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How Tolkien Reconciles Providence and Free-Will

Goro Shimura

Scribe of the Eldanyárë
Dec 30, 2001
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This is from Paul H Kocher's Master of Middle Earth, page 39:
Tolkien is here facing a joint lierary-philosophical imperative. Literarily, he wants to keep an atmosphere of wonder at the mysterious hand which is guiding events, but he must not let this theme become so strong or definite as to persuade his readers that the hobbits are certain to reach Rivendell safely. To do so would be fatal to the suspense, and therefore to the story as story. Philosophically, if the guiding hand is really to guide effectively, it must have power to control events, yet not so much as to take away from the people acting them out the capacity for moral choice. The latter, being fundamental to Tolkiens conception of man (and other rational beings), must be preserved at all costs. So Tolkien cannot allow his cosmic order to be a fixed, mechanistic, unchangeable chain of causes and effects. The order must be built flexibly around creaturely free will and personal providential interventions from on high.

Tolkien uses several techniques to attain the desired balances. For one thing he never speaks about these matters as author, and thereby avoids authorial certitudes. His characters may be certain, or virtually so, that a providential order is at work but they are never sure of its final outcome, or exactly how it operates. Witness Gandalf, who is positive that the Ring was "meant" to fall in the hands of the West but not what its future is to be after that, and who guesses that Gollum has a part yet to play but knows not whether it is for good or ill. Witness also Gildor, who intuits a supervening purpose in his meeting with the hobbits but confesses his ignorance of its aims. And Bombadil, who, while intimating that his rescue of Frodo was not coincidence, regards himself as ultimately outside the contending forces in the War of the Ring.

Another technique Tolkien finds handy is to couple every incident anyone calls foreordained qith some notable exercise of free will by the characters involved in it. For example, as noted, Bilbo and Frodo are said as Ring-beares, but Bilbo is given the option to spare or kill Gollum, and Frodo can always decline to serve. This duality is repeated again and again straight through to the end of the epic. Yet another device is to let most of the major characters voice premonitions or prophecies, seeming to entail a definite forseeable future, yet to keep these either misty in content or tentative in tone, so loosening their fixity and hinting that the routes are various by which they may come true.

All these devices Tolkien handles with persuasive tact. But they are sucessful also because they create for life on Middle-Earth a kind of atmosphere that our own existential experience of living accepts as genuine. Very common for us is the sense that our lives are bound in with larger patterns that we cannot change. Yet tomorrow seems never sure, and at every new crossroads nothing is stronger than the feeling inside us that we are the masters of our alternatives.
-- Goro "Wooden Nickel" Shimura


Random Quoter
Mar 14, 2002
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The Netherlands
This is from Patricia M. Spacks, Power and meaning in The Lord of the Rings:

(about Gollum who makes it possible to throw the Ring into the fire)

In the presentation of this event, the idea of free will intimately involved with fate receives its most forceful statement. Free choice by the individual involves his participation in a broad pattern of Good; individual acts become a part of Fate. Frodo had repeatedly chosen to behave mercifully towards Gollum. His merciful acts deter mine his fate and, because he has by his acceptance of his mission come tohold a symbolic position, they determine also the fate of the world he inhabits. Gollum, on the other hand, has become the symbolic representative of evil. His original acceptance of evil has made him will-less; it is appropriate that at the last he should me merely an instrument of that essentially benevolent fate.

I believe what Spacks means is that people determine their own fate by making their own choices; because the choice you make sets things in motion that you cannot always foresee (like Galadriel: 'Now we have chosen, and the tides of fate are flowing'). So when you have made a choice to act in a certain way, this choice may have consequences that you didn't know it would have and that could be called fate.

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