The discussion of Free Will, fatalism, Providence (and its complement: the harmful attention of the diabolus ) as they are expressed in Tolkien's writings is actualized by the recent release of The Children of Húrin, and also by recent discussions in the Tolkien usenet groups.
While there is an intense debate over the questions of how we may recognize Free
Will and under which conditions we may have it,
philosophers suppose, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (
Free Will) that
concept of Free Will is very closely connected to the concept of moral
Will) Indeed, one article (
defines Free Will as
the unique ability of persons to exercise
control over their conduct in a manner necessary for moral responsibility (notice
it defines Free Will as a necessary condition for moral responsibility, meaning
moral responsibility ⇒
A general test of a proposition regarding the nature of Free Will is to try to
find a scenario in which a person would fit the definition of Free Will and yet
not be considered responsible for their actions. Such a situation would be seen
as a serious problem for the proposition, meaning that lack of moral
responsibility implies a lack of Free Will (making the two equivalent).
For the purpose of this posting, I propose to use this test the other way around: if somebody is morally responsible, then they are acting with Free Will. If the connection was that Free Will implies moral responsibility, then I would be making a logical error (confirming the consequent), but, certainly for the purpose of this investigation into Tolkien's writings, I can safely assume that Tolkien's characters have Free Will if and only if they are morally responsible for their actions .
When reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, one finds several very
explicit statements that Free Will applies to Ainur, Elves, Dwarves and Men,
such as e.g. that Elves and Men
were rational creatures of free
will in regard to God (LT #181 p. 236),
or a general statement while discussing Sauron specifically,
indestructibility of spirits with free wills, even by the Creator of them, is
also an inevitable feature (LT #211, p.
280), and of
Frodo or other mortals staying in
they would eventually pass away (die at their own
desire and of free will) ( LT #325, p.
411). There is, I think, no reason to question this (as being Tolkien's
intention), but I will nevertheless proceed to show how one may arrive at the
same conclusion based on the above postulate, that in Tolkien's writings Free
Will and moral responsibility are logically equivalent.
I will then move on to discuss a number of special cases involving Gandalf,
Frodo, Morgoth and Túrin:
A Túrin Turambar turun
Next I shall discuss the role of the Music, of the Will and foreknowledge of Ilúvatar (including Grace and Providence) and the effects of Morgoth (including the Marring, the Curse and general Procaecence ). In this discussion I will also attempt to summarize some of what has been said by other commentators.
Finally I intend to discuss the view of Free Will presented in Tolkien's writings in relation to some theories of Free Will.
Reading Tolkien's there can be little doubt that his characters are generally considered, at least by the author, morally responsible for their actions. It seems to me clear that when the characters are given various rewards and punishments for their actions, this normally receives authorial approval in a way that shows the author as agreeing with the story-internal judge that it is appropriate to hold the agents responsible for their actions and choices.
Examples include the chaining of Melkor both as a punishment of his rebellion against Eru, but also to prevent him from corrupting the Firstborn. The Ainur generally are treated in a way that seems more one-sided than for the Children: the Ainur are blamed for their immoral actions, but rarely rewarded when they seem to merit that. This might illustrate a consequentialist look at moral responsibility, where the underlying purpose holding agents responsible for their actions is to sway their later actions towards good (the Ainur, in this case, can be considered inherently good, needing, by their nature, no encouragement towards good, only discouragement towards evil).
Both the Statute of Míriel and Finwë (Míriel requesting
hold me blameless in this, Niënna's appeal at the council 
etc.), the Doom of the Noldor, and the purgatorial stay of the Elvish fëar
in Mandos before their rehousing are examples of how the Elves are held morally
responsible for their actions, and punished (the Doom, Fëanor not being
rehoused) or rewarded (Finwë getting permission to remarry) as a result of
their being held so responsible, and this holding them responsible is
generally met with authorial approval, though that is rarely, if ever, made
explicit, and thus must here remain my interpretation of the context in which it
The Dwarves enter into the story in ways such that they are not being as clearly held accountable for their actions. Still there is a trace of authorial approval to be detected in The Lord of the Rings where there is a clear line of rewarding Gimli for his insistence on loyalty, of friendship with the Elves and of appreciation of beauty. He is given three tresses of Galadriel's hair (where she would give Fëanor not even one), becomes lord of Aglarond, fabulously rich though not under the power of his gold (as per Galadriel's prophecy), and is finally allowed passage over the Sea to the Blessed Realm; in particular this latter item carries, to me, the sense of a small-scale eucatastrophe, in which I believe to see the authorial approval. Other situations can be found that show the author holding dwarves morally responsible for their actions (for instance after the killing of Elu Thingol). Of course the story of Aulë's creation of the Dwarves, and in particular of Ilúvatar accepting them and giving to them freedom from Aulë's will ('and speak with their own voices') also strongly implies that Eru gave to the dwarves a Free Will (possibly among other things).
Men are introduced into Tolkien's reality 
with explicit added freedoms: both
to shape their life, amid
the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as
fate to all things else, and to
seek beyond the world.
The moral responsibility of Men are illustrated in numerous ways, with
the Land of Gift and the prolonged life of the Númenóreans as
the ultimate rewards within Arda, and with the eventual fates of such characters
as Denethor, Wormtongue and the sons of Ulfang as the punishment: with the
implied approval of the author, they were dealt the death which they feared.
All this shows how Tolkien's characters of the various races are being held morally responsible within the stories, but the implicit approval of the author shows that he also believed that they were so responsible. According to my basic postulate concerning Free Will, this means that these characters are, indeed, acting with Free Will in all these situations, suggesting that this is the general case. The important point here, however, is that none of the major races are, by their nature, bereft of Free Will.
In addition to the more general look, it may be illustrative to look at a number of individual cases: trying to understand the concepts of Free Will and moral responsibility in Tolkien's writings based on the actual actions and choices of his characters.
Gandalf's account of the
Quest of Erebor in Unfinished
Tales raises couple of interesting issues in relation to his freedom of will
and choice. I am thinking in particular of Gandalf's account of his
and the implications of the well know
A chance-meeting, as we
say in Middle-earth.
The first does not have to present any problems other than to the most extreme
views of Free Will: the sudden feeling that he
was indeed in
hot earnest. This queer notion of [his] was not a joke, it was right
(p. 433) can be seen as only informing and causing Gandalf's choice, but it
doesn't follow that Gandalf's choice was compelled: that his will was unfree.
Gandalf, in other words, merits praise for acting upon this
and ensuring that his notion (i.e. to have Bilbo join the Quest of Erebor) was
actualized, even if his premonition had an external cause .
On the other hand, this feeling of
right can also be seen
as swaying Gandalf's choice, thereby limiting, if not removing, his freedom. The
important point, however, is whether Gandalf deserves praise for his actions in
this situation. Given the importance to his true mission (though he didn't know
that at the time), and his later elevation, I think that he does.
The use of the phrase
a chance meeting, in particular with
the appended qualification, of course implies its own contradiction: that the
meeting between Gandalf and Thorin was far from chance, but that it might seem
so to those who dwell in Middle-earth. This implies that the meeting was
doomed to occur, and that Gandalf and Thorin had been
manipulated to meet outside Bree: i.e. that they cannot be morally responsible
for meeting there, and that they therefore didn't make the choices necessary to
be there by their Free Will. Events that are
happen are also described in The Lord of the Rings, and in an earlier
The Quest of Erebor, Gandalf and Frodo speak a
bit about the nature of something being
meant to happen, in
a discussion that seems to me extremely relevant to the matter at hand:
'[…] I do not know the answer. For I have changed since those days, and I am no longer trammelled by the burden of Middle-earth as I was then. In those days I should have answered you with words like those I used to Frodo, only last year in the spring. Only last year! But such measures are meaningless. In that far distant time I said to a small and frightened Hobbit: Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, and you therefore were meant to bear it. And I might have added: and I was meant guide you both to those points.
To do that I used in my waking mind only such means as were allowed to me, doing what lay to my hand according to such reasons as I had. But what I knew in my heart, or knew before I stepped on these grey shores: that is another matter. Olórin I was in the West that is forgotten, and only to those who are there shall I speak openly.
A has here:and only to those who are there (or who may, perhaps return thither with me) shall I speak more openly.
Then I said:I understand you a little better now, Gandalf, than I did before. Though I suppose that, whether meant or not, Bilbo might have refused to leave home, and so might I. You could not compel us. You were not even allowed to try. But I am still curious to know why you did what you did, as you were then, an old grey man as you seemed.
I think that this passage is very important in illustrating the concept of being
to do something as that is used in Tolkien's writings.
Frodo, of course, was indeed
meant to accept the quest, as
Elrond noted at the Council,
But Elrond also emphasizes Frodo's freedom of choice:
If I understand
aright all that I have heard, he said,
I think that this
task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will.
you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right, but nonetheless we
also see a Frodo who is almost surprised at his own acceptance, as he
to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. Of
course we know, from letter #246, that
Frodo was given , but if Eru (supposedly) steps in to ensure that
Frodo does as he is
first to answer the call
meant to do, can Frodo then really be
said to be acting of his own Free Will? Given that Tolkien not only let Elrond
emphasize that Frodo took the burden freely, but also seems to attach
praiseworthiness to Frodo for accepting the quest, as does Tolkien in various
letters including #246 quoted above; it seems that Tolkien would maintain that
Frodo's acceptance of the Quest is free and attributes moral responsibility (the
praiseworthiness). It is in this apparent dilemma that we need to find Tolkien's
vision of Free Will (in Eä).
Tolkien's letters also offer a very interesting example of the opposite. About
Frodo's failure to give up the Ring, Tolkien wrote:
indeed but he also noted that
failed as a hero
do not think that Frodo's was a moral failure. (LT
#246 p. 326) The explanation for this, if I put it in the terms of
the present discussion, is that the pressure from the One Ring, at the final
stage of the Quest, effectively removed Frodo's Free Will, and hence he is not,
in Tolkien's view, morally responsible for that failure:
there are abnormal situations in which […] he is in a sense doomed to
failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his (LT #181, p. 233).
This view is very interesting in that it does set a limit to how much
that is against any choice he could make or would make unfettered, not under the
can be put on the choices of a character before the character looses the freedom
of Will necessary to be morally responsible.
One question arising out of this is whether one can only lose one's moral responsibility when coerced to evil, and not when coerced to good?
With respect to Frodo's situation, in particular when comparing the situation at
the Council of Elrond and in Sammath Naur, that much depends on the specific
interpretation of the events. We know from the letters how Tolkien saw the
situation at the Sammath Naur, that
at the last moment the
pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum — impossible, I should have
said, for any one to resist (LT #246 p.
326), but how about the situation at the Council? Tolkien states that
was given at the Council
to accept the Quest, to
answer the call (ibid —
footnote), but he doesn't explain exactly in what way this grace worked —
did it do other than alleviate Frodo's fears, allowing him to make his decision
free of the terror the Ringwraiths had left in him? Or did it ensure a choice
which was a reflection of Frodo's
True Self? I will, in any
case, claim that it is quite possible to interpret Tolkien's statements in such
a way that the difference is not that of Good and Evil, but either one of
degrees of coercion, or of whether the choice honestly reflects what we might
true personality or
Free Will, 2)
— i.e. a
choice he could make or would make unfettered,
not under the duress.
Morgoth, now, is mainly interesting at this point due to his attempts to limit
the Free Will of others. The passage from the Ainulindalë where he is
admonished by Eru and advised that none can
alter the Music in
[Eru's] despite is, naturally, also of great interest in the general
investigation of the Music as fate, which I will discuss later.
Morgoth applies several tactics in his attempts to reduce and overcome the Free
Will of the Eruhíni. Depending on what version of the story one
subscribes to, his greatest success was arguably with the Orcs, but leaving that
aside, he first tried to frighten the Quendi, making them scared of the Valar.
Later he tried lies and deception (mostly directed at the Noldor), and with the
Húrinien he used a curse. In understanding how Morgoth's tactics may
relate to the Free Will of his victims, we may start with the Ósanwe-kenta,
where it is told how he could not force a barrier of unwill (the wording, IMO,
leaves little doubt that he did try). That barrier is introduced thus:
any mind may be closed (pahta). This requires an act of conscious
will: Unwill (avanir). It is, admittedly, not stated
explicitly that this act of will is free, but the implication is, IMO, that this
is so, because of Morgoth's inability to force or prevent it.
What Morgoth did instead, when he could not force the barrier is also interesting in this context:
He found that the open approach of a sáma of power and great force of will was felt by a lesser sáma as an immense pressure, accompanied by fear. To dominate by weight of power and fear was his delight; but in this case he found them unavailing: fear closed the door faster. Therefore he tried deceit and stealth.
This is interesting in two ways; both in showing that Morgoth could not completely dominate or rob an agent of her freedom of will (the act of unwill could not be avoided), but also in the implication that Morgoth would find ways to circumvent and limit that freedom, tricking the agent to lower (or not to raise) her barrier of unwill — something which the agent would have to choose freely. But, as the example with Frodo in the Sammath Naur shows, free agents can, in Tolkien's universe, be put in situations where they are no longer acting with Free Will, and I think that this, to a large extent, was the underlying intention behind for instance Morgoth's approach to Men as described especially in Adanel's Tale (MR 4, pp. 345-9).
The big unknown in all this is the Orcs. Tolkien's uncertainty about the nature
of the Orcs and the question of their having a soul also shows Tolkien in doubt
of whether they had a Free Will and moral responsibility. As
of humanized shape whose ability of speech
reeling off (MR
5 text VIII, p. 410), the Orcs could be soul-less and without Free
Will, but would also be without moral responsibility (the responsibility for
their actions would fall back entirely on Morgoth and later Sauron). As
corrupted Children (possibly mixed also with a strain of minor Maiar) the Orcs
could be free-willed, unlike what the Dwarves would have been had Eru not
But the Orcs were not of this kind[a]. They were certainly dominated by their Master, but his dominion was by fear, and they were aware of this fear and hated him. They were indeed so corrupted that they were pitiless, and there was no cruelty or wickedness that they would not commit; but this was the corruption of independent wills, and they took pleasure in their deeds. They were capable of acting on their own, doing evil deeds unbidden for their own sport; or if Morgoth and his agents were far away, they might neglect his commands. They sometimes fought [> They hated one another and often fought] among themselves, to the detriment of Morgoth's plans.
[MR part 5Myths Transformed, text X, pp. 417-8] (my emphasis)
[a] I.e.puppets, whowould have acted only while the attention of his will was upon them, and they would have shown no reluctance to execute any command of his, even if it were to destroy themselves.
But even in this conception, the Orcs could be held to possibly
become irredeemable (at least by Elves and Men) (MR
5 text X, p. 419). This statement is interesting here because it
concerns one view on moral responsibility. In the
view the element of improvement is central to the concept, where
or blame is appropriate in the sense that such a reaction is likely to bring
about a desired consequence, namely an improvement in the agent's behaviour and/or
character. ( SEP
Responsibility, 2) Now, if the Orcs are wholly irredeemable by
anything that could be done by Elves and Men (and, presumably, by Dwarves),
would they then be fully moral responsible for their actions and thereby acting
with Free Will? The answer to that is obviously related to the view of moral
responsibility propounded, and since this idea is coupled with the view on Orcs
containing the definite statement quoted above ('independent wills'), we see
Tolkien, at least concerning the Orcs, to be purporting a view on moral
responsibility more in line with the
merit-based view (
Moral Responsibility, 1).
A study of Tolkien's various writings on Orcs, their origin and nature, is very illustrative with respect to his views on the connection between Free Will and moral responsibility — in particular the idea that both are tightly bound to the possession of a soul, or fëa: Tolkien often used the Quenya word — a quality that can only come from God (possibly informing his statement elsewhere that Free Will is derivative and necessitates that God guarantees it ). It would thus appear that Free Will (with the associated moral responsibility) is, in Tolkien's reality, a quality of beings whom Eru has provided with a soul. That Eru guarantees their Free Will apparently doesn't mean that they are guaranteed to always have it (Frodo), but it would imply that it cannot be wholly or permanently suppressed (Orcs). The latter may be important as I turn my attention towards Túrin Turambar.
Túrin, son of Húrin, is arguably the most morally ambiguous character in Tolkien's writings — an effect Tolkien to a large degree achieves by casting doubt on Túrin's degree of Free Will. Túrin's life balances fate and Free Will to a point, and greatly illustrates both the philosophical tension between the two concepts and the theist conciliation of the two.
Applying the rule of moral responsibility to Túrin isn't quite as simple
as in the previous cases: both Túrin's
reward are ambiguous.
When Túrin's actions go wrong (as they do with a vengeance), we're left
asking ourselves to what extent it is only the effects of procaecence, or if
there is also an element of punishing Túrin for his faults (mostly
Similarly it is not clear whether Tolkien intended Túrin's role in the final battle as a reward for his virtues (pity and courage) or as recompense for the evil done to him through the Curse of Morgoth.
When Túrin rejects Ulmo's advice, and when Túrin unfearingly looks
into the eyes of Glaurung, as were the dragon an honourable enemy, in those
cases I think the moral situation is the most ambiguous: that Túrin
ofermod is, I believe, beyond discussion ,
and because Túrin, as Beorhtnoth, had a responsibility for others, he
repeats the faults Tolkien blamed on Beorhtnoth. We hear repeatedly of Túrin's
pride and, though not in these words, of his headstrong self-wilfulness;
possibly expressed the clearest in the admonition by Arminas:
But others of the House of Hador bear themselves otherwise, and Tuor among them. For they use courtesy, and they listen to good counsel, holding the Lords of the West in awe. But you, it seems, will take counsel with your own wisdom, or with your sword only; and you speak haughtily. And I say to you, Agarwaen Mormegil, that if you do so, other shall be your doom than one of the Houses of Hador and Bëor might look for.
There is in this, and in Mablung's words to Túrin upon the death of Saeros (CH 5, pp. 89-91) an underlying sense of authorial approval of the rebuke for pride.
But what about Morgoth's Curse? How does procaecence differ from providence? We
have discussed how providence, for Frodo, helped provide an opportunity of doing
the right thing, but how he had to choose it by his Free Will — wouldn't
procaecence work in a similar manner: only effective if the path is chosen by
Free Will? This view would be supported by Morgoth's fear while Túrin led
the outlaws from Amon Rûdh,
that Túrin would grow
to such a power that the curse that he had laid upon him would become void, and
he would escape the doom that had been designed for him, or else that he might
retreat to Doriath and be lost to his sight again. (CH
8, p. 147) Also, that Túrin had been lost to Morgoth's sight,
and possibly to the influence of the curse ,
while he was in Doriath, suggests that the events that finally caused Túrin's
flight from Doriath were not affected by Morgoth or his curse. The examples of
Frodo and the Orcs further suggest that while Free Will may be superseded for a
while it may not be suppressed or removed entirely.
All of this suggests that there is a close interplay between Morgoth's Curse and
Túrin's Free Will. Túrin isn't, as a rule, held morally
responsible for the evils that resulted from his choices (he never chooses evil —
even when his choice is rash and overly prideful) though he is blamed for
ofermod, but his Free-Willed choices are nevertheless
necessary for the curse to succeed.
The ambiguity of Túrin; his fate and his character, has been noted by
many commentators: Katharyn W. Crabbe, commentating on the Lay from /Lays of
Beleriand/ found that
The most striking feature of the poem is
the intensity with which it presents two conflicting explanations for Túrin's
tragedy. /J.R.R. Tolkien/ p. 184 (rev. and expanded edn. 1988) [RG
of Húrin, p. 170], and she emphasises that
omnipresence in the poem serves as a constant reminder that his curse is
influencing Túrin's choices, whereas she, about the Silmarillion
chapter, says that Túrin
may have bad judgment and bad
timing, but he always has courage and sees him as a
who is unfailingly courageous in the face of a hopeless situation (ibid. pp.
Turambar, p. 1062]), and David Harvey, also about the
Silmarillion version, notes that Túrin
recognizes in his
self-naming the errors of his ways and the faults that beset him. (The
Song of Middle-earth: J.R.R. Tolkien's Themes, Symbols and Myths (1985) [RG
Túrin Turambar, p. 1063]), while Richard C. West in
Ofermod: An Old English Theme in the Development of the Story of Túrin
(Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on the History of Middle-earth (2000))
observes about Túrin that
In maintaining the bridge, against the counsel of Ulmo the Vala, he is rash in the way Beorhtnoth was, permitting two armies to join battle for the sake of honor when one is far stronger' (p. 244).
Thomas M. Egan, reviewing the Narn from UT, found that Tolkien, in Túrin,
his version of the modern anti-hero, but also
noted that, though Túrin seemed
cursed by fate,
Tolkien adds the depth of his convictions to the tale. The respect for the power of human free will, that which links the soul to God (Eru) Himself … appears here as always operating. ('Fragments of a World: Tolkien's Road to Middle-earth', Terrier 48, no 2 (Fall 1983) p. 10)
Finally Tom Shippey, in RMe, notes the
selfcontradictory implication of the words
(the implication being an indication of
the presence of
controlling powers and
yet people can be told, as Túrin
is, ) that constitute, in his
the doom lies in yourself.
denial of logic, which, he adds,
an ancient one. (RMe
and Revisions, p. 290), and he
sees in all this
an echo of that dualism which had produced the Ring as hostile presence and
psychic amplifier, or Sauron as enemy and tempter. [ibid. p. 291] He also
notes, however, that
The Narn i Hîn Húrin centres on Tolkien's favourite question of how corruption worked, how far evil had power over the resisting mind.
It would appear that the earlier commentators, basing their criticism only on the version of Túrin's story in The Silmarillion ('Of Túrin Turambar') tend to emphasize Túrin's own faults as the cause for the disaster, which would fit well with the ultimate death of Túrin in misery despite his recent triumph against Glaurung: death in despair by his own sword. Later commentators have the advantage of knowing more about the story, and seeing the duality of the two major influences on Túrin's life: Morgoth's curse and his own free-willed rashness and pride, but even when noting and commenting this duality, the focus is usually on the two implied sources of Túrin's story being in irreconcilable conflict; very few commentators seem to attempt to achieve a reconciliation between them.
Some commentators have noted the presence of Boethian concepts inherent in Tolkien's reality. With respect to the concepts of Free Will and fate, I will deal with that more fully later, but when we turn to the truths of Eru's prescience and providence, Tolkien's solution seems to have been taken almost directly from Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.
Does the act of vision add any necessity to the things which thou seest before thy eyes?
And yet, if we may without unfitness compare God's present and man's, just as ye see certain things in this your temporary present, so does He see all things in His eternal present. Wherefore this Divine anticipation changes not the natures and properties of things, and it beholds things present before it, just as they will hereafter come to pass in time.
What Boethius suggests, according to more recent interpreters is
Philosophy is arguing that God is atemporal, so eliminating the problems about
determinism, which arise when God's knowing future contingents is seen an event
in the past, and therefore, fixed. (SEP
Manlius Severinus Boethius, 6). This means, essentially, that God
is outside Time — God is eternal, which
is the possession
of endless life whole and perfect at a single moment. What this is becomes more
clear and manifest from a comparison with things temporal.
This idea resonates extremely well with Tolkien's concept of Eru being in the
Time starting with the command to
and of Gandalf straying
out of thought and time (
III, 5, p. 655 [502 (II:106)]).
But if Tolkien's concept of Eru's
Timeless Halls being
of time fit very well with the Boethian solution to the idea, how then with
the Music itself — is that explainable in a similar way?
The idea of a Boethian influence on Tolkien's reality is not original —
Hammond and Scull, in the Reader's Guide, cites Verlyn Flieger from /Splintered
Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World/ (2nd edn 2003) as concluding that
Tolkien's various statements imply
a kind of Boëthian
concept in which the mind of God encompasses any design perceivable by any of
his creatures … [p. 53] (RG
Will and Fate, p. 332).
The Boethian concept of providence, fate, chance, free will and Divine
foreknowledge is discussed in chapters IV and V of Boethius' Consolation of
Philosophy. The Consolation of Philosophy is written as a
conversation between Boethius and
consisting of songs by Lady Philosophy interspersed with prose pieces of more
ordinary dialogue. In chapter IV, prose section 6, Lady Philosophy explicates
Providence is the Divine reason itself, seated in the Supreme Being, which disposes all things; fate is the disposition inherent in all things which move, through which providence joins all things in their proper order. Providence embraces all things, however different, however infinite; fate sets in motion separately individual things, and assigns to them severally their position, form, and time.
So the unfolding of this temporal order unified into the foreview of the Divine mind is providence, while the same unity broken up and unfolded in time is fate.
I am reminded of Tolkien's description in letter #181 that
One retains all ultimate authority, and (or so it seems as viewed in serial time)
reserves the right to intrude the finger of God into the story (
LT #181, p. 235).
But what do we know about the role of the Music in this perspective of the
eternal and the temporal ordering? In the
Eru cautions the Ainur (and Melkor in particular) that
no theme may be played that has not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall be but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.
This statement by Eru has, perhaps, deeper consequences than it would appear at
first. Though it applies only to the Music, the Music, as we're told,
as fate to all things [other than Men] (MR
1, §39, p. 21), and which represents Time itself in a very direct way:
… the halls of Ëa, whose life is Time, which flows
ever from the first note to the last chord of Eru. (MR
2, §109, p. 99). Leaving aside for now the question of the free
virtue of Men (beyond the Music), the Boethian concepts of providence and fate,
seem to fit very well with Tolkien's descriptions of Eru being
one wholly free Will and Agent ( LT #156,
p. 204) and of the Music as the temporal disposition of Eru's Will.
Lady Philosophy later explains
So whether fate is accomplished by Divine spirits as the ministers of providence, or by a soul, or by the service of all nature — whether by the celestial motion of the stars, by the efficacy of angels, or by the many-sided cunning of demons —whether by all or by some of these the destined series is woven, this, at least, is manifest: that providence is the fixed and simple form of destined events, fate their shifting series in order of time, as by the disposal of the Divine simplicity they are to take place.
When comparing to Tolkien's reality, it is, of course, of extra interest that
Philosophy here mentions also
Divine spirits as the ministers
the efficacy of angels as those who actually accomplish
fate — the parallel is here very obvious to Tolkien's setup with the
Divine angelical spirits, his gods, the Ainur, as those who, entering Eä
the beginning of Time, […] perceived that the World had been but
foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. (MR
1, §22, p. 14).
Boethius' Lady Philosophy also mentions
the many-sided cunning
of demons as an example of some those by which
series may be woven, implying that the evil wrought by such demons are a
part of God's providence and the fates of Creation, just as Melkor learned that
his attempts at going against Eru's Will were in vain because he would
but [Eru's] instrument in the devising of things more wonderful. If we
translate the Boethian position to Middle-earth (or simply accept Eru's
statement), the consequence is that Morgoth's curse on Húrin and his
family was, ultimately, expressions (or, perhaps rather, expressing a part of
its achievement within Time) of what Boethius calls providence — the
A last aspect of the divine ordering of Creation (or, in our case, sub-creation)
chance, which Boethius defines simply
being an unexpected result flowing from a concurrence of causes where the
several factors had some definite end. But the meeting and concurrence of these
causes arises from that inevitable chain of order which, flowing from the
fountain-head of Providence, disposes all things in their due time and place (
CP V 1), a concept which fits well with Gandalf's
chance meeting and other indications that events happening by
are really meant to happen.
In the RG article on
Free Will and Fate Hammond and Scull
Kathleen E. Dubs inProvidence, Fate and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader (2004), suggests the influence of the Consolation of Philosophy (AD 542) by Boethius, one of the most influential works in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. […] After citing various examples whichjoin inextricably the concepts of providence, fate, chance and often free willin The Lord of the Rings, Dubs concludes that
seeming contradictions can be resolved by following Boethius in distinguishing providence, which orders the universe; fate the temporal manifestation of that order; chance, thatfatewhich occurs not according to our expectations, and for causes of which we are unaware; and, of course, freedom of will, which operates as part of this providential order. It is the fusion of all these concepts that gives complexity to Tolkien's fantasy, and which in large part accounts for its continual intellectual and imaginative appeal. For the very fusion of the paradoxical elements … gives an impression of authenticity to the work. As readers, on the one hand, we identify with Tolkien's characters, sharing their uncertainty… . On the other hand we follow an omniscient author, and sense his repeated — though often subtle — assurances that … all will turn out well. [p. 141]
I agree with Dubs that the divine ordering of Tolkien's reality follows Boethius
surprisingly closely in the concepts of providence, fate and chance, with Eru as
authority, in whose despite the Music may not be altered. The Music is
conceptually very close to Boethius' use of fate (though perhaps not actually
identical to it ), with the
Ainur as the divine agents meant to accomplish the Music, or fate, within Time,
and I think her comment about resolving
by following Boethius is very perceptive.
I have, in the previous section, argued that Tolkien's setup of providence, fate, and chance parallels that described in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, quite possibly being more or less directly inspired of Boethius. I base this both on my own understanding and by what is undeniably an appeal to authority, though, since I hold Dubs and Flieger to really be authorities, not a fallacious appeal.
With that in mind it would be tempting to suggest that Tolkien also followed Boethius with respect to his view on Free Will, but that does not seem to me quite as certain.
Boethius lets Lady Philosophy explain Free Will in this way:
There is freedom,said she;nor, indeed, can any creature be rational, unless he be endowed with free will. […] Wherefore, beings endowed with reason possess also the faculty of free choice and refusal. But I suppose this faculty not equal alike in all. The higher Divine essences possess a clear-sighted judgment, an uncorrupt will, and an effective power of accomplishing their wishes. Human souls must needs be comparatively free while they abide in the contemplation of the Divine mind, less free when they pass into bodily form, and still less, again, when they are enwrapped in earthly members. But when they are given over to vices, and fall from the possession of their proper reason, then indeed their condition is utter slavery.
The evil, those
given over to vices are then to be seen as
less than free-willed, and indeed as being in
utter slavery —
by yielding and assenting to which they help to promote the
slavery in which they are involved, and are in a manner led captive by reason of
their very liberty. In his books Tom Shippey describes this Boethian view on
evil, saying that
evil is nothing, is the
absence of good, is possibly even an unappreciated good
Views of evil: Boethian and Manichaean, p. 159)
The opposite view, that evil is an actual force in the world, is what he calls
the Manichaean view, and this is clearly represented by Morgoth himself, and, as
can be seen from the discussion with respect to Túrin, this has a great
influence on how to interpret the degree of Free Will by those doing evil under
the influence of his evil force.
Though there might, in Boethius' words that the evil are
captive precisely because of their very freedom of will, the concepts here
does, nevertheless, suggest different variations on the natures and limitations
of Free Will for these evil creatures. This might be connected to the ambiguous
nature of the Orcs' evil: the Boethian and the Manichaean Evils as discussed by
Tom Shippey in AC (pp. 128-35) and RMe (pp. 159-70). The purely Boethian concept
of evil as an absence of good (including free will) is modified by the presence
of an evil reality — a
visible incarnation of evil (
LT #131, p. 157) — which they served. Much
of the speculative duality of the Orcs 
particularly can probably be attributed to the tension of these two views on
evil in Tolkien's writings.
Regarding Boethius' view on free will and its compatibility with various forces constraining our choices, John Marenbon explains in the /Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/ that
A less tractable problem raised by Philosophy's new approach is that it seems to imply that the human will is causally determined. Unlike many modern philosophers, Boethius did not believe that the will can remain free, in the sense needed for attribution of moral responsibility, if it is determined causally. Moreover, Philosophy insists that the causal chain of providence, as worked out in fate, embraces all that happens.
Tolkien's works and comments seem to have the same implication of causal determination, but the question is whether this creates a problem for Tolkien's view of Free Will. I have demonstrated that the Elves, despite being bound by the Music, which is to them as fate, are morally responsible for their actions, and as such also have Free Will, but are their actions causally determined? Verlyn Flieger wrote about this problem in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World:
A possible distinction between them may be that Men are given the power to act beyond the Music (that is, to alter external events or circumstances), while Elves, though bound by the Music, have the freedom to make internal choices, to alter some attitude toward themselves of other creatures or Eru. They may have power over their own natures, though not over external happenings. [pp. 52-3]
Could this possibly be connected to causal determinism? If the Elves have no power over their external happenings, so that they cannot themselves determine which way to go, then they are subject to some kind of predetermination which causes their choice — all they can change is how this choice relates to their own nature (by having power over that nature).
In the draft letter #181 to Michael Straight from early 1956, Tolkien wrote
about the these matters in a general discussion of the various
of beings, and of their relation to Eru
There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers. These take the place of thegods, but are created spirits, or those of the primary creation who by their own will have entered into the world.[*] But the One retains all ultimate authority, and (or so it seems as viewed in serial time) reserves the right to intrude the finger of God into the story: that is to produce realities which could not be deduced even from a complete knowledge of the previous past, but which being real become part of the effective past for all subsequent time (a possible definition of amiracle). According to the fable Elves and Men were the first of these intrusions, made indeed while thestorywas still only a story and notrealized; they were not therefore in any sense conceived or made by the gods, the Valar, and were called the Eruhíni orChildren of God, and were for the Valar an incalculable element: that is they were rational creatures of free will in regard to God, of the same historical rank as the Valar, though of far smaller spiritual and intellectual power and status.
[*] They shared in itsmaking— but only on the same terms as wemakea work of art or story. The realization of it, the gift to it of a created reality of the same grade as their own, was the act of the One God.
The suggestion of
realities which could not be deduced even
from a complete knowledge of the previous past as
possible definition for a , implies that Tolkien
viewed everything except miracles as being deducible from the previous past: an
idea that seems to suggest causal determinism for everything except miracles —
the insertion of the Finger of God (if an event, e.g. a choice, can be deduced
from a complete knowledge of its past, then all its causes lie in the past and
the event is causally determined by causes in its past). This would also mean
that the ability of Men to act beyond the Music is nothing short of miraculous,
but also that this is not required for Free Will to be operative. Of course it
is also important to note that the exercise of Free Will by Men could be used to
act within the Music (as e.g. Beren and Frodo, who did what they were
But if this suggestion is correct, how might we then look at Free Will? How can
Free Will be compatible with causal determinism? There are several models for
but one strand of classical compatibilism jumps out immediately for several
In the short form,
Free Will, according to this form of
classical compatibilism, is to be able to do what you want. Not being engaged in
a philosophical debate, I'll define a choice or action as being made with Free
Will (in this particular classical compatibilist sense) if it is an expression
and reflection of the agent's
true inner self (and I will
not bother about defining the latter). This form of compatibilism has been
in the modern era by the empiricists Hobbes and Hume, and reinvigorated in the
early part of the twentieth century (SEP
3), while the next stage, according to the same paragraph, is
contributions made in the 1960s — too late to be an influence on Tolkien's
Apart from the matter of timing, this particular classical compatibilist model
of Free Will jumps to mind when considering Flieger's suggestion that the Elves
the freedom to make internal choices, to alter some attitude toward themselves
— this influence over their own inner (true) selves is precisely what is
needed for the described model of Free Will. Actions and choices may be made
with less than perfect freedom, but all that is required for Free Will is to be
able to do what one really wants to do, to find
no stop, in
doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe (SEP
This also influences how one looks at another big issue about Free Will: the ability to do otherwise. In the compatibilist model described above, this ability is perforce diluted, since given any actual past, the agent is not really capable of acting otherwise since that would require a different past, but the action might still be more or less an expression and reflection of the agent's true inner self.
A final look at how Boethius treats the problem of Free Will might also be illustrative, though, if the picture described above is valid, then this view can, within Tolkien's reality, only be applied to Men:
‘“But,” thou wilt say, “if it is in my power to change my purpose, I shall make void providence, since I shall perchance change something which comes within its foreknowledge.” My answer is: Thou canst indeed turn aside thy purpose; but since the truth of providence is ever at hand to see that thou canst, and whether thou dost, and whither thou turnest thyself, thou canst not avoid the Divine foreknowledge, even as thou canst not escape the sight of a present spectator, although of thy free will thou turn thyself to various actions. Wilt thou, then, say: “Shall the Divine knowledge be changed at my discretion, so that, when I will this or that, providence changes its knowledge correspondingly?”’
‘True, for the Divine vision anticipates all that is coming, and transforms and reduces it to the form of its own present knowledge, and varies not, as thou deemest, in its foreknowledge, alternating to this or that, but in a single flash it forestalls and includes thy mutations without altering. And this ever-present comprehension and survey of all things God has received, not from the issue of future events, but from the simplicity of His own nature. Hereby also is resolved the objection which a little while ago gave thee offence — that our doings in the future were spoken of as if supplying the cause of God's knowledge. For this faculty of knowledge, embracing all things in its immediate cognizance, has itself fixed the bounds of all things, yet itself owes nothing to what comes after.’
With regards to the role of Free Will within the divine order, and its effect on providence. Tolkien asserts that
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: sc. when it isagainst His Will, as we say, at any rate as it appears on a finite view. He does not stop or makeunrealsinful acts and their consequences.
This of course doesn't deny Boethius' assertion that
vision anticipates all that is coming and
in a single flash
it forestalls and includes thy mutations, and the suggestion that Free Will
against His Will, as we say
on a finite view implies that it might actually be
according to His Will on an infinite view. This seems to be in good
correspondance with Boethius' views (and is also contained in Ilúvatar's
rebuke to Melkor after the first singing of the Music).
The key question now becomes the ability to
which is also at the heart of the Aristotelian concept of Free Will (together
with the requirement of the agent being the ultimate origin of her own actions).
How does this relate to the speculation at the council after the rape of the Two
Trees, when Fëanor refuses Yavanna's request for the Silmarils only to be
told that Melkor had stolen them:
all one it may seem,
therefore, whether Fëanor would have said yea or nay at the last; yet had
he said yea at the first and so cleansed his heart ere the dread tidings came,
his after deeds maybe had been other than they were(MR
2, §108, p. 108)? This certainly seems to suggest that Fëanor
really was able to do otherwise, but is that compatible with the Music being as
fate to him? On the other hand, could Fëanor have made any other choice
which would have reflected his
true inner self, or could
after deeds have been different staying honest to his
inner self? Doesn't the whole statement simply amount to stating that if Fëanor
had been another man, then things would have been different?
There is of course no guarantee that all of Tolkien's statements, whether in
narrative or explicative form, regarding the nature and workings of Free Will in
his sub-creation must form a logically consistent whole. It is well known that
developments within the mythology often makes statements made about one version
inconsistent with, and therefore invalid with respect to, other versions of the
mythology, and indeed Christopher Tolkien's Foreword to the Silmarillion
emphasises this point,
A complete consistency […] is not
to be looked for, and could only be achieved, if at all at heavy and needless
cost. There is, however, some things that are constant, and among those the
idea of the difference between Men and Elves, which is described in the same way
in all versions, and with almost the same words. Such in the last version:
But the Eldar shall be the fairest of all earthly creatures, and they shall have and shall conceive and bring forth more beauty than all my children; and they shall have the greater bliss in this world. But to the Atani (which are Men) I will give a new gift.'
§39 Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest.
This difference permeates all versions of the Mythology, from the Lost Tales over the attempts at transforming the Mythology to a more cosmologically sound version and to the last full rewriting of the Ainulindalë. Any attempt at explaining Free Will in Tolkien's reality must therefore take this into account.
As I have shown above, Men and Elves — as well as Ainur, Dwarves and
possibly Orcs — possess Free Will and are normally morally responsible for
their actions. This means that the difference between Men and
things else is not one of whether they do or don't possess Free Will, but
rather of how Free Will operates for them.
Inspired by Verlyn Flieger and Kathleen E Dubs I have furthermore argued that Tolkien's reality follow the Divine Ordering described by Boethius, with the Music (and the efforts of the Ainur to achieve it) functioning as Fate. This ordering must also be taken into account when looking at Tolkien's use of Free Will.
Faced with the final questions regarding the
ability to do
otherwise and the compatibility with causal determinism, I found myself
faced with suggestions that Tolkien, contrary to Boethius and Aristotle, did
consider Free Will compatible with causal determinism in agreement with Saint
Augustine  (who is mentioned
as another of Tolkien's philosophical sources).
Seeking a solution to the questions of doing otherwise and causal determinism, which can also help explain the difference between Men and Elves. My suggestion is that it is precisely the ability to do otherwise that separates the two, where Men do have that ability, even if they don't usually utilize it. I think that this fits nicely with the suggestion by Verlyn Flieger that Men were given freedom to act beyond the Music, while Elves had only freedom over their inner selves. I also suggest that Tolkien's world is basically deterministic, meaning that the ability of Men to act beyond the Music is perhaps even more derivative than their Free Will, it being miraculous in origin.
This obviously necessitates an idea of Free Will which is independent of the ability to do otherwise and preferably one that is compatible with causal determinism. The model that strikes me as the most compatible with all these requirements, and also with the various analyses discussed in the above and my general impression of Tolkien's writings, is the already suggested idea that Free Will, in Tolkien's reality, is contained in the ability to do that which expresses the agent's true inner self.
In the Harry Potter books, Rowling let Dumbledore tell her hero that
is our choices that show what we truly are — if we twist that just a
bit, Free Will in Tolkien's reality is the state existing when
we truly are is fully shown in our actions, and the degree to which this is
the case determines also the degree to which we are morally responsible for our
actions. One could even say that this model implies a rejection of the full-blown
ability to do otherwise, since doing otherwise would
require a change in at least one of the two causes that determine the Free-willed
choice: either it would require another
true inner self and/or
that the choice was not Free-willed. This is compatible with determinism, if we
allow that another
true inner self only is possible given a
different past that would have produced that other self.
… the biological and spiritual nature of the Children of God … would not be altered by the One, except perhaps by one of those strange exceptions to all rules and ordinances which seem to crop up in the history of the Universe, and show the Finger of God, as the one wholly free Will and Agent.
J.R.R. Tolkien [LT #156 p. 204]
 For the purpose of this discussion, I
will use the construct
Procaecence to mean the negative
interference by a divine being (as opposed to the positive interference of
Providence). It is constructed by substituting Latin
not seeing; intellectually or morally blind; uncertain, objectless: <http://cobalt.archives.nd.edu/cgi-bin/lookup.pl?stem="caecus"&ending=>
 Philosophic treatises allowing for less than an equivalence between Free Will and moral responsibility appears to be a fairly recent thing — late enough not to be relevant with respect to Tolkien's writings.
Then Niënna spoke,
who came to Valmar seldom, but sat now upon the left hand of Manwë. (
MR 3, p. 241)
the use of Justice there must be Pity, which is the consideration of the
singleness of each that cometh under Justice. Which of you Valar, in your wisdom,
will blame these Children, Finwë and Míriel?
 Lacking a better word, I will refer to
the entirety of Tolkien's sub-creation as his
meaning both all of Eä as well as Eru's Timeless Halls (and any other
that may be outside Eä).
 LT #153, p. 195 — see also the section on Free Will
 Why did Beorhtnoth do this? Owing to a
defect of character, no doubt; but a character, we may surmise, not only formed
by nature, but moulded also by
enshrined in tales and verse of poets now lost save for echoes. Beorhtnoth was
chivalrous rather than strictly heroic. Honour was in itself a motive, and he
sought it at the risk of placing his heorðwerod, all the men most
dear to him, in a truly heroic situation, which they could redeem only by death.
Magnificent, perhaps, but certainly wrong. Too foolish to be heroic. And the
folly Beorhtnoth at any rate could not wholly redeem by death.
 Morgoth's words to Húrin,
upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall
bring them down into darkness and despair. (CH
The Words of Húrin and Morgoth, p. 64)
This, along with the phrasing of the actual curse, suggests that Morgoth had to
know where they were in order for his thought to be upon them.
 The degree to which the Music of the
Ainur is identical to the Boethian concept of Fate depends, for instance, on the
way Eru's intrusion of the
Finger of God (se quotations
from letters #156 and #181 in the text) is handled. These miracles are clearly
part of the divine providence, and therefore the events happening within Time
are part of the Boethian sense of Fate, but are they incorporated into the Music?
In either way, however, we need to make a distinction between Fate as it is known to Eru (including the miracles) and Fate as it is known to the Ainur. Conceptually one can imagine that the Music, as an idea, is updated, and perhaps the Ainur, as the miraculous events do occur within Time, will see this also.
 Tolkien never seems to have settled on one definite conception of the Orcs, and just as he vacillated on their origin, he also variably held them to be complete automata without soul or Free Will and corrupted Eruhíni with both. In the present discussion, however, it is only relevant to look at how their freedom would be expressed if they were, in origin, creatures possessing a soul and Free Will.
 This duality of the Orcs is not very
visible in the main works (TH, LR and S), but it is strongly expressed in the
Transformed texts in MR (texts VIII through X, pp. 408-423)
 Saint Augustine seems to have changed
heart fairly late in his career, in favour of Divine predestination (effectively
the same as causal determination in a world with the view on providence
described above). (SEP
(TH) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Annotated Hobbit Rev. and exp. edition, Annotated by Douglas Anderson HarperCollins Publishers, 2003
(LR) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings HarperCollins Publishers, (2005 Three-volume paperback) References are to book and chapter. Page references according to the Reader's Companion by Hammond & Scull are added for greater precision.
(CH) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin HarperCollins Publishers, 2007
(S) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion Edited by Christopher Tolkien Houghton Mifflin Company, 2nd ed. 2001
(UT) J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales Edited by Christopher Tolkien HarperCollins Publishers, 1980 (1998 paperback)
(LB) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand The History of Middle-earth, volume 3 Edited by Christopher Tolkien HarperCollins Publishers, 1985 (2002 paperback)
(MR) J.R.R. Tolkien Morgoth's Ring: The History of Middle-earth, volume 10 Edited by Christopher Tolkien HarperCollins Publishers, 1993 (2002 paperback)
Ósanwe-kenta: Enquiry into
the Communication of Thought Published in Vinyar Tengwar issue 39, pp.
21-34 The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, July 1998
(LT) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien Edited by
Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien HarperCollins
Publishers, 1995 (paperback)
Specific references include section and/or chapter or letter numbers and names as well as page numbers.
Free Will, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2006/entries/freewill/>
Compatibilism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2004/entries/compatibilism/>
Moral Responsibility, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2004/entries/moral-responsibility/>
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2005/entries/boethius/>
Saint Augustine, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2000 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2000/entries/augustine/>
(RG) Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, Reader's Guide HarperCollins Publishers, 2006 References include index word(s) and page number. References to other works quoted from the RG are suffixed with the RG reference.
(RMe) Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth HarperCollins Publishers, Revised and Expanded Edition 2005