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.