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.”