Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Let's Be Honest About Free Will

Free will, as we understand it, is not a thing that exists in Tolkien’s universe.  

It is true, the Ainur love the Children of Iluvatar because of they are “strange and free”[1]. However, this description interestingly follows shortly after Tolkien writes that the Ainur “know much of what was, and is, and is to come… Yet some things there are that they cannot see… for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store…”.[2] The Ainur may not know all that will happen, but this is only due to their imperfect knowledge of the Music; Ilúvatar, on the other hand, has already determined the play that is to come, that of life in the World. Thus we have two conflicting accounts, one of two races loved for their ability to exercise free will, and the other of a World whose history is written in advance.

We can reconcile this conundrum by reflecting on the Ainur might understand being “free” to be. For the Ainur, and especially the Valar, life must be a rather boring affair. It would be akin to watching a movie only after reading an extremely detailed synopsis of the film on Wikipedia—we can appreciate the story, the directing, the acting, the costuming, but the main dramatic effect is gone. We know how this ends. We know that after Luke falls down an airshaft, Darth Vader will lean over and rasp out, “I am your father”, and then Luke will scream and make a crazy face. It’s entertaining, on some level, especially if you haven’t seen it in a while, but not suspenseful, not dangerous, not free. Luke will always fall down, Darth Vader will always say those words, and Luke will always scream. Likewise, Melkor will always rebel, Beren will always fall in love with Lúthien, and Lalaith will always die of a pestilence. Valar know the story of the World. They know the fate of the Quendi. Men are a little more mysterious, but not by much.

Given this, I can almost imagine Manwë being pleasantly surprised when he finds that Melkor has been secretly building Utumno: “Oh, interesting, I literally did not see that coming. That’s a nice change from the usual. That really throws an unexpected kink into things! Although it does make sense, since I do know that eventually we’re going to chain him up.” Obviously, it’s impossible to know exactly what each of the Valar knows or does not know, and it could be that enough of the everyday trivialities of life are outside of their precognizance to make life interesting to some degree. But imagine if you knew, in broad brush strokes, the major events of your life, and of those around you, and of your family. Suddenly life becomes a trial of going through the motions, of fulfilling stories you know are coming.

From this point of view, the description of the Children of Ilúvatar as being “free” is more understandable. They are free, in a sense, in a way that the Valar are not. Elves and Men do not know that is coming. The future for them is mysterious, shrouded in mists. It is true that Elves have some gift of foresight, but only if they choose to use it—in other words, they can read a little ahead in the Wikipedia synopsis, but only if they want to. In Tolkien’s universe, free will means only to act without knowing that every action is predetermined, even though this is in fact the case.

In light of our new definition of free will, how can we approach the drowning of Númenor, that event which seems to cause the Valar such grief? When Manwë sends messengers to the Númenóreans in an attempt to reassure them of the rightness of their ban from Aman, the Men ask of the immortals: “Why should we not envy the Valar…? For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us in a little while…”[3]. Here we see that not only are Men envious of the immortality of Elves and the Valar, but also of their gift of foreknowledge. It is hard, the Númenóreans say, to meander sightlessly about the world, not knowing if one’s choice to marry X was correct, or if one should have married Y instead. “Should I have moved to Eldalondë? Perhaps my business would have done better if I had stayed in Rómenna…” etcetera, etcetera.

According to our earlier conclusion that the Valar might in fact envy the Children of Ilúvatar their lack of foresight, this unknowing walk into the future must seem downright pleasurable to those who have seen the history of the World unfold. In fact, the Valar in some respects get to share in Men’s experience of blindness, as they say in response to the above question: “Indeed the mind of Ilúvatar concerning you is not known to the Valar…”[4]. Of all of the Music that was sung before the creation of the World, it is uniquely Men (although Dwarves too seem to be outside of the Music, perhaps?) in whose making the Valar had no part; they are only of Ilúvatar’s will, and his Gift to them is therefore not understood by the Ainur. For beings who spend literally thousands, if not millions, of years simply waiting for a story they already know to unfold, the excitement of not knowing Men’s narrative (at least in its particulars, for they must be able to see some of the general motifs from the large events involving other races that they do know) would be the most entertainment they have had in a very long time. Especially in the story of Akallabêth, when Men are behaving so irrationally and therefore unpredictably, we can imagine the Valar sitting around at a garden party in Lórien, animatedly discussing what those Númenóreans will do next. The drowning of Anadûnê was indeed inevitable, as it was woven into the Music by Eru, but perhaps in the context of Arda, where all is predecided, the rebellion of the Men of Númenor was about as free as it gets.


[1] Silmarillion, 18.
[2] Ibid, 18.
[3] Silmarillion, 265.
[4] Ibid, 265.


  1. While I agree that we must picture the Ainur as having some kind of limited foresight, this is still very problematic because where is the boundary of their foreknowledge? How detailed is their Wikipedia page, does it detail year by year, or decade by decade, or only say how each age must end?
    Furthermore, we must return to the question of why do they do certain things, which are harmful to men, if they know the future? Why would they not cast Melkor out into the darkness at the very start if they knew he would cause such a ruckus? And if it is because of what Iluvater says about even Melkor’s works rebounding to his greater glory, what does that mean for all the men and elves that Melkor killed?
    It seems that the Valar are forced to stand by and watch certain things because of the fact that the history of Middle Earth was already set in the Song. Unlike the Christian God, the Valar are not omnipotent, even if they are close to omniscient.
    Thus, humans’ and elves’ ignorance is the cause of their freedom, such as it is. If, as we said in class today, stories have a life of their own and can affect their characters, then the fact that men and elves do not know the story gives them more freedom of action.

  2. What if for the Valar, seeing the Music play out is like rereading a beloved book? E.g. The Lord of the Rings? RLFB

    1. While on the one hand, I can see the Valar's interaction with Arda as like rereading a book, I think that it might not be the most apt simile. Rather, I think it probably falls somewhere closer to watching a movie for the first time, having had the plot outlined for you by a friend. For instance, when I watched West Wing for the first time, I didn't know so much other than 1) I would like the press secretary, CJ; 2) Leo would die; and 3) it would end with the results of the next presidential race. So, I more or less knew the important bits, but watching those seven seasons was glorious: just because I knew some of the main themes, didn't mean that there weren't surprises, both delightful and devastating. In this way, I think it differs from rereading, in that I'm not typically surprised so much any more when I reread LotR, although I am constantly delighted by the intricacies I discover that connect the events and make the storyline even richer.

      To address the blogger's main point about the absence of free will, I disagree heartily, although I only recently found a quote that I think describes well the tension between the will of Iluvatar (presumably omniscient) and the will of Men. How can Men truly be free, if Iluvatar has created everything, and, as he says in the Silmarillion, "no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined"?[1] In an essay entitled Work and Prayer by C.S. Lewis (included in God in the Dock [1970], a collection of his essays on theology), Lewis describes this same tension present in our own world, as it relates to prayer. He outlines two different forms of human agency: one is work, or the actions and choices we make every day. The other is prayer, in which we attempt to affect change by supplicating God for his aid.

      "We know that we can act and that our actions produce results. Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole history with His own hand. Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all. It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise." [2]

      Although Lewis was not directly writing about Arda, I think he provides an excellent manner in which we can address the seemingly conflicting descriptions of will: Iluvatar, similar to the Christian God Lewis describes, has outlined history, but has left details for Men to improvise.

      [1] J. R. R. Tolkien; Christopher Tolkien; Ted Nasmith. The Silmarillion (Kindle Locations 94-96). Houghton Mifflin.
      [2] C. S. Lewis. "Work and Prayer," God on the Dock. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [I do not have page numbers, but a copy of the essay can be found here: ]

      Murphy Spence

  3. Free will is very present in The Lord of the Rings. First of all, just because Ilúvatar knows what is to come in the world does not mean that those in the world have free will. If Ilúvatar is omnipotent (could be dubious, but he is quite obviously based on the Christian God), there is nothing to stop him from giving creatures true free will. And if he is omniscient (again, like the Christian God) he must know everything that will happen. But just because Ilúvatar knows what choices Beren will make does not mean that it is not, in fact, Beren making those choices. Not all of Beren’s choices were ordained beforehand, but Ilúvatar, at least, knew what they would be.

    As far as the Ainur themselves knowing everything that will happen, it is stated that they each know part of the mind of Ilúvatar, the part that they were formed from. Thus they would only know what was to come that concerned the part of Ilúvatar’s mind from which they were made. Mandos is the Vala of fate, and pronounces the Dooms of Ilúvatar, but even he does not know all that is to come. It is stated that Ilúvatar has kept some things hidden from Mandos, and these are things that no one will know until they come to pass. So the Ainur don’t know everything. It seems to me like they know fates, but not details. And I agree with Sam, that they knew what Melkor would eventually do, they would have cast him out earlier, but they didn’t. When Melkor is unchained during the Years of the Trees, it is stated that Manwë trusts him because he has no conception of evil, but Tulkas and Mandos do not. But neither of them know what Melkor will do, they just are suspicious by nature. Thus it seems that everyone, from the men, to the elves and Valar have free will.

  4. Thanks for the post, AGB. I think Peter puts his finger on the crux of the issue. Much of the question of free will is bound with time. Eru likely exists out of Creation’s time. This allows him to endow Men (and Hobbits), at least, with genuinely free will, but also to know how their decisions will play out. All time is simultaneously present to him. It’s not clear that the Valar are similarly timeless. Once they enter into the Creation, they’re clearly not timeless (just as say the Greek or Norse gods exist within time); but, even in advance, Eru’s assertion to Melkor that the latter’s discordancies will only prove the music greater in the end seems unusually confident, which, it’s probably safe to say, is because it’s made out of the certainty of perfect knowledge. Melkor’s persistence implies he’s not convinced of the fruitlessness of his project. So he, and by extension the other Valar, don’t seem to have the out-of-time perspective that Eru has—which sort of makes sense, given that they themselves seem to be limited, partial emanations of his consciousness. And he acts against the divine plan—as does Aulë, though piously and ultimately repentently.

    So Melkor and the other Valar (and presumably then the Maiar), as well as Men (and Hobbits) seem to explicitly have free will…even if Eru knows how the story ends.

  5. I think it is very tempting to argue that there is no free will in Tolkien's work, but it seems to me rather that free will is quite necessary. To address the issue of Eru's omniscience, I think that this is a required point since it follows from Eru having perfect knowledge by virtue of being a perfect entity. Furthermore, one can't say that Eru having omniscience prohibits the existence of free will because Eru exists outside of Arda, and therefore, arguably outside of time. As well, as Paul noted in his comment, Eru may simply know what choice Beren, for example, will make, but this doesn't necessarily cheapen the choice of Beren. Further, as Galadriel tells Sam, after he looks into the Mirror of Galadriel, "Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them." (pg 363, The Mirror of Galadriel). Clearly, the matter of free will and choice has some bearing on the future, and this is a key point for me. The actions of the children of Iluvatar (and the other free peoples) still affect the outcome of Arda; otherwise, the lack of free will leads one down a dark path and to questions: "why bother trying to destroy the ring? Either Sauron will inevitably succeed or not" or - even more troubling - "why would Eru bother to enact creation in the first place? To watch a play fully formed already in his mind?"


  6. Even if you do know the "broad brushstrokes" or the "Wikipedia summary" of what's going to happen, it doesn't mean you know every nuance, or that you know everything with the same amount of detail or how it affects everything else. (Look at Oedipus, for example...or Zeus in the Iliad. The question of what "fate" is, and how much it determines--what must happen and when and why--is really dicey there.) I'd also argue that the /how/ of things is just as important and interesting as the /what/ of things.

    The Valar also have limited knowledge. They know part of Iluvatar's song, but they're in Arda just like everyone else; they can't see everything. (How much Iluvatar himself knows is a different question, I guess, which I'm not sure how to answer.)

  7. First, what is the conlict between free will and a world whose history has been “written in advance?” For me that doesn’t seem like much of a conflict. One deals with the relentless plod of history (known by some or not) and one deals with day to day existence. Free will can still exist even if we all knew the ending. We are able to choose what will happen even if the facts of what will be are laid out. Which they aren’t. And they weren’t for Tolkien either. I think that’s enough of a distinction to not nullify free will forever.

    Second, bottom line is that even if Beren will always marry Lúthien or even if Melkor always will destroy the trees, the reality remains that they are free to not, that Beren could have moved on, that Melkor could have sated his hatred. Action is a conscious choice in Tolkien’s mythology. I think one of the best examples of this reality is in Númenor. The understanding that some chose to remain faithful to the Valar, even in the face of the majority of their race dissenting, is as true a testament to free will as you are going to be able to find.

  8. I agree with what Paul, Bill and Luke have said. Just because God knows what is going to happen does not mean that we (or the Elves and Men of Middle-Earth) do not have free will. I have always found C.S. Lewis’s explanation of this in Mere Christianity to be useful. He compares God, out of time, to an author, and humans, inside time, to characters in a book. The author might know how the book ends, but inside the secondary world, the characters’ actions and decisions determine what happens. I think this is an especially interesting way to think about it when dealing with Middle-Earth, where, as Flieger puts it, “Eru represents not a character but the Writer of the Story” (Splintered Light page 173).

    Also, with the story of Túrin Turambar (which I wish we had talked about more in this class) Tolkien actually addresses the problem with believing that there is no free will. Túrin, who is convinced that he has been cursed, and therefore is doomed to have a horrible life, makes some of the worse decisions in the history of Middle-Earth. I think his story is an important one to think about when considering the problem of free will and predestination in Tolkien's works.

    Elaina Wood

  9. Perhaps I am the only one here who cannot wrap her head around, but one of the biggest difficulties I have with understanding Christianity is how to reconcile an omniscient God with the importance of free will. I can see the point of the arguments, but I cannot be fully convinced. I don't think the analogy of the writer and his character is very applicable, as the writer is still the one who sets his characters in motion, regardless of how the writer may describe the character's action as "chosen freely." Tolkien has said multiple times that "the story is written by itself," but in class we seem to have dismissed the literal interpretation of such a statement. If Tolkien is the true writer who makes choices for the characters--which is apparent in the fact that Tolkien has made changes in the revision process--I don't see how the acts of the characters are truly chosen by themselves...He wrote in his letter that Frodo has to succumbed to the power of the Ring at the end, but the very notion of "has to" implies that Frodo does not have the freedom to choose--I don't see the room for freedom when there is no room for other possibilities. It is hard for me to think that I am acting out of free will when my choice is 100% known to a existence of some kind...I feel I am confused because we do not have a clear definition of free will-- what is free, what is will, what is free will, what is not a free will, and when we say "decided freely," what kind of existence is making the decision? It may be argued that my free will could be known because being me I will necessarily choose in a certain way. But what does it mean by "being me"? Does who we are define our action, or does our action define who we are?
    Of course we talked about how Frodo freely makes his decision to take on the ring and how Gandalf cannot take the Ring for the sake of the free will of creatures in Middle Earth, but that is still the design of Tolkien the author, who, paradoxically, wants to address the importance of free will. To what extent can we say Frodo chooses to take on the burden freely? Is it a necessary consequence of who he is and how he is brought up by Bilbo? From another perspective, a random Easterling is most likely to choose fighting for his people, which means fighting for Sauron. Personally I would be much more impressed by the power of free will if such an incarnated mind from the "Evil" side freely chooses to fight against Evil. But in Tolkien's setting the Easterlings seem to be evil by default once their ancestor Ulfang has made a choice of betrayal. Do these people still have any sense of "free will," even limited to the created world within Arda?

    I think my trouble comes from defining free will as an exercise of choice when there is equal chance for different options. To me parallel universe is a more comprehensible explanation for the coexistence of omniscience and free will......On the other hand, the Augustinian notion of free will is strictly conditioned on the choice made; only actions that embrace God are of free will, and deviations are a consequence of freedom hindered by temptation of evil. But neither definitions seem to fit Tolkien's legendarium. So what is Tolkien's understanding of free will? What do we mean by the phrase in our discussion? Any comment is welcomed to rescue this confused mind!

  10. I find this a very compelling argument, as the presence or absence of free will in Tolkien’s universe is something that I wrestled with in my own post several weeks ago. While I find that this argument solves many of the problems that I have with the idea of free will in these stories, I nevertheless feel that it creates some new problems. The main issue that I have with this argument is that it does not account for the incredible significance that the books place on an individual’s own will. As we have discussed in class, it seems that the true evil in the ring is its inherent inability to control others’ wills. Similarly, as we agreed in class the problem with Gandalf taking the ring would not be his intent but the fact that he would control the wills of the people of Middle Earth. In class, we attributed this apparent significance of this type of “free will” to the fact that Iluvatar granted men free will and that it is a part of creation. In this sense, I think that your idea of free will fails to capture this meaning as it is expressed in the books. Is there perhaps some way to reconcile the two interpretations?