Monday, August 25, 2008

Free will in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Choice and persuasion in a fine balance

Note: I was driven to write the following (lengthy) essay out of my struggles with a simple question: Did Frodo succumb to the One Ring’s overbearing power at the cracks of Mount Doom, or did he falter because he lacked the will to complete his task? This debate will probably live forever amongst readers of The Lord of the Rings, but here I offer my perspective on the matter.


“Now at any rate he is as bad an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.

When Bilbo and Frodo’s instincts cry out for vengeance upon the creature Gollum, their heart—and Gandalf’s good counsel—stays their hands. This combination of free will and outside influence enables the destruction of the One Ring, saving Middle Earth from enslavement and destruction at the hands of Sauron.

J.R.R. Tolkien was deeply Catholic and The Lord of the Rings, despite its absence of God or modern conceptions of Heaven and Hell, is a religious work (Tolkien himself says as much in an oft-quoted letter to a friend). And just as God imbued his creations with free will, so too are Tolkien's denizens free to choose their own destiny.

But the hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men of Middle Earth do not operate in a vacuum. There are great powers at work that influence their choices for good or ill.

Manichaen vs. Boethian
In The Road to Middle Earth, a seminal analysis of Tolkien’s act of world-building, author Tom Shippey examines this tension of free will vs. larger forces in a discussion on Manichaen and Boethian views of good and evil. Shippey explains that the Manichaen view is one of palpable good and evil forces in opposition with one another. The Boethian view holds that evil is simply the absence of good, and because men are blank slates with no inherent good (or evil) qualities, evil acts are choices. More accurately, in the Boethian view, “evil” is a weakness of character since evil actions are committed by men who give in to their lesser, animalistic state.

Which view does Tolkien espouse? Shippey offers no answer and neither does The Lord of the Rings. Both are supported in the text. There is ample evidence that the Ring and its master, Sauron, are powerful evil forces able to assert their dominance and will over lesser beings. For example, in “The Shadow of the Past” we learn that even someone like Gandalf—very strong and possessed of the best intentions—will sooner or later be devoured if he should wield the ring. The One Ring seeks to enslave its wearer, violating the God-given (or, in Tolkien’s world, Iluvatar-given) gift of free will. These are all Manichaen forces.

And yet, those of sufficient strength and character can resist the Ring. Faramir and Galadriel resist it. And when Frodo chooses to keep the Ring instead of casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, note Tolkien’s deliberate use of the word “choose”:

“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

But even if it cannot dictate will, the One Ring is nevertheless a powerful and seductive weapon of evil. Opposing this evil are powerful forces of good such as Gandalf (who is actually a Maiar, a sort of angel sent to Middle Earth by the Valar) and the Dunedain, the rangers at the borders keeping out the encroaching forces of evil. (It’s interesting to note that good beings in Tolkien’s universe seek to uphold tradition and sameness, while “evil” forces bring about change). Many races of Middle Earth succumb to the evil and join Sauron’s side, swayed by power or fear, but others fight for the light.

An example of this larger, external clash of powerful forces is told in the creation and finding of the One Ring in “The Shadow of the Past,” the critical second chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring. When the One Ring abandoned Gollum and threatened to return to Sauron, a force of good intervened, causing Bilbo to pick it up. Says Gandalf:

"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."

One issue I remain unclear on is: who or what is the force of good that directs Bilbo’s hand to the Ring in the darkness of Gollum’s cave. The implications of it being Iluvatar, the maker, are enormous, as it implies that Tolkien's universe is essentially good and controlled by a beneficent God. I'm not entirely sure of that, given the tragedies of earlier ages and the departure of the elves. But that's for another post.

Regardless, Gandalf tells Frodo that one of these forces has chosen him to be the Ring-bearer. Although Gandalf doesn’t know who or what selected Frodo for this monumental task, or why, he explains that fate has dealt Frodo a hand that he must work with, for good or ill: “But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have,” Gandalf says.

Free will and fate
Thrust into the middle of these warring forces of good and evil is the free peoples of Middle Earth. Despite the fact that they live in a world of literal angels and demons in strife, the people of Middle Earth are possessed of free will.

Some have criticized Tolkien for creating unrealistically clear divisions between good and evil, but I would argue that The Lord of the Rings presents a much more complex and interesting dynamic. For example, even the iconic wicked characters—the Nazgul—are corrupted men, fallen under the influence of the ring due to their pride. They were not born into evil. Likewise, Gollum wrestles with his dark half—Smeagol—and nearly throws it off, but chooses the path of darkness after a harsh rebuke by Sam on the stairs to Cirith Ungol. Very few creatures, save perhaps the orcs and Balrogs, creations of the dark lord, are clearly wicked.

Because strife in Middle Earth is inevitable (“Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again,” Tolkien writes), everyone—even the sheltered and peace-loving hobbits—must eventually take sides in the conflict.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Note Gandalf’s use of the word “decide” in this seminal passage. There are times and circumstances thrust upon us beyond our control. Forces exist that try to exert or impose their will for good or ill. It is our lot to join the dark tide, or resist.

But while these forces can influence, they cannot wholly divest control from beings of free will. Bilbo and Frodo choose to let Gollum live, acts of Mercy that are beyond the striving wills of even the greatest powers. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends,” Gandalf says.

Predisposed toward good and evil?
So can the peoples of Middle Earth simply pick good or evil? This matter is complicated. Take Gollum: Even before he finds the One Ring, when he was still Smeagol, Tolkien depicts him as having some sinister characteristics: “He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-top, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.”

This seems to imply that Gollum was predisposed to the evil influence of the Ring, and indeed he murders his brother, Deagol, shortly after the latter finds it.

Contrast Gollum’s traits with Bilbo and Frodo. Unlike Gollum the two hobbits are fond of the open air, and gardens, and good company. Although they love home and hearth have a deep-seated love of adventure and foreign people and places (their Tookish) side. As a result Bilbo and Frodo are able to possess the Ring for years, suffering very little despite the Ring’s dark power. Possessiveness and worry for the Ring slowly influence them, and the Ring’s ability to confer long and unnatural life affects them physically. But they are not driven to commit evil acts.

Nevertheless, The One Ring’s power eventually proves too strong for even the good-natured Hobbits: Bilbo needs the strong urging (and borderline threats) of Gandalf to rid himself of it, and its influence proves too great for Frodo in Mount Doom.

There are weak people on Middle-Earth (just as there are in our own world), who are easy prey for charismatic, wicked leaders, or else commit crimes motivated by their baser instincts. Even the strong can falter. Are those who fail morally or spiritually to be pitied or cast out? Tolkien’s belief is quite clear.

Frodo’s “failure” and the choice of pity
An obvious yet often overlooked fact of The Lord of the Rings is that Frodo actually “fails” in his quest: He gives in to the temptation of the Ring at the (literal) precipice of the quest and refuses to destroy it.

If you are of the Manichaen view, Frodo failed because the Ring’s power (amplified by its location at the heart of Mount Doom) was simply too great: it will eventually corrupt even the greatest, as noted by Gandalf. The choice in the end was not Frodo’s to make. You can even argue that Frodo’s words “I do not choose now to do what I came to do” are the words of the controlling Ring; Tolkien mentions that Frodo speaks with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use when he utters that line.

If you are of the Boethian view, Frodo gives in to his own inherent weakness, the weakness in us all to covet. In this view, Frodo simply wanted the Ring and its power too much; he did not have the strength of will to cast it into the fire because he desired its power to fill a void within himself. In other words, his selfishness prevailed over the larger good.

My own opinion? I tend to side with the latter. There is too much evidence to suggest that free will cannot be wholly subsumed in Tolkien’s world, even by the strongest powers.

But I cannot fault Frodo for his ultimate “failure”—he had managed to bring the Ring further than any had dared hope. And he had already sewn the seeds of success by his mercy for Gollum, an act of free will influenced by good counsel from Gandalf, the avatar of good. Because Bilbo and later Frodo let him live, Gollum is there to tip the balance when he bites the Ring from Frodo’s finger, destroying it when he tumbles into the fires of Mount Doom.

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.”


James Maliszewski said...

I can say no more except that I agree with you.

A very fine little essay on an important subject.

Falze said...

It’s interesting to note that good beings in Tolkien’s universe seek to uphold tradition and sameness, while “evil” forces bring about change

I'm not sure I agree with this. Admittedly it's been a few years now since I reread the books and the Silmarillion would probably be even more revealing, but I don't recall much of an effort by the elves or wizards to rein in the race of men. They appear to recognize that change is coming and, instead of trying to prevent it, they instead try to prevent change in the favor of evil (to a world dominated by orc-kind) by allowing, even aiding, a change to the age of men. In so doing they knowingly embrace their own...not demise...but their own time in Middle Earth, choosing instead to return to the Grey Havens and cede Middle Earth to men. The Dunedain are actually agents of change biding their time. You can hardly argue that Aragorn is not a rather important agent of change and he is the culmination of the Dunedain line. Again, his line has acted to prevent a change to evil until such time as men were 'ready' to begin their age of dominance. The elves certainly aided him in this quest (in the end), forging Anduril for him, even fighting beside him. Heck, Arwen gives up her elfiness to help put an end to the age of, whatever it was...elves? and bring in the age of men. Gandalf certainly aided the Dunedain and made sure that the rightful king sat again in Minas Tirith so that he could usher in the age of men.

In the case of both the elves (Galadriel/Elrond) and Gandalf, they were presented with the Ring of Power...offered the chance to prevent change for all time (ruling as evil overlords/ladies, to be sure). The three of them each recognized that failure to change would actually be evil in that case, not allowing 'nature to take its course' would maybe stop Sauron, but it would enslave and ruin Middle Earth. Instead they chose to let change happen in its own time, not letting Sauron force a change to a nightmare world, and basically removed their own pieces from the game board when Aragorn was ready to lead that change. Even more telling is that they know that the age of men would not necessarily be an age of good, but it was necessary to allow it to happen given man's fertility and they chose to place the best man they could find in the first throne to let what would come, come.

Hobbits themselves are virulently anti-change (witness their reaction of the older hobbits to the arrival of change-bringer Gandalf). Only through the actions of a couple of hobbits that were willing to embrace change was Middle Earth saved. What if Bilbo had gone back to bed instead of following the Dwarves? What if Frodo had taken Sam's advice and gone home after delivering the ring to Rivendell? Of course, only through Sam's desire for home and hearth did success really happen, but Sam himself changes throughout the tale and, again, I think his motivation is the desire to prevent negative change (the rape of the Shire), not necessarily no change at all. He recognizes that at the end when he is able to let Frodo go and return to the Shire - something he couldn't do at the beginning when he wouldn't let Frodo go without him, chose to drown instead of let Frodo go alone, chose to follow him up the black stairs. And even Sam seems to have a bit of the Took in him, particularly his desire to see elves.

So, no, I don't think I can agree with your observation. (of course I'm open to opposing arguments, particularly if I've failed to recall key information)

Here's an unrelated question: How does Tom Bombadil play into your evaluation? Or is Tom, in the end, just a minor character on the road? Are you aware of Tolkien giving any hints about Tom in his letters/memoirs?

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, in reading your comments (and my own comment, which was sort of a tangential thought to my main idea of free will), you're probably right. I could have worded that clearer. I don't think that the forces of good are necessarily anti-change. In fact, there's a conversation early on in The Lord of the Rings (I'm re-reading it now, if you couldn't tell by my recent long-winded posts) in which Gildor says to Frodo:

"But it is not your own Shire," said Gildor. "Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: You can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."

However, the overall impression I get from the text is a sense of wistfulness and loss from Tolkien, as if magic were draining out of the world, giving way to a prosaic age of men. Tolkien seems to recognize that change is the way of things, but I don't think that he is particularly happy about it. Again from The Lord of the Rings, Sam says of the departure of the elves:

"They are sailing, sailing, sailing over the Sea, they are going into the West and leaving us," said Sam, half chanting the words, shaking his head sadly and solemnly.

Also, I think that Tolkien could accept change as a natural evolution, as you've implied here. What he was virulently opposed to was wanton destruction in the name of "progress," as exemplified by Saruman (a force of industry and its propensity to scar the earth).

I'll comment on Bombadil in the next reply.

Falze said...

That makes more sense. Curious what you have on the 'dil-man.

Brian Murphy said...

Tom Bombadil is an interesting character in that he tough to fit into Tolkien's cosmology. He is apparently completely immune to the influence of One Ring (I recently re-read the scene in which he playfully handles the Ring, which seems to shrink in his hand; he makes it disappear and when Frodo wears it, he sees through the invisibility).

From Tolkien's letters, I seem to recall Tolkien denying that he is Iluvatar, or the grand creator, but is rather an ancient spirit of the earth whose power comes from soil and rock and roots. I think of him more as a force of nature. He seems like an important character to Tolkien in terms of the development of his mythos, but not to The Lord of the Rings; in that tale he's merely an interesting stop along the way (and hence, an easy cut from the movie). He's certainly beyond free will and influence and simply is.

Terry L said...

Good essay Brian. I certainly think myself that Tolkien (good Catholic that he was) sided with the Boethian side strongly. Whatever physical manifestations of evil exist in Middle earth the fcat remains that ALL of them (even Melkor and Sauron) were once good beings who allowed their own decisions and desires to turn them to selfishness and evil.

It is also true that Frodo fails in his quest (Tolkien admits as much in one of his letters) and Middel earth is only saved due to the intervention of divine providence in the form of Gollum's mishap that in itself was brought about (as you note) by Bilbo and Frodo's mercy.

There is certainly a divine hand in matters, but I don't think that negates the free will of the characters. Catholics also believe that the hand of God is visible in the world even though our actions are ultimately controlled by our own free will...the two states of affairs are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It's more a question of degree.

As to change vs. stagnation...I would tend to agree: Tolkien was certainly not an advocate of change (esp. technological change) and while he certainly saw its inevitability it was not something he was particularly happy about. In many ways all of his stories are about the long defeat and are, in that sense, rather pessimistic. In this view the state of affairs in Middle Earth always goes through change, but this change is from good to bad to worse...not for the better. Thus it is that the age of the Valar gives way to Melkor's marring and leads to the age of elves (creatures of less wisdom, power, and beauty) who in turn give way for men...the weakest of the lot. And each generation loses the wisdom and power of that which came before.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, thanks for sharing your comments. The Long Defeat is not exactly uplifting but it is a central theme in Tolkien's works.

Anonymous said...

"One issue I remain unclear on is: who or what is the force of good that directs Bilbo’s hand to the Ring in the darkness of Gollum’s cave. The implications of it being Iluvatar, the maker, are enormous, as it implies that Tolkien's universe is essentially good and controlled by a beneficent God. I'm not entirely sure of that, given the tragedies of earlier ages and the departure of the elves. But that's for another post"

Think of the Music of the Ainur at the start of the Silmarillion. Individuals can choose to play discordantly, and that can make the music bitter for a time. But Iluvatar is conducting and guiding and returning things to a better path. This entirely consisent with the sense that Bilbo was "meant" to find the ring.

Tolkein's universe IS essentialy good, as Iluvatar comments that ultimately even Morgoth's actions rebound to the great good of the song.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed much of this, but I should like to present an alternate interpretation to the Boethian/Manichean dichotomy regarding Frodo's lapse just as he is about to destroy the One Ring.

Catholic doctrine -- particularly the Medieval Catholic doctrine about which Tolkien was an expert -- has traditionally described despair as a sin. In fact, despair (technically melancholia) was the rival to sloth as the Seventh Deadly Sin in competing lists of the Deadly Sins.

Tolkien himself makes reference to the dangers of despair in LOTR, such as Galadriel's wonderful speech about how all should love her "and despair!" were she to take the One Ring from Frodo.

Despair was said to dissipate one's will and strength until one became passive to the powers of evil. This is not something so simple as being overcome and overpowered by Evil, as in a Manichean universe, but neither is it something so simple as giving in to one's own desires as in your interpretation of a Boethian universe.

Rather, despair from this perspective is becoming so worn down that one ceases to be capable of exerting one's will at all.

I would argue that the One Ring had successfully worn Frodo down not by its powers of Manichean Evil nor by Frodo's own fallibility in the face of the One Ring's temptation. Instead, the One Ring had so tortured and broken Frodo, in large part by destroying much his ability to remember anything good about his past nor find any pleasure in his present (not even the taste of food), that Frodo had lost the power to care one way or the other, and this allowed the One Ring in the end to use his as a vessel in the same way that a cruel person might use ropes around the wrists of a catatonic or comatose fiture to turn him or her into a living puppet.

Frodo didn't give in to temptation as in your Boethian scenario, nor was he simply overwhelmed in a Manichean fashion. He suffered a sort of anomie from despair, which fits nicely in with Tolkien's themes about never giving up hope.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the great commentary! I like your introduction of the concept of despair, and I am aware of those passages from The Lord of the Rings (also that despair is the principal weapon of the Ringwraiths), though I'm largely unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine.

But wouldn't despair be a form of Boethian evil (i.e., arising from within Frodo--had he been sufficiently strong he may have resisted), or might the Ring's ability to make its wielder despair be Manichean in nature? Or perhaps some of both?