Iluvatar endows Men and Ilúvatar’s higher powers, in particular the Valar, with free will. Our discussion include some debate over whether Melkor had free will. Indeed, at some points it seems as if Melkor has evil fixed in his nature, and cannot change his evil that Ilúvatar designed. He exhibits some early, but unsuccessful, struggle against his Fate:
And [Melkor] feigned, even to himself at first, that he desired to go thither and order all things for the good of the Children of Ilúvatar, controlling the turmoils of the heat and the cold that had come to pass through him. But he desired rather to subdue (Silmarillion, 18)Here, one might view Melkor as having only control over his attitude, as Elves do, and little influence on his Fate. Melkor’s agency, however, manifests itself during the Great Music, in which Ilúvatar’s new themes are reactions based on Melkor’s behavior. Further evidence for Melkor’s free will comes from Tolkien himself, who notes that Ilúvatar gives “special ‘sub-creative’ powers to certain of His Highest created beings.” (Letters, 195). While guaranteeing the sub-creations’ integration into reality, Ilúvatar institutes a “ban against making other ‘rational’ creatures” (Letters, 195). But the rules are meant to be broken; rules cannot be inviolable by definition. This possibility of crossing his will implies the existence of wills other than his own, wills other than Fate, which are free will.
Indeed, Morgoth's sub-creation challenges Ilúvatar’s power, but in distancing from Iluvatar creates new perspective. Morgoth unable to create souls, molds existing souls into corrupted beings, Orcs. But redemption is not impossible, not even for this grave transgression (Letters, 195). In fact, such challenges assist in the Valar’s task of "separation" (Flieger, 55) between Ilúvatar and the world. By opening a rift between beings and Ilúvatar, a rift as wide as complete defiance, free will assists in the purpose of Creation: the process “through which Eru and the world can contemplate each other” (Flieger, 55). Contrary to popular belief, the One learns. This fact makes him no less Supreme, however. Though we tend to assume that the One is all-knowing, his concession of some power to others makes him less than all-powerful, and opens room for growth of knowledge. Of course, this knowledge is often that which non-supreme cannot comprehend. Like the Christian motif than echoes throughout Tolkien, the One humbles himself.
Evidence for Ilúvatar’s development of more wisdom is direct in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë. The Ainur are the “offspring of his thought” and seem to be copies of Ilúvatar’s mental existence, for each “comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came” (Silmarillion, 15). Flieger goes as far as to suggest the Ainur are the collection of pieces of Eru, suggesting “a sort of Pythagorean divisibility of a unity into component parts without diminution of the whole” (Flieger, 51). They seem to be together the mind of Ilúvatar, developing like a newborn brain and forming connections and synapses, coming to “deeper understanding” and growing in “harmony and unison” (Silmarillion, 15). If anything can be called the birth of God, Tolkien has written it here. Ilúvatar’s motivation for expansion into “visible” Creation might be incomprehensible and complex, but certainly the introduction of free will, of conceding the permutations of reality effectively to the arbitrary judgements of other beings, brings probability and chance into the equation and complicates reality.
Perhaps the greatest complication of reality is the massive splintering of sub-creative powers into mortal beings, rolling millions of small dice. Tolkien compares Morgoth’s Fall to contemporary political tyranny that debases and corrupts humans (Letters, 195). Human sub-creative power, thus, has as much potential for evil as Morgoth’s, and likely as much potential for beauty. This sub-creative power is curbed only by Ilúvatar’s other Gift to Men: death. Death instills an appreciation for Creation in Men, giving them “the mystery of the love of the world” (Letters, 246). Death loads the dice. The balance skews towards contributing to Ilúvatar’s design, rather than sub-creating domains of power for oneself.
Yet free will and death are only half of this intellectual experiment Tolkien conducts with humans. The Elves are the control, the humankind “doomed not to leave” the world (Letters, 246) and travel it in anguish and sorrow. The Elves have some extent of free choice over internal matters such as attitude, but lack sub-creative control over their Fate. What is left in humans without death or free will is a race of pre-Fall humans, still in the original state, never having left Eden.
Elves lack the “spiral” to achieve “higher planes” (Letters, 110). Rather than undergoing processes of Fall and redemption, they are immutable over the centuries. Their “enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties” (Letters, 176) are not sub-creative, but rather of the regular variety of creation. That is, all of their creations follow the Great Music blueprint to the note, without freedom of variation. Despite “greater beauty and longer life” (Letters, 176), they suffer sorrow and tragedy as they are forced to witness evil ravaging Creation. This “anguish” is three-fold. Firstly, lacking the Gift of death, they suffer from beauty-fatigue, de-sensitized to the beauty of Creation. Secondly, without free will they fail to understand the motivations of evil, having never experienced temptation. Worse than facing evil is battling incomprensible, unrelatable evil. Thirdly, they are overprotected and trapped; their cultural unity splinters into groups depending on whether they answer the call to Valinor, where the Ainur hope to further contain them in the hope of shielding them.
Tolkien’s experiment with free will finds conclusion in Leaf by Niggle. Niggle, the active sub-creator, is beautified under the pressure of time. Parish is of the other type of human, enduring Niggle’s neglect without understanding, faithfully tending to existing Creation. When the two exit to the afterlife, the first and second Voices put Niggle to work. As Niggle rises to the final level of Purgatory, his sub-creation becomes powerfully redemptive, saving both him, Parish. The two Voices are surprised at the unexpectedly profound contribution that the sub-creation Niggle’s Parish makes to Creation. It becomes a powerful spiritual rehabilitation tool in Purgatory, contributing from beyond the One Creator's mind.