Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Free Will, Domination, and the Akallabêth

The temptation of immortality in Valinor was always a false temptation, as Manwё’s messengers try to point out to the Númenóreans: “‘were you so to voyage that escaping all deceits and snares you came indeed to Aman, the Blessed Realm, little would it profit you. For it is not the land of Manwё that makes its people deathless, but the Deathless that dwell therein have hallowed the land; and there you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast’” (264).

Of course, if the temptation was false and even successfully breaking the Ban would have been fruitless, then why institute the Ban in the first place?

As I argued in class, the creation of Númenor and of an upper class of Men to live upon it contributed to the downfall by exposing these Men to strong temptations: on the one hand the just-visible cities of Valinor (or Tol Eressёa, rather) on the horizon, and on the other, the distance between themselves-a marked upper class due to their longer lifespans as well as their homeland- and the lesser Men of Middle Earth. To the west lay temptation to the sin of envy, and to the east temptation to pride and domination. This left them more open to Sauron’s deception because their geographical position already predisposed them to envy of the elves. They had a clear weakness that Sauron could prey on. In addition, the separation of the very “best” Men, the descendants of the fathers of the faithful houses who had the strongest wills and the most faith, and who would come to have superior technology as well, left those in Middle Earth susceptible to Sauron’s lies, having no strong leaders left among them.

In giving these chosen few the “gifts” of a land close to Valinor and extended lifespans, the Valar also set up a value system in which proximity to the Undying Lands and longer life on earth are better than their opposites, yet they simultaneously limit the Númenóreans’ attempts to go further west and gain longer life. If it really is virtuous for Men to stay separate from those who dwell in Valinor and to remain mortal, why bring them partway towards defying both these boundaries? These gifts seem at odds with the original Gift of Men: mortality, and a sharp distinction from elves by virtue of this difference in life history.

I do not here place all the blame for the downfall upon the Valar- obviously, the people of Númenor bear responsibility for their own mistakes, and it was primarily Sauron who encouraged their corruption. However, it must be acknowledged that the Valar, though very powerful and very wise by virtue of their participation in creation, are not perfect and cannot perfectly interpret and carry out Ilúvatar’s will, especially where his Children, with their faults and above all their free will, are concerned. Their decisions are thus subject to criticism. The pardon of Melkor, for example, is extremely easy to condemn. The decision to summon the Elves to Valinor in the First Age may be criticized as well, as we briefly discussed in class, and in fact the two situations bear important similarities.

Furthermore, I want to review the characteristics of evil that we discussed in class. In particular, we speculated that for Tolkien, the fundamental evil is the domination of another’s will. While evil can and does arise out of the exercise of free will, it is the infringement upon another’s will by force that is most problematic. I want to suggest that, good though their intentions may have been, the Ban of the Valar represented a forceful and unnecessary domination of Men’s free will.

As argued above, assuming that the land of Valinor really does not confer everlasting life, and that mortal men cannot thrive there as the elves and the Valar can, simply giving the Númenóreans this information outright might have been sufficient to prevent their going there. One needs only the most basic understanding of human psychology to know that to forbid something makes it infinitely more desirable. The Valar could have even allowed some to sail to Valinor and let them discover that it was not hospitable to mortal folk, nor could they gain immortality simply by living there. This may have cost the lives of a few curious adventurers, but surely it would have been preferable to losing all the formerly good people of Númenor along with much of the unique technology, art, and writings their civilization had accumulated over thousands of years. Sauron could not have successfully accused Manwё of lying about the properties of Valinor if the Númenóreans had been able to assess his claims themselves.

The fall of Númenor can also be interpreted as due to misuse of free will, in that ultimately the Númenóreans invite Sauron into their home and freely choose to disobey the one command set upon them, rejecting their current prosperity in favor of hoping to gain more. No doubt this is true; however, I am interested in the role of the Valar in Arda as interpreters of Ilúvatar’s will without direct contact with Him, and as both participants in and audience of the continuing story of the world. Occasionally it seems they meddle too much in the affairs of the Children, both in setting some apart from the rest (in Valinor or in Númenor), and in making laws and restrictions when the honest sharing of knowledge would suffice. Manwё is clearly not intentionally or essentially evil in the same vein as Melkor; however, the urge to dominate the wills of free beings, even with the best intentions, is fundamentally misguided.

H. Bell


  1. An intriguing test of Tolkien's story! Why not let the Numenoreans visit Valinor? But would it have been so easy to convince Men not to want to live in Valinor? And isn't it interesting that the Valar want to have the Elves there but not the Men? Perhaps they were wiser than they seem: surely the Men would despair if they realized that even in Valinor they would die? The real crux in the story is why the Ban, which Tolkien says is necessary if the story is about Men. Why do stories about Men always involve some sort of Ban? Remembering, of course, that it is human beings telling the stories. RLFB

  2. In your post I was most fascinated by your comment about the Valar as interpreters of the Will of the One. Connecting this point with our discussion last class of the religious status of Middle Earth and the Valar in particular, I agree that there is something disturbing in the way that the Valar are tasked (perhaps inadequately?) with the charge of Arda. Though they were present and participants in the Music of Creation, with the exception of Tulkas the Valar hardly suspect Melkor’s future treachery because they possess no meaningful knowledge of evil. Without the knowledge of evil’s potential – how might Eru even be said to have this? – are the Valar qualified to create Numenor responsibly?
    On another note, I noted in your discussion of temptation a resonant argument that Tolkien himself may have considered in regards to Adam and Even in Eden. Placing the highest among men in this pristine, but definitely not heavenly, place could be read as akin to God’s putting prototypical, unfallen humanity in the Garden of Eden. They are given only one command, but not promised eternal life. How we might reflect on the action of the Valar, Tolkien may hope that this story leads us to think too about the temptation of Eden.


  3. I am impressed and intrigued by your argument that the Ban of Númenor constitutes an unjust abridgement of the free wills of men, but I wanted to explore a thought experiment that might provide evidence to the contrary. It seems that the Valar imposing the ban had ample reason to believe that the traveling of humans to Valinor would be harmful to them, as is reavealed in the admonition you cited at the beginning of the post. Consider, then, a scenario in which you are in charge of a child old enough to be at an age of reason but still young enough demand supervision. Consider further that you are using a hot iron, and you have to set down this iron within reach of the child. Although I agree with your conclusions on the basic psychology of people and would definitely concede that allowing the child to touch the iron would result in a more lasting lesson, I cannot help but consider it irresponsible to not give a strong prohibition in the form of, per se, “Don’t touch that!” Given the Valar’s position then as the guardians of the Children of Ilúvatar, I cannot reasonably imagine a scenario in which they should not give the Ban out of an imperative to protect the Númenorians, even if it is abridging their full free will to some degree.

    C. Abbott

  4. Letting the Numenoreans visit Valinor is a very interesting idea. The whole incident, I think, really is based more on the jealousy that men have for elves rather than on one specific things. When you are already resentful of a certain group, it is not hard to believe falsehoods about said group, especially relating to the source of the resentment. Thus, its reasonable to believe that Sauron could have convinced the Numenoreans, falsely, that simply being present in Valinor would confer eternal life. I think that part of it may be the fear of the Valar, since they were prevented from directly attacking mankind. Moreover, Numenor was so powerful that the elves in Valinor would probably not have been a match for them. Given this power, the Valar were likely reticent to have the Numoreans in the land in any form whatsoever.