Friday, April 28, 2017

Free Will in The Lord of the Rings

There are several levels at which to discuss the existence of free will in Tolkien’s work. In the Silmarillion, the hierarchy of beings is partially delineated through their respective stores of knowledge, power, and finally free will, or agency. In The Lord of the Rings, commentary on free will is less explicit, since the story is constrained to Elves and Men, and other creatures of Arda. Free will in The Lord of the Rings can be pondered by an exploration of the presence of the Valar in the story, especially the Vala Nienna. What I am interested in is the way in which the Valar are present in The Lord of the Rings, and the way that free will functions in relation to higher powers. This is fundamentally a question of how to understand the Valar in Tolkien’s work. In the Silmarillion they can function as embodied characters, for instance coming physically to Middle-earth and battling Melkor. This function of the Valar is wholly absent from The Lord of the Rings. However, it is possible to infer the presence of higher powers in that work.
The key places to see higher powers in The Lord of the Rings are the instances when chance makes an appearance, frequently present and noted in text. Gollum steps back and falls into the fire in the Sammath Naur, destroying the Ring. Tom Bombadil comes along to rescue the hobbits from Willow-man: “Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.” Ruin in the Northlands was averted because Gandalf met Thorin one evening: “A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.” Merry and Pippen escape Grishnakh because an arrow strikes his hand: “it was aimed with skill, or guided by fate.” (Shippey, Author, 144-6) In all these instances, Tolkien hints at higher guiding powers, but always offers the alternative explanation of mere chance.
As we discussed in class, some of the Valar have clear parallels outside of Tolkien’s work, for instance, to the Olympian gods and to the natural elements. One who stands out is the Vala Nienna, who has no clear parallel and seems most distinctly associated with Tolkien. Nienna is “acquainted with grief” and she works to “bring strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.” (Valaquenta) Nienna represents a highly important narrative theme in Tolkien’s work—sorrow—one whose power is explicitly made clear in the Music of the Ainur. In response to the discord created by Melkor and the dismay of the other Ainur, Iluvatar creates a third theme in the Music: it “was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” This third theme counteracts the cacophonous theme of Melkor, and the most triumphant notes of Melkor’s theme “were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.” Somehow, sorrow is the way of transforming Melkor’s rebellious theme back to Iluvatar’s purpose, Melkor becoming Iluvatar’s “instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (Ainulindale
Nienna is the Vala most directly linked to The Lord of the Rings since she is the teacher of Olorin, or Gandalf. From Nienna, he “learned pity and patience,” and was the “friend of all the Children of Iluvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.” (Valaquenta) Through Gandalf, and the characters whom Gandalf most influences, the grief, pity, and sorrow represented by Nienna appear in the text. Speaking of Bilbo and Gollum, Gandalf tells Frodo: “Pity? It was Pity stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.” (LotR Bk. 1, Ch. 2) When Frodo is confronted by Gollum he hears “quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past” recalling Gandalf’s words, and he does pity Gollum and restrain from killing him—not unimportantly contributing to the “chance” by which Gollum comes to be at Sammath Naur. (LotR Bk. 4, Ch. 1) When Faramir describes his vision of Boromir to Frodo, he notes “Dreamlike it was, and yet it was not dream, for there was no waking,” but that it was not the work of the Enemy “For his works fill the heart with loathing; but my heart was filled with grief and pity.” (Lotr Bk. 4, Ch. 5) Are these examples the work of the guiding power of Nienna? Speaking to Frodo, “Pity” and “Mercy” are capitalized and framed as the subject “staying” Bilbo’s hand. Voices come to Frodo “quite plainly” at the key moment, reminding him of pity, and preventing him from killing Gollum. Faramir describes a seemingly supernatural vision of Boromir, marked by the feeling of grief and pity. Or are these examples only instances of a recurring narrative theme, involving only ordinary memory and emotions, as we understand them? Like in the instances of chance in the text, dual interpretations are possible.
In Gandalf’s speech to Frodo, he alludes to a higher power, but does not name it: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought." (LotR Bk. 1, Ch. 2) For some reason, Gandalf can “put it no plainer” than that Bilbo “was meant” to have the Ring, the use of the passive voice obscuring the identity of the subject. Meant by whom? The reader is only told that it is not by Sauron, the Ring’s maker. Readers of the Silmarillion are equipped to answer the question that it is “meant” by Iluvatar, or by the Valar. If this is the case, then it is highly important for the question of free will whether the character’s actions are determined by internal will, or guided by external higher power. However, maybe this application of the Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings is not the best way to read the text. The ambiguity in these passages is characteristic of Tolkien’s world building, where languages, maps, and fragments serve to create the illusion of a world outside the telling of the tale. Maybe too complete explanations do “destroy the magic” (Letters 247), and the little narrative equivocations in The Lord of Rings do well to soften the problem of free will, and make it more accessible to the reader.


Works Cited:

Shippey, T. A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully observed on the relationship between Nienna and Gandalf and the role of pity and sorrow in "The Lord of the Rings." I think you are right to be cautious about drawing too strong a conclusion about exactly how much we are to read these hints as instances of divine intervention--and yet, how can we not? I think Tolkien meant us to puzzle it out, and be left unsure. RLFB