Yes, I referenced both Bob Dylan and Rush in the title of this essay. Fair warning: that may very well be the essay’s high point. After all, philosophers have been debating—without a certain answer—the nature of free will for centuries, and I’m unlikely to solve it here. (Spoiler alert: I don’t really try.) But it’s such a fascinating subject in the context of Professor Tolkien’s legendarium—and, especially, in the life of Túrin Turambar—that I cannot help but offer my thoughts on the matter.1
If you’ve been listening to the podcasts, you know that Shawn and I have recently released our Túrin Turambar trilogy of episodes. In the course of preparing for those recordings, I wanted to explore the way that Tolkien addressed the apparent paradox between the way he presents ‘fate’ and the exercise of free will — both among Men in general, and in Túrin in particular.
As with many of the essays I’ve written, this is a rather long one. The topic of free will is not simple; add the way Tolkien addressed the interaction of free will and fate, and then add the additional complexity of Morgoth’s Curse and… well, you end up with a very long essay. So bear with me, please; I hope you’ll find it illuminating.
Could Morgoth actually negate the Free Will
with which Túrin was endowed by Ilúvatar?
Could Ilúvatar himself?
To start, then, I should define free will—insofar as a definition is possible—so that we’re clear on what it means in this essay. Generally speaking, free will is the capacity of a person to choose a course of action from multiple alternatives — but that’s not sufficient for this discussion. Most philosophers agree that the concept of free will is tied to the concept of moral responsibility. For purposes of this essay, then, free will is the ability of a person to exercise control over their conduct in a manner necessary for moral responsibility.2
Note that this does not mean that free will requires the ability to make any and all imaginable choices; a person may be limited to certain choices by their nature, yet still be morally responsible for their actions. An example of this is that an Elf may not choose to leave Arda — they are bound to the planet for its lifetime, whether they are embodied or not. That does not mean, for our discussion, that Elves lack free will. This limitation is simply due to their nature. Similarly, Man may not choose to remain in Arda — it is a limitation of their nature. Within the limitations of their natures, then, rational beings make choices: those choices, if they are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention, are said to be made of ‘free will’ and the rational being is responsible for his or her choice.
With that cleared up (ha!), even a cursory reading of Tolkien shows that his characters are held morally responsible for their actions. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
- In the case of the Ainur, Melkor was chained as punishment for his rebellion. Additionally, Ilúvatar refused to further mend the Dwarves, who were created in an act of disobedience by Aulë. Aulë’s responsibility for his rebellious act can also be seen in the way he responds to being called out by Ilúvatar: repentance for an act he knew was wrong.
- For the Elves, we see that Mandos holds the Elvish fëar, determining when (or even if, in the case of Fëanor) they get rehoused. We also see the Doom of the Noldor, the famous prophecy that is both an announcement of delayed punishment, and a statement of natural consequences for rebellion and mass murder.
- For Men, we see the prolonged life of the Númenóreans, as well as Andor, the Land of Gift, as rewards for the faithfulness of the Edain. Later, we see the destruction of this same land, Númenor, for rebellion against the Valar and Ilúvatar.
There are many more, of course—including examples for Dwarves and Hobbits—but this should suffice to begin the discussion. The point is this: I believe we can safely say that the races of Middle-earth possess free will as defined above.
But, importantly for this discussion, we are also told that Men 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…” So do Men have more free will? Or is it, rather, that ‘fate’ (i.e. the Music of the Ainur) simply doesn’t limit the results of their exercise of free will to the same extent that it limits the results of the free will of the Elves? I think the latter is a more accurate way of putting it — since free will is an either/or. That is, one either possesses the ability to control one’s own conduct in a manner necessary for moral responsibility or one does not. Since the possession of free will (in accordance with the earlier definition) is a binary and not a gradient, and we see that both Elves and Men possess it, we must logically conclude that the Music (i.e., ‘fate’) impacts the Elves differently than it does Men. I share the conclusion of Verlyn Flieger who wrote (in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World) that:
In bestowing this capability on mortals while withholding it from the immortal Elves, Tolkien has deliberately introduced a paradox, a world guided by both fate and free will…. [He] presents situations in which Elves appear to be given a choice between good and evil or in which the decisions of Men have the power to affect the fates of Elves. A possible distinction between them may be that Men are given the power to act beyond the Music (that is, to alter external events or circumstances), while Elves, though bound by the Music, have the freedom to make internal choices, to alter some attitude toward themselves or other creatures or Eru. They have power over their own natures, though not over external happenings.
It appears, then, that both Elves and Men can make internal choices, altering their own attitudes, reactions, etc., but Men have the additional ability to actually effect external events and circumstances so as to change what the Music would have otherwise deemed to happen. This seems a reasonable distinction — and one which lines up with Tolkien’s own words.
Flieger cites Tolkien’s Letter #181, where Tolkien writes that both Elves and Men were “rational creatures of free will in regard to God”. She believes (and I agree) that “this implies a kind of Boëthian concept in which the mind of God encompasses any design perceivable by any of his creatures”.
We’ll take a sidebar to talk more on Boethius now, because it’s essential to answering our key questions, which are:
- In Tolkien’s world, are free will and fate compatible? If so, how?
- And precisely what is fate anyway?
- Did Túrin act with free will, or did Morgoth’s Curse create unavoidable doom?
Boethius was a 6th-century philosopher whose famous work, Consolation of Philosophy, was written while he was in prison in 523 AD. As he awaited his eventual execution for a crime he did not commit, he wrote this book as a conversation with “Lady Philosophy” — not surprisingly, he asks her questions about the nature of predestination and free will, how evil can exist in a world run by God, and topics like human nature, virtue, justice, etc. It became a very popular book in the Middle Ages and was translated into several languages — including, most notably as it relates to Tolkien, Old English by King Alfred the Great.3 Of course, Tolkien was very much a scholar of Old English, so one would expect him to have been familiar with King Alfred’s translation, if not the original Latin. In fact, it turns out that excerpts from King Alfred’s translation were included in the texts for Tolkien’s final English examinations. Tom Shippey says that Tolkien knew this translation well.4
It’s not surprising, then, that Tolkien seemed to adopt a Boethian view of providence, fate and free will in his legendarium. Let me explain what that means — as simply as I can, though; otherwise, this could go on for ages.
In this view, time itself is a created thing; thus, God (or Eru) exists outside of time (atemporal). This solves the problem of determinism; an (over-simplified) argument of which would go thusly: “God, in the past, knew that you were going to read this essay in the present. Thus, you were not free to choose otherwise; therefore, you did not act with free will.” The Boethian solution is to say that, with God being outside of time, there is no past / present / future, and that all is present to Him, thus free will is not incompatible with the concept of providence or fate. We can see some of this when Tolkien mentions Eru’s “Timeless Halls”: Ilúvatar exists outside of time and thus all things are known to him as though every instant was the present — yet this truth does not diminish the free agency of the Children of Ilúvatar.
It also means that Tolkien may view fate as the temporal ‘unfolding’ of providence — that is, the creation, in our linear timeframe, of the providence of Ilúvatar. We see this, almost literally, in a line about the Music: “… the halls of Eä, whose life is Time, which flows ever from the first note to the last chord of Eru.” Recall, of course, that Ilúvatar has reminded Melkor (and all of us) that “no theme may be played that has not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.”
Let me have someone else say it better (as they usually do). In Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s Reader’s Guide, there is a note on “Free Will and Fate”; in that note, they cite Kathleen Dubs who wrote an article called “Providence, Fate and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings”.5 In this piece, she concludes that:
seeming contradictions can be resolved by following Boethius in distinguishing providence, which orders the universe; fate, the temporal manifestation of that order; chance, that fate which occurs not according to our expectations, and for causes of which we are unaware; and, of course, freedom of will, which operates as part of this providential order. It is the fusion of all these concepts that gives complexity to Tolkien’s fantasy, and which in large part accounts for its continual intellectual and imaginative appeal. For the very fusion of the paradoxical elements … gives an impression of authenticity to the work. As readers, on the one hand, we identify with Tolkien’s characters, sharing their uncertainty… . On the other hand we follow an omniscient author, and sense his repeated — though often subtle — assurances that … all will turn out well. (emphasis added)
Let’s recap, then:
- Providence: orders the universe (Eru Ilúvatar, the divine reason)
- Fate: the temporal manifestation of that order (how we see it come to pass in our linear timeframe)
- Chance: the fate which occurs unexpectedly, and for unknown reasons (things that seem random, but are actually fate — e.g., Bilbo finding the Ring)
- Freedom of Will: the ability of individuals to exercise control over their conduct
Okay, so now we have a better understanding of fate — or at least how fate is viewed in Tolkien’s world. This resolves many situations in the text that might otherwise seem paradoxical, like the “chance” meeting between Gandalf and Thorin in Bree, Bilbo being “meant” to find the Ring, and Elrond’s nod to fate when he said that “this task is appointed for you, Frodo” while simultaneously acknowledging free will by saying “if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right”. Was it Providence? Or Fate? Or Chance? Or Freedom of Will? The answer is actually (e) all of the above.
Let’s look at a bit more from the Letters before we apply this to Túrin Turambar. In the same letter cited by Flieger (#181), Tolkien writes that Elves and Men were
not therefore in any sense conceived or made by the… Valar, and were called the Eruhíni or Children of God, and were for the Valar an incalculable element: that is they were rational creatures of free will in regard to God, of the same historical rank as the Valar, though of far smaller spiritual and intellectual power and status.” They are the result of “the One… [who] reserves the right to intrude the finger of God into the story.
Also, in Letter #153, he writes:
Free Will is derivative, and is only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides: [especially] when it is against His Will, as we say, at any rate as it appears on a finite view. He does not stop or make unreal sinful acts and their consequences.
So, Free Will is derivative—that is, it is both granted and guaranteed by “the Author” (in this case, Eru)—and it is inherent in the nature of the Eruhíni (Elves and Men, as well as Dwarves [his ‘children by adoption’] and, presumably, Hobbits). Thus, we can safely say that Túrin possessed Free Will and that it was guaranteed, even when he acted in opposition to Ilúvatar. But we also know that he was subject to Providence, Fate and Chance.
But now we get to the big question: what about the Curse? Could Morgoth actually negate the Free Will with which Túrin was endowed by Ilúvatar? To answer that, let’s ask a different question: could Ilúvatar himself ever actually negate the Free Will with which he endowed his creatures?
From Letter #153 and an observation of the evidence in the books, it would seem not. For one example, we have the “chance meeting” between Gandalf and Thorin in Bree, where Gandalf knew—with an unusual certainty—that he must persuade Thorin to take Bilbo on the Quest of Erebor. It wasn’t really a chance meeting, of course — and Gandalf’s conviction that he must persuade Thorin seems to have come from outside himself. These two facts point to the outside intervention by “the finger of God” that Tolkien talked about in Letter #181. But nevertheless, Gandalf’s actions were still made freely — as were Thorin’s, who could have remained steadfast in his initial decision to not invite Bilbo. These were not acts of compulsion — anymore than Bilbo’s decision to join the Company was an act of compulsion. These were all acts of Free Will — but the end results came about through the combination of Free Will and Fate (the temporal manifestation of Providence).
A second example that I mentioned briefly earlier was Frodo’s being “meant” to take the Ring. As Elrond says, “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.” So it is something he is meant to do; fated, one might say… or even doomed. But at the same time, he is not compelled to do it — Elrond makes this clear when he says, “But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right.”
When faced with Chances that Providence brought to further Fate, Gandalf, Thorin, Bilbo, and Frodo all still exercise their Free Will in order to take the actions that they take.
So it is with Túrin. He may be intended—by Morgoth, by Glaurung, by the Curse—to make terrible decisions. But if Ilúvatar could not negate the Free Will that his creatures were gifted with, then Morgoth (who, though powerful, does not compare to Ilúvatar) certainly could not. This can be seen even more clearly in one key moment (in Ch. IX of Children of Húrin) when Morgoth “began to fear that Túrin would grow to such a power that the curse that he had laid upon him would become void, and he would escape the doom that had been designed for him, or else that he might retreat to Doriath and be lost to his sight again.”
Let’s look at the end of that first: “…he might retreat to Doriath and be lost to his sight again.” Again. That’s crucial. In other words, Túrin was lost to Morgoth’s sight when he was in Doriath. This strongly implies that the Curse is ineffective—or at the least, less effective—when Túrin is out of Morgoth’s sight. If that’s the case, then all the events in Doriath were entirely avoidable, even if the Curse is otherwise efficacious. The killing of Saeros, the decision to reject the King’s judgment and to leave Doriath are all choices that Túrin made entirely on his own, unaffected by the power of Morgoth.
We see further evidence of the Girdle limiting Morgoth’s power later in the version of the tale in The Silmarillion (in “Of the Ruin of Doriath”) when Húrin arrives in Menegroth with the Nauglamir. After chastising Thingol and Melian, she reminds Húrin that he was seeing “all things crooked”. Then,
Húrin stood moveless, and he gazed long into the eyes of the Queen; and there in Menegroth, defended still by the Girdle of Melian from the darkness of the Enemy, he read the truth of all that was done… (emphasis added)
Further proof that the Girdle defended Húrin—and thus, also Túrin—from the power of Morgoth’s curse when they were in Doriath.
But even if that’s a stretch (and I’m not willing to concede that it is), let’s look at the first part of that quote: where Morgoth feared that Túrin would become powerful enough that the Curse would become void. First, let’s note that it was “the doom that had been designed for him”, not the doom that had been set in stone and made inevitable. Morgoth designed this doom, intended it, purposed it — but there’s nothing here to suggest that it was unavoidable.
Instead, we see that Morgoth knows that his Curse could potentially become void — he knows that it is entirely possible for Túrin to escape the fate designed for him by Morgoth. He knows this could happen in one of two ways: either Túrin grows too powerful, or he retreats to a place where Morgoth’s power does not run.
Follow this for a moment, then:
- Morgoth knows the Curse could possibly become void.
- The Curse could, therefore, become void in actual fact, even if only under limited circumstances.
- If the Curse could possibly become void under any circumstances, then the Curse is not inescapable fate.
- If the Curse is not inescapable fate, then Túrin was not doomed to that fate.
We have one other bit of evidence to show that Morgoth’s Curse was not unavoidably effective. Going back to “Of the Ruin of Doriath”, we follow Húrin’s travels after the tragic deaths of his children. He finds Morwen and, after a brief but incredibly poignant conversation, she also dies. He looks at her face in death, though, and knows with certainty: “She was not conquered.” Remember: Morgoth told Húrin that this Curse was “upon all whom you love”… and Húrin certainly loved Morwen. The fact that she was not conquered is further evidence that the Curse was not unavoidable and that Túrin, the self-named Master of Doom, could have avoided the doom designed for him by Morgoth.
Of course, to avoid such doom, Túrin would have had to make better choices, and act with humility and self-restraint. In fact, it is Túrin’s pride and arrogance that is most often to blame for his misfortunes — not the Curse of Morgoth. Almost all of Túrin’s choices stem from pride — his ofermod, to borrow another term that Tolkien spoke of. From his rejection of the King’s pardon to the decision to take up his father’s helm again, from building the bridge across the Narog to his refusal of Ulmo’s commands, from returning home rather than pursuing Finduilas’ captors and even to his suicide, pride appears to be the driving force behind most (if not all) of his poor choices.
The tale of Túrin Turambar is not a tale of inescapable Fate, but a tragic tale of foolishness and pride.
1 I was inspired to tackle this subject after reading Troels Forchammer’s excellent essay, “Fate and Free Will in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.” Forchammer goes much deeper into the philosophical matters than I can in this short piece; I highly recommend it.
2 For those who wish to get lost in the philosophical weeds on this, see https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2006/entries/freewill for more.
3 Scholars today doubt the attribution to King Alfred, and the translation now is often referred to merely as the Old English Boethius.
4 Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p.141
5 Dubs’ piece was published in full in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader published by The University Press of Kentucky (2004).