J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings”, and Free Will

Gollum
Gollum

This article is by Darren Andrews.

Generations have been enthralled by Tolkien’s epic fantasy, “The Lord of The Rings”. Its pages have been studied alongside the works of C.S. Lewis in Christian-literature classes, a society exists dedicated to preserving it in the spirit of its author, and back in the 1970s (in England at least) it was ‘unofficial required reading’ to enter the more respected universities – if you wanted to be accepted by your peers!

J.R.R. Tolkien, born 1892, was both a philologist and a student of mythology. He was a down-to-earth man nevertheless, and filled with a remarkable amount of common sense and clarity of thought. That he spent so much of his effort in fiction yet had so great a grasp of reality – both of the seen and unseen – is perhaps one of his most endearing qualities.

A number of documentaries, and other TV shows discussing both “The Lord of the Rings” and its author, were screened around the release of the movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, in December 2001. None, however, looked – except perhaps briefly – into the supernal truths wrapped up in this high fantasy epic.

Tolkien held to the belief that so-called “fairy-stories” were not just for children, but a powerful way of relating truth. “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy,” Tolkien wrote, “can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth.”[1]

In fact, Tolkien went on to opine that the “association of children and fairy-stories” was an “accident of our domestic history.”[2]

It’s important to first understand a little about Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth, if we are to understand why he spent so much time creating it. This was no alien planet, but our world set in some fictional era and possessed of a history that paralleled our own. Tolkien built his world on the basis of language and then upon that world’s creation, its myths and history. To him, world-building (or subcreation as he called it), was as near to the divine act of creation as one might rise, in artistic matters at least. His world relates to us, now. Its lessons are intended for us. Its truths are our truths.

If we look into the actual story, or plot, of “The Lord of the Rings” itself we can see allegories of greater relevance to us as individuals going through life’s journey. The One Ring, the central artefact of the entire epic, offers power to those who wield it. Yet it is evil and will enslave any who try to use it – whatever their intent. Frodo, on discovering the real nature of the Ring, offers it to Gandalf whom he trusts and knows to be both wise and powerful. Gandalf’s response lends much insight into what the Ring really represents. Says Gandalf: “Do not tempt me…the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good…the wish to wield it would be too great.”[3]

The book, as we can see from Gandalf’s words and those of others in the story, focuses then on the theme of free will, or Will as Tolkien called it. The Ring therefore represents temptation to exercise dominion over the Will of all others, to subjugate their power of choice. And it is in the hands of a pure-hearted Hobbit that the Ring has least effect, a clear affirmation that humility can defeat the greatest of evils.

Even in the intervention of Ilúvatar (Middle-earth’s God) we see a respect for the free will of the peoples of Middle-earth. The story takes place (as does most of its history) in a time of apostasy, when worship of the One is unknown or very limited (even among the Elves), yet Ilúvatar sends five (or more) powerful Valar-like beings to Middle-earth with a charge not to dominate the Will of the inhabitants. This was a great temptation to them because of their standing and power. They were also commanded never to match their own power against the Enemy directly, except in circumstances prescribed by the One. Rather, they are assigned to counsel and guide the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Alas, all save one named Gandalf deviated from this path of duty.

Boromir, a great man, wanted to use the power of the Ring to help his people, and in so desiring fell prey to its corruption. Gollum, of course, was utterly enslaved to the Ring, an extreme example of what can happen to our own free will when we become so wrapped up with our own desires that we disregard the free will of others.

So often in our world today, and throughout history, we see those who desire the wrong kind of strength to do good. They desire the power to force and manage rather than the humility to persuade, guide and lead. It can start with apparently noble motives, as illustrated by Gandalf’s confession of his own weakness, but invariably those who pursue power begin to impinge upon the free will of others, and the intended good eventually becomes a burdensome evil.

Tolkien’s epic tale, then, bears a central message that needs retelling, for there are many “rings of power” in our own world, and too few willing to make the journey to the fires of Mount Doom.

Sources

1. Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories”, Tree and Leaf, George Allen & Unwin: Great Britain, 1964; pp.64.

2. Ibid. pp. 34.

3. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Fellowship of the Ring”, George Allen & Unwin: Great Britain, 1954; pp. 60.

About the Author:

Darren Andrews has been writing since his youth – stories, letters to editors, articles & essays, game text, humour, poetry and newsletters. He loves words and their creative use. He has also read and critiqued a number of fiction manuscripts, rewritten non-fiction ebooks, and researched and written articles for various markets.

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Grahamirwin64
9 years ago

Great article!

D.M. Andrews
D.M. Andrews
9 years ago

Thank you for your kind words, and thanks to Tony for posting. I wrote this some time ago 😉 Yes, Tolkien was a deep man, I feel, but one who kept his head in reality (like his friend, C.S. Lewis) despite his penchant for the mythic and fantastical…

D.M. Andrews
Author of “The Serpent in the Glass”
Former Lead Developer of Fourth Age: Total War (a Middle-earth mod)

Lawrence
Lawrence
9 years ago

Splendid piece, thank you Darrren and thank you Mythic Scribes.

The way Tolkien handles the many huge spiritual themes that are woven into the Lord of the Rings like so many intricate threads is really special. The dialogue is of a different class to much fiction. There are alot of profound observations either hinted at or openly revealed. 

Free Will is of course a pillar of christian thought, and for me it is a double edged sword. Free Will means that we can opt to bring good into the lives of others, or to bring devastation. God does not step in directly to halt the rise to power of a Hitler or a congolese rebel leader who delights to shed blood every step of the way…nor does He crush me under the hand of judgement when I chose selfishness rather than self sacrifice.

Like the God of Tolkien’s fantasy world, He withholds judgement and asks us, as a free will choice of our own, to instead do right, and to contribute good to the world and be active in standing against evil. Like Middle earth, the result of this approach is often tragedy and immense pain, as the ‘Rings’ of this world tempt men to all kinds of wickedness.

But what is the alternative? No Free Will…a human race that can only chose right would give us heaven on earth. Well, maybe. But the reality is that we can all chose our own path. And though I may have painted a grim picture let’s remember that we DO have the tools to be Aragorn, not Boromir, to be Gandalf not Saruman, Theoden, not Denothor…to have a heart open to the needs of others and a humility that breaks the power of selfish pride. Mount Doom was reached by such hearts, not by sheer physical force.

Without wanting to ambush this topic for God, I will just add that Christmas is about the kind of self sacrifice that saved Middle earth and offers hope to our world. Tolkien gave us many glimpses of Jesus Christ in his characters. His heroes are truly noble and give us examples to aspire to.

Terry
Terry
9 years ago

Good article!

There are many levels to the Lord of the Rings, many of which are glossed over in the film versions. Readers of the trilogy probably catch and understand, but those that haven’t probably don’t.

Sometimes it appears easier to ‘tell or make’ someone do what you want them to do (or what you think is best for them) as opposed to demonstrating, teaching, and encouraging. Which, however, will have a lasting postive impact?

Nathan J. Lauffer
9 years ago

This article makes me want to stop what I’m doing this very instant and read Lord of the Rings again. Excellent article.

Jake Belsten
Jake Belsten
7 years ago

I loved this article. I’ve only recently been able to comprehend the sheer depth of what Tolkien created, and this article had some excellent thought in it. Thanks!

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