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I’m confused about the existence of destiny in the world of The Lord of the Rings and, subject to it, free will.

Clearly the characters seems to think there is, indeed, free will and the choices to have some meaning on the events that are to unfold. Some other writings reference specifically the whole thing is Illuviatar’s “song” and was planned from the beginning.

I seem to recall some sort of comment from Iluviatar himself to Melkor in the form of “even when you try and sing your own song you’re still following mine." Other reference could be the “dominion of men” age which would only make sense if Sauron actually loses.

This seems to indicate everything was predestined. Is there any writings or reference to indicate whether Tolkien considered the characters had (or not) free will?

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  • If Sauron had won there would still have been an end to the Elves in Middle-Earth and everything would be controlled by Men. Just that they would be worshipping Sauron.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 16 at 20:58
  • "And Melko knowing this was in great anger against the Gnomes, and going first before Manwë bowed very low, and said how the Noldoli dared murmur to his ears against Manwë’s lordship, claiming that in skill and beauty they (whom Ilúvatar had destined to possëss all the earth) far surpassed the Valar, for whom they must labour unrecompensed - :Lost Tales Part I
    – Valorum
    Jul 16 at 21:00
  • @OrangeDog my interpretation is if Sauron had won everything would have been controlled by Sauron, not by men. Men could be around but they would most definitively not control or “dominate” anything Jul 16 at 21:01
  • The entering into Men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race, from the beginning destined to replace the Elves. - Letter 153
    – Valorum
    Jul 16 at 21:02
  • "Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. - Letter 5
    – Valorum
    Jul 16 at 21:03

1 Answer 1

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The answer is that, yes, there is Destiny or Fate in Arda. And, yes, there is Free Will in Arda. As I noted in a comment, what Fate and Free Will are and how they can co-exist is one of the great philosophical questions that mankind has wrestled with for 2500 years that we know of.

You should not expect a mild-mannered professor of Philology -- even one at Oxford -- to have an answer.

Tolkien simply set forth a plain contradiction:

But to the Atani [humans] I will give a new gift.' 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.

But Iluvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said ''These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.'

  • The Music of the Ainur is Fate to all except human beings.

  • Yet even the errant use of human free will will redound to God's glory.

All through LotR we see divine providence helping things along, never quite explicit, but undeniably present right up to Gollum 'fortuitously' (and freely and entirely in character) choosing to take the Ring and dance on a precipice and fall to his death and the Ring's destruction.

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  • I agree the question of omnipotent god vs free will is indeed beyond the scope of the question. The fact that Tolkien implicitly shrugged and decided on “both” is clear on this paragraph. Jul 16 at 21:34
  • @JorgeCórdoba There have been some prominent Catholic thinkers that tried to reconcile free will with the notion of God being able to foreordain certain outcomes, like the Molinism, or Banezianism. Certainly there may be valid objections to these ideas, but it at least seems possible that as a Catholic, Tolkien was tacitly drawing on the supposed authority of such such ideas rather than just shrugging his shoulders and accepting a "plain contradiction".
    – Hypnosifl
    Jul 16 at 22:06
  • 1
    Presumably, Eru, being omniscient and omipotent, can always out-plan any number of Men by the careful construction of what seems to be "chance" coincidences (e.g., he has a plan for all eight billion possible choices every person can make multiplied all the people) or, if they get too rowdy and use their free will too badly, he can always, you know, sink a continent. This seems particularly easy if his goals are rather broad, like "in the end everything redounds to the glory of my work."
    – Shamshiel
    Jul 16 at 22:34
  • Also, divine providence is sometimes quite explicit in LotR - it was Eru that sent Gandalf back! It's easy to make things go your way if you're still directly intervening in the world.
    – Shamshiel
    Jul 16 at 22:46

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