easily lead to misuse, destruction, and evil, races only guided by fate would never be as beautiful. The coexistence between free will and fate in a context that allows for the interaction of both does seem questionable, however. It would seem the two would be incompatible. Could not the free willed beings affect the fate of others? Would these fated beings have an influence on their free will? To reconcile this, it is important to keep in mind that free will and fate are not necessarily as straight forward as they would seem. Even the fated elves can make mistakes and be faced with choices, such as we see with Feanor.
Dorothy Sayers, in her writing, claims that the nature of God can only be described through human experience, for that is all human beings have to describe anything. Of course, God is not something that is of the realm of human experience and as such cannot be completely and sufficiently described. It may be best to treat the ideas of free will and fate in a similar light. Both are complex and divine such that human experience cannot encompass them. Free will and fate need not be as absolute as one would initially assume. Both seem to have advantages and disadvantages. They can clash with one another, yet also be harmonious.