In the beginning of the Valaquenta, Tolkien states that Eru “made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him” (Sillmarillion, 25). Eru creates the Ainur; they create in turn. In the Ainulindale, he commands them to make this music, though he allows them to add their own flair: “ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (Silmarillion, 15). So they also have a will in their creation; that much is clear. However, this will is given a limit, boundaries – Iluvatar’s theme.
Though the Ainur, later Valar, do have a will, their will is limited by that of Iluvatar’s – and so is their power to create. For example, they sing the music of Creation, but only Iluvatar is able to take that music and turn it into the World: “Iluvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void” (Silmarillion 25). Of the Valar which then enter the world, Tolkien says it was “their task to achieve it, and by their labours to fulfil the vision which they had seen” (Silmarillion 25). Iluvatar creates a sandbox for them to play in, and they’re free to go make sandcastles in it. But it’s important to note that Tolkien calls it their “task” – an assignment, not necessarily a choice.
Even in their creative choices, and perhaps even in their creative rebellions, Iluvatar has a say. Melkor, for example, adds themes of his own into the Ainalundale, breaking Iluvatar’s boundaries, because he “sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself” (Siimarillion 16). This is of course coded as a crime against Iluvatar, despite the fact that Iluvatar purposefully gave him “the greatest gifts of power and knowledge” and thereby must have also given him the desire that “grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own” (Silmarillion 16). Melkor is scolded for breaking his boundaries, but is then told that he “shalt see that 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.” (Silmarillion 17). In exercising their subcreative free will, they are only Iluvatar’s “instruments” for the execution of his creative vision, not necessarily their own.
Aule, who intentions are purer but whose creative impulse is the same, is also limited by Iluvatar in his creation. Upon Iluvatar’s discovery that Aule has attempted to create the dwarves, he says to Aule: “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift they own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mnd can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle” (Silmarillion 43). Aule responds that he has only acted according to the desire for “the making of things” that “is in [his] heart from [his] own making by [Iluvatar]” (Silmarillion 43). Similar to Melkor, Iluvatar gave them the creative impulse and the ability to act on it to an extent, but moves to punish each of them for it. Aule only escapes the same punishment – and the same doom of evil – because he “submitted all that he did to [Eru’s] will” in the end – giving up his own will in the process (Silmarillion 27).
Tolkien himself admits that the supposed “free will” and creative abilities given to the Valar are limited, or even “feigned” (Letters 195). “Free Will is derivative and is only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides” – that is, their free will is limited, but allows for Melkor to do evil selfish things anyway (Letters 195). “In this myth,” Tolkien continues, “it is ‘feigned’ … that He gave special ‘sub-creative’ powers to certain of His highest created beings: that is a guarantee that what they devised and made should be given the reality of Creation” (Letters 195). Tolkien uses the word “feigned” to describe that the world he created is fictionalized (since the letter he’s responding to was challenging his work on the basis of real-world Catholicism), but it seems that word applies to just how serious Iluvatar was about giving creative powers to his own creations. First, they can create what they want, but not entirely, because it’s all part of Iluvatar’s plan; second, their creations aren’t guaranteed to actually be part of Creation anyway, not only in the case of a fall like Melkor’s, but even in the case of Aule, who was ever faithful to Iluvatar. Only through submission to another’s will does his creation get to live, because they “cannot by their own will alter any fundamental provision” of the Earth they helped Iluvatar to bring into being (Letters 194). Tolkien says that these powers of subcreation for the Valar must “of course” be “within limits, and of course subject to certain commands or prohibitions,” but by putting those limits, commands, and prohibitions in place, the Valar’s actual free will and ability to create are not as real as they first appear (Letters 195).
I realize this is an age-old problem, especially concerning real-life Catholicism or religion in general (it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a CCD class, but there were indignant arguments about this even among us fifth graders). The challenge: how can a divine creator have a known, set plan for his creations and still say that they have a choice in what they do? But in the case of Tolkien's Valar, there's a determinism in their definition – as creations themselves, the Valar have less freedom than they would otherwise; they cannot create but only sub-create, which is always something less, and allowed only by another's will.
-- Annie N.