Friday, May 2, 2014

The Will of the Ainur

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.

-Kyle Malanowski


  1. Your post brings us to the edge of some really interesting questions, but I wish you could have gone a little bit further. For instance, you introduce this seeming contradiction, the elves are fated, yet elves like Feanor still seem to make real moral choices. How do we reconcile this? In class, the notion of the elves being "more fated" came up, but what does that mean? This is interesting both in terms of the relationship between elves and other races and within the elves and other races themselves. Do the relations of elf and men, fated and free, mirror the wrestling of fated and free within individual men? Fascinating questions, which you could have benefited from engaging with.

  2. I find this entire discussion fascinating, largely because we don't even understand the interactions between fate and free will in the primary reality. It's very difficult to try to answer these questions from within the text because it's very difficult to try to answer the questions in real life.
    You mention that bestowing free will upon man is accepting the inevitability of their sinfulness. In particular, I find this idea fascinating. I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the idea that God is considered to be a good creator, yet in his creation exist things so horrible I can hardly even comprehend this. This brings for the idea of theodicy, an attempt to answer the question of evil. It can be very difficult to grapple with. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of my favorite novels, Dostoevsky details a character going through this struggle. Eventually this character explains to his brother something along the lines of, "It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket." Even accepting a God in the world, in the face of all the evil that exists, Ivan declares that he doesn't want God's creation.
    That really hit me, and Tolkien's exploration of the idea of free will only hit me with more questions. Oftentimes I answer try to justify the situation to myself with the idea of free will. We're given free will, and for all the evil in the world, that's a beautiful wonderful thing, or so I tell myself.
    Except, I'm not sure if I believe it. In Ainulindale, men are given the gift of freedom, they are not constrained by fate the way elves are. Yet I find trouble arguing that men make things more beautiful in The Lord of the Rings, or at least that they produce any more beauty than anybody else because of that free will. It seems to me that many of the stories involving men are wrought with sadness, heartbreak, and betrayal. I'm not sure that playing to the tune of the music would be altogether bad in our primary reality, or at least why it would be bad for us to have natures more prone towards contributing to beautiful music rather than harmful sound.
    I'm going to have to cut this off here because I could ramble on forever. I know about 99% of what I've said is highly contestable, and I may try to explore some more of it in a later blog post. Your post is very interesting though, and it triggered these ideas as I was reading it!


  3. I understood Melkor’s discord differently than you did- I was under the impression that, originally, it was entirely possible to reconcile his hubris, and that Iluvatar incorporated the chaos into his third theme (making mists and snow, unexpected but nevertheless beautiful things).

    Also- do the elves really lack free will? Can you be ‘fated’ (which I think you’re right in saying they are) and still exercise some free will? I am thinking of Feanor’s crafting and hoarding of the Silmarils, and his decision to abandon the Bliss of Valinor and burn the ships after landing in middle earth. This seems to be a pretty extreme example of free will: the elves were given the choice to remain in Valinor or to leave for middle earth; some chose to go, some to stay.

    Further, is free will written into the Great Music? It seems that, if Iluvatar was able to incorporate Melkor’s original discord into his new theme, then all free will (actions sinful or not) would be in keeping with the music, and with Melkor’s overall plan. But maybe I’m assuming here that Tolkien’s universe has some sort of predestination, that he knows the theme (having written it…) and therefore that all ‘free’ actions and decisions are not so free after all, as they correspond to the composition. I suspect I’ve talked myself in a circle here- but you’re post was really intriguing!


  4. The point you make that Tolkien is endorsing a sort of balanced combination of both creatures controlled by fate and creatures given to free will is extremely similar to the conclusion we reached in class about the Ents and Entwives. If we look at orchards as analogous to Elves and the wild forests as analogous to Men then the same principle of balance creating beauty holds. In both cases Tolkien presents the idea that cultivated order of a very strict type and that of a more free-form style are both necessary for the Ents to survive.

    And if I may further the connection, it’s also possible to see threads of this thought in the discussion of philological gardening from the Notion Club Papers. When they discuss the difference between language as a carefully cultivated garden versus a wild jungle it is not difficult to see that there is a direct parallel to the philosophical discussion happening inherent in the Ent/Entwife situation. Further, as we’ve already established in class, Tolkien clearly sees language and its creation as little different from life (especially if we look at his creation myth and its foundation in sound), so the link between strictly managing a linguistic garden and predetermining the fates of a race of Elves and the link between allowing a jungle to grow free and doing the same for a race of Men is, yet again, rather less than difficult.

    --H. Goldberg

  5. I think that we can reconcile the idea of fate with some amount of free will. Clearly the elves have some ability to make choices; otherwise nothing they do would mean anything. If every action were preordained, for example, we would not be able to make any judgments about the character of an elf. I would contend that elves have a vague and ill-defined destiny, but within the larger framework they can make choices. However, this runs into something of a problem when we try to contrast it to Men. Do men have any constraints on their free will, i.e. do Men have a fate? Tolkien states that Hobbits are a variety of Men, so what do we make of Gandalf’s statement that Bilbo and later Frodo were meant to have the Ring? It could be that Gandalf is mistaken about the workings of fate on Hobbits, but given his status as a Maia I am inclined to listen to what he has to say on the matter with some deference. If Hobbits, and by extension Men, are subject to the workings of fate, what separates them from the elves? Unsurprisingly, I have no definitive answer.
    I also find the question of what happens when a fated being interacts with one who has free will very interesting. If the will of the Man conflicts with the fate of the Elf, which wins out? I have a feeling that Men, as part of Arda, are tied to its fate, but not in the same way as the Elves. Because the Elves may never depart Arda until its breaking, they are totally subsumed within its Doom, whereas Men, who only remain upon Arda for a short time, share less in the common fate. However, Men are still subject to the overarching fate of he world, especially when their actions become intertwined with those of the Elves. I think it is at these points, when they are invested in the destiny of the world rather than simply their own futures that men are subject to the workings of fate.
    Ian Chronis