[ Green Books ] [ Horizontal Rule ]
[ Horizontal Rule ]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[ Green Books ]
[ Green Books - Exploring the Words and Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien ] [ Green Books ]

Fate, Obedience and Free Will

Firstly, I must apologize for my long absence. I’ve been suffering a severe writer’s block (I know, about four months’ worth), and I can only hope I’m coming out of it. If you’re a fan, I hope you will forgive me and continue to be one. If you’re not, laugh at my deadline-meeting nonskills and move on with your life.

That being said, I want to start by saying I’m not sure where this column will lead. Unlike my others, I don’t have a specific conclusion in mind as I set out, so bear with me. I’m going to be raising questions I’m not sure anybody can answer fully, within the world of Tolkien or without it.

I have an acquaintance whose main objection to Christianity is that while it claims to offer freedom to its believers, it demands total obedience to the commands of God and therefore believers have no real free will. Believers in fate also claim that there is no free will: that our destiny is predetermined and nothing we do can alter it. "But Anwyn, what does this have to do with Tolkien?" The more astute of you will probably already have seen where I’m getting ready to go. Did Frodo have any real choice about whether or not he would take on the responsibility of bearing the Ring? Or was he A) simply predestined to do so and nothing could release him from the obligation or B) forced into obedience by the knowledge that to refuse would have made him no longer a servant of the Good? Or, for those of us who don’t live in Middle-earth, a servant of God? Now then, for all of my shiny-eyed readers who are dying to draw Tolkien allegories with Christianity, that’s not the road I’m taking here. I’m simply making certain that we’re all on the same page by making an analogy between the Good, a Tolkien concept I’ve used in past columns, and God, which is the readiest comparison to be found in the "real world."

Predestination. I’ve always found this to be a hopelessly circular argument. As a college student, I have a couple of choices open to me. If I do my work and study well for my tests, I’ll likely get my degree. If I blow off all my work to write Tolkien columns around the clock, odds are I’ll fail and they won’t award me my diploma. Now, the choice of what to do is mine. But as I understand it, either way I go, the predestination people will say that wherever I end up is where I would have been regardless: that I was incapable of making a decision other than the one that would lead to the path that had been laid out for me. But right now I have the two choices in front of me. I could go either way. How is that predestined? Predestination is convenient, no doubt; it can be handily used to get us off the hook. "Well, that’s the way it would have turned out no matter what I did …" But when all is said and done it’s still a circle. We know what you’re going to do because whatever you do it’ll be what you’re supposed to do. Duh . . . So, I think we can lay that to rest fairly quickly.

But wait! There’s more! We haven’t consulted The Professor! "Um, yeah, Anwyn, you could at least talk about Tolkien . . ." Right you are. "The Ring left him.’ ‘What, just in time to meet Bilbo?’ said Frodo. ‘Wouldn’t an Orc have suited it better?’ . . . ‘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."

Now how much would you pay?

So, our Tolkien, Mr. Understated Christianity, Mr. Freedom-From-Dominion (i.e. Morgoth, Sauron, Saruman, et al), is talking up Fate? Hmmm. Well, first things first. Who could have intended for Bilbo to find the Ring and leave it to Frodo? Who could have engineered it to happen thus? Here we step into very deep waters. If we were talking about the real world, I could dismiss it by saying, "It was God’s Will . . ." or could I? Does that equal out to just another way of saying Fate? I certainly hope not, for the sake of my sanity, but that’s another topic for another time. Since we’re in M-e, I have to look a lot harder for the answer. Backing up in the story, we see that it was Gandalf who dragged Bilbo onto the adventure, Gandalf who led them through the goblin-infested mountains, and Gandalf who led them through the tunnels. But Gandalf had no way of knowing about Gollum or the Ring. Bzzt! Thanks for playing! What, then? The Valar? These are the same Valar who sit on their own island in the Uttermost West, basically forbidden to directly interfere with the events unfolding in M-e, aren’t they? Give that money back to Ben Stein! What, then? Iluvatar? For my shiny-eyed Christianity-allegory fans, I have to break this to you gently: Iluvatar is not even seen within the confines of Lord of the Rings, and only mentioned around the edges of The Silmarillion. So . . . is that your final answer?

I have to admit at this point that I’m as much stumped as I hope you are. Who could Gandalf have thought was doing the intending? About this, I can only say the following. Circumstances came together. Cosmic forces of the universe? Will of Iluvatar? Or just a hungry, centuries-old, twisted little river hobbit whose Ring fell off when he throttled a goblin? Forces of Good rising to counter the force of Sauron and his Ring calling out to each other? To be honest with you, dear readers, Tolkien is such a seamless storyteller that it never occurred to me to question. Bilbo stumbled along, tripped, found the Ring, that was that. To me, it’s what happens after the finding that makes the story interesting. Was he fated to find it? Sure, I’ll go for that. With the understanding that once circumstance, coincidence, fate, or Iluvatar had played its part, free will kicks in with a vengeance.

Here’s what I mean. How many of you have had responsibilities thrust upon you that you didn’t ask for? Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to school. Your parents/societal law made you go to school. But make no mistake, what you did once you got there was entirely up to you. (Barring factors of native intelligence, learning disorders, etc. etc. ad nauseum that all of us good teachers have to deal with.) So. Bilbo has this Ring. He slowly figures out what he can do with it. Years down the road he is called upon to give it up. His choice. Was the choice made easier as a caring friend, in the person of Gandalf, who knew exactly what was best for him to do, stood by unwavering and asked him to do it? Yes, almost certainly. But still, "as far as I know Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it." Bilbo’s choice. So now we come to the crux of the matter: Frodo’s choice to take the Ring to the Fire.

"At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’ Elrond raised his eyes and looked at him, and Frodo felt his heart pierced by the sudden keenness of the glance. ‘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. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck? But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right."

Ouch! Does anybody besides me hear the ringing of a cosmic gong when you read these words? How do we unravel this tangle? The task is appointed for Frodo, another will is using his voice to volunteer, yet none of the Wise should expect to foresee it, and if Frodo takes it freely, it’s the right choice? "Go not to the Elves for counsel," indeed! But, perhaps it’s not so hopeless after all. Elrond tosses in some qualifiers that can’t be lightly dismissed. "If I understand aright all that I have heard." To me, this says that circumstances surrounding and leading up to the Council were what told Elrond that Frodo was right in volunteering to take the Ring. He was its keeper, he was a factor unaccounted-for in the counsels of both the Wise and of Sauron, and he had already borne it through darkness and danger. "If you do not find a way, no one will." To me this says that had the Ring landed in the hands of another good person, he/she could have just as easily been the Bearer, but it didn’t. It came to Frodo, and therefore he should take on the responsibility. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. Here’s the part where my friend gets angry with Christianity. If you have to do something simply because it’s the right thing to do, how is that free will? But wait. Is it just because it’s the right thing to do, or is there something else? Conscience, maybe? Something inside that won’t let you leave things alone, that makes you do what you feel is right, even if it’s not what’s easy or fun? Ben Kenobi: "You must do what you feel is right, of course." And Luke goes. Psychological manipulation, you say. No, I respond. Concern, trust, and conscience. Concern for what will befall the world and its inhabitants if you shun a responsibility that has come upon you unlooked-for. Trust in friends who, like you, feel that it’s the right thing to do. And conscience, that feeling that is telling you the right thing to do. To put it another way, let me quote David Eddings, who is the worst culprit when it comes to fate-driven plot lines, but who also has the best way of answering the question "Why me?" that I’ve ever read. Our Hero, equivalent to the Ring-Bearer, goes about constantly asking this question. Finally, his version of Gandalf (or Gandalfette; Polgara the Sorceress, for those of you who know what I’m talking about) says to him, "Can you think of anybody else you would trust to handle these matters?" (That’s NOT an exact quote. Flipping through five books that I don’t know nearly as well as JRRT’s does not appeal to me at this hour. It’s close enough.) Now, let’s not get too literal. Frodo would, of course, trust Gandalf or Elrond or Aragorn to handle things. But, the irony is that their method of handling it is to have Frodo bear the Ring to the fire. They all agree that that is the course of action most likely to work, and because Frodo, having a conscience, does not dare to just drop the matter and leave the Ring in the hands of others (and we’re not at all convinced he could give up the Ring if he tried, but we know he serves the Good and would not allow himself to sit idle while the Dark Lord came hunting for him), he takes on the task. Freely. Driven by his own conscience and his trust in his friends. Obedient to the Good because he knows it is the right thing to do. Freely.

Finally, there is an aspect here which cannot be ignored. What would happen if Frodo refused the way to the Fire? Eventually, we are told, the Dark Power would find the Ring and wrest it from its keeper. And then the Darkness would overtake the world. So we discover that Our Hero is not totally selfless. There is an element of self-preservation here, as well as knowing what the right thing to do is. If he takes on the responsibility, the way will be uncertain and the outcome iffy, but if he does not, the outcome is certain and will end in enslavement or death for himself and everything/everybody he cares about. Predestination? Hardly.

I said when I began that I didn’t have a specific conclusion in mind. I’m fairly certain I lied. I firmly believe that Frodo had all the free will in the world, that he did what he did out of A) belief in the objective Good, B) concern for the well-being of the world, C) a sense of self- and home-preservation, D) trust in his conscience and his friends. Granted that the responsibility of the Ring came upon him unasked-for and unwanted, but that will happen to all of us. Fate? Will of higher powers? Cosmic forces? Circumstances and timing? Whatever. But make no mistake, what we do once we are handed these circumstances is entirely up to us.

[ Email this Page to a Friend ] Email this page to a friend!

Email Anwyn


Past Counterpoints

home | contact us | back to top | site map |search | join list | review this site

This site is maintained and updated by fans of The Lord of the Rings. We in no way claim the artwork displayed to be our own. Copyrights and trademarks for the books, films, and related properties mentioned herein are held by their respective owners and are used solely for promotional purposes of said properties. Design and original photography however are copyright © 2000 TheOneRing.net ™.