Free will in Arda (Part I)

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Do they Elves in Arda have free will? Or are they inevitably destined to serve the Light, just like the Orcs who are the eternal slaves of Darkness?

This question was submitted to me a few months ago, but back then, I only partially and privately answered, and I’ll try here to give a much longer and structured reply. In this post, I’ll only talk about the first part of the question, which is already complex in itself. I’ll treat the subject of the Orcs in another post.

So, regarding the free will of the Elves, we find the following line in the Shibboleth of Fëanor (HoMe XII), when the Valar ( the demiurgic Powers in charge of Arda) have to deal with Míriel’s (Fëanor’s mother) wish to abandon her life :

So the Valar were faced by the one thing that they could neither change nor heal: the free will of one of the Children of Eru, which it was unlawful for them to coerce.

The same sort of comments appears when the Valar offer the Elves to join them in Valinor, or when the rebelled Noldor decide to leave Aman. Free will is therefore a thing, and it seems to fall under the shroud of inviolability. But you already guess that things aren’t that simple, don’t you? The subject at stake is in fact much more complex, if only because destiny is also something that comes into play within Arda. Suffice to mention the title the first Dark Lord, Melkor/Morgoth, gives himself in the First Age : Master of the Fates of Arda (and he does so partly to better defy Eru Iluvatar, The One Allfather). One cannot ignore the tensions at stake between free will and fate, even though the two notions, as we shall see, aren’t contradictory. Indeed, destiny in Arda isn’t something completely planned and inflexible, even if there is a plan (the Elven king Finrod wonders if the end of the Tale has already been written or if it remains unfinished…). I’d rather say that each individual’s fate often needs to be contemplated and reconsidered, because the characters are offered to follow their fate through several manifestations, which one would call chance or coincidences.

 When I started to write on this question, I looked up the number of occurrences of expressions involving the word “chance“ in the Narn I Hîn Húrin, published in The Unfinished Tales (>UT). The number is rather important for a relatively short text ( about 20 occurrences for a thousand of pages), and I tend to believe that it is no mere coincidence (aha!). In fact, it’s particularly relevant in this tale since Túrin’s misfortunes are “guided” by the curse that fell upon his sister and him. And, by the way, it’s precisely in this tale that Melkor/Morgoth claims to be the Master of the Fates of Arda…

But let’s get back to the topic at stake: still in UT (Third Age), we find this remark in the chapter about the Palantíri :

So it was « by chance » as Men call it (as Gandalf would have said) that Perigrin, fumbling with the Stone, must have set it on the ground more or less upright, and sitting westward of it have had the fixed east-looking face in the proper position.

The way this “by chance” is introduced seems precisely to imply that this is no mere coincidence, and that other powers are involved here. There are several considerations of the like in the passages in which the characters contemplate the events that led to the War of the Ring. In the chapter on the Quest of Erebor, this is how Gandalf talks about his adventures :

It was only the map and the key that saved the situation. But I had not thought of them for years. It was not until I got to the Shire and had time to reflect on Thorin’s tale that I suddenly remembered the strange chance that had put them in my hands; and it began now to look less like chance.

Even more relevant is the text which appears a little further and which is explicitly given as written by Frodo:

Then looking hard at Gandalf, he [Gimli] went on: « But who wove the web?  I do not think I have ever considered that before. Did you plan all this then, Gandalf? If not, why did you lead Thorin Oakenshield to such an unlikely door? To find the Ring and bring it far away into the West for hiding, and then to choose the Ringbearer – and to restore the Mountain Kingdom as a mere deed by the way: was not that your design? »

Gandalf did not answer at once. He stood up, and looked out of the window, west, seawards; and the sun was then setting, and a glow was in his face. He stood so a long while silent. But at last he turned to Gimli and said: I do not know the answer. For I have changed since those days, and I am no longer trammelled by the burden of Middle-earth as I was then. In those days I should have answered you with words like those I used to Frodo, only last year in the spring. Only last year! But such measures are meaningless. In that far distant time, I said to a small and frightened hobbit: Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, and you therefore were meant to bear it. And I might have added: and I was meant to guide you both to those points (…) But what I knew in my heart, or knew before I stepped on these grey shores: that is another matter. Olórin I was in the West that is forgotten, and only to those who are there shall I speak more openly.

Everything is meaningful and significant in this excerpt: think of the way Gandalf turns toward Valinor, toward the Valar in the West, and his past existence as a Maia (that is an “angelic being” in the service of the Valar). I invite you to open The Fellowship of the Ring, chapter 2 (« The Shadow of the Pas »t), to find the exacts words Gandalf is here referring to, but let’s stick to the excerpt given above, in which we can understand those rather obscure assessments as a clue which would half reveal that the Valar might be behind all this, in the sense that they might have send messages to his heart in order to guide his actions. We can also imagine that it was Eru Himself who directed all those influences and intuitions which brought Gandalf to act as he did… we have no answer, and that’s for the better! But think of what Gandalf says concerning Bilbo :

I dare say he was « chosen » and I was only chosen to choose him.

Here, the use of the passive voice is relevant, precisely because it is vague and doesn’t reveal any agent ; an agent which Gandalf calls chance or coincidences, and which cannot impair the individual free will. Indeed, here is how Frodo answers Gandalf :

I understand you a little better now, Gandalf, than I did before. Though I suppose that, whether meant or not, Bilbo might have refused to leave home, and so might I. You could not compel us. You were not even allowed to try.

To better understand this, let’s have a look now at what I said in this previous post :

Leo Carruthers in Tolkien et la Religion explained how this notion of free will is fundamental in Tolkien’s work:

If the heroes don’t have to make a choice because the path to take seems obvious… if criminals couldn’t repent, the story of The Lord of the Rings would be far less interesting.

According to him, we can understand the term “Free People of Middle-earth” as people who “can use their free will to decide between good and evil”. It is to be understood through the Christian notion of salvation, because “if mankind couldn’t tell good from evil, they wouldn’t be able to choose one or the other.” 

According to Gandalf, there is a greater willpower which Men and Hobbits can’t grasp and which brings things to happen, yet this power is never constraining in the sense that it doesn’t force people to do anything: everyone is individually free to accept or not the influences they meet, whether the influence in question takes the shape of a meeting, a person-guide or an object. That’s why Leo Carruthers’s words are relevant, for we can understand that it would be easy (even easier!) for the characters to discard those elements which seem to mark out the way towards a certain fate. Look at Saruman for instance, who took another path and made the war against Sauron even more challenging, although he possessed the same (if not more) knowledge than Gandalf, and received the same orders.

But I digressed a bit since the question was mostly about the Elves. Actually, things aren’t that different, and speaking of that, I’d like to come back on the words used in that question : “…destined to serve the Light”. The Elves don’t serve the Light. “To serve” would imply the idea of submission to one’s will, as if they were the Valar’s subjects. And if Manwë (the highest of the Valar) is indeed the main sovereign of Arda, I don’t think it would be appropriate to see the Elves (and Humans) as his subjects. They are, first and foremost, the Children of Eru, under the tutelage of Manwë, who is himself Eru’s regent. Tutelage doesn’t systematically imply servitude, not even service. Globally, the Elves don’t have the mission to serve anyone ; the notes of the Athrabeth speaks precisely in those terms of “Eru, who appears in the Elvish tradition to demand two things from His Children (of either Kindred): belief in Him, and proceeding from that, hope or trust in Him”. There are Elves indeed who decide to « protect the Light », somehow, like Glorfindel who came back to Middle-earth with the mission help Elrond and Gil-Galad in their fight against, but that’s a personal choice. It would therefore be, I think, excessive to speak of servitude, even though we saw in a previous post that acts of disobedience would have serious consequences (but this specific topic would bring us to discuss the nuances between submission and obedience, and the hierarchy among the different inhabitants of Arda, so I’ll leave it at that).

Nevertheless, it is crucial to underline the fact that quite a lot of Elves didn’t “serve the light” at all, and this is another token of the existence of free will: you just have to mention the name of First Age Elves like Eöl (and his various versions) who kidnapped Aredhel to make her his wife, forced her and their son to never leave his domain and eventually killed her as she tried to protect their son from Eöl’s javeline. But we can also mention this same son, Maeglin, who is closely involved in the destruction of Gondolin, or even Thingol, who, despite the wise advices of his Maia wife, fell for his greed. Special prize of course for Fëanor and his sons who, ironically and tragically, committed terrible crimes (including three kinslayings) precisely in their (vain) attempt to regain the light (the Silmarils) and to destroy Melkor/Morgoth. There is a great numbers of examples of « bad deeds » among the Elves, and Galadriel isn’t exempt (as we saw here).

In one of the notes of the Athrabeth, Tolkien explained that the Elves could answer, or not, the Summon of Mandos, keeper of the Halls of Awaiting (where the dead Elves are supposed to dwell) :

They were given a choice, because Eru did not allow their free will to be taken away

And he added that if they refused, it was precisely because they were deluded by Morgoth/Melkor, though it wouldn’t keep them from being eventually punished.

Another interesting example relies on what we find in a text called « Laws and Customs of the Eldar » published in HoMe X:

When in after days, as the histories reveal, many of the Eldar in Middle-earth became corrupted, and their hearts darkened by the shadow that lies upon Arda, seldom is any tale told of deeds of lust among them.

For your information, marriage amidst the Eldar happens through the sexual act, that is how the fëar (the souls, somehow) of the spouses are united. A forced marriage is therefore an equivalent of a rape. And the ambivalence of this line is particularly interesting, since « rare » doesn’t mean « none », and the formulation seems to indicate that such crimes might have existed among the Eldar.

Yet, and that is crucial, we know that no Elf has ever been in the service of Dark forces by choice (some would say that Maeglin made a choice but to that I’d answer in three words : torture, psychological manipulation). Tolkien even said in the Commentary of the Athrabeth :

Individual Elves might be seduced to a kind of minor ‘Melkorism’: desiring to be their own masters in Arda, and to have things their own way, leading in extreme cases to rebellion against the tutelage of the Valar; but not one had ever entered the service or allegiance of Melkor himself, nor ever denied the existence and absolute supremacy of Eru.

Likewise, in HoMe XI, it is repeated that “no Elf of any kind ever sided with Morgoth of free will, though under torture or the stress of great fear, or deluded by lies, they might obey his commands.” Therefore, we can assess that the Elves are free to commit awful crimes, but none would willingly serve the Dark. We must also say that those crimes are not left unpunished, since the Vala Mandos has a reason to be called the Judge…but you already know the lyrics : another topic, another discussion!

To conclude, I would say that indeed, the Elves are undeniably given free will, but that in Arda, some greater willpowers are working in order make some situations happen, which influence them one way or another and which give people some opportunities (the goal of the latter being the accomplishment of the Great Plan of Eru). Because beyond everything that happened, « there was something else at works, beyond any design of the Ring-maker » ( The Fellowship of the Ring, ch. 2). Nevertheless, Valar and Maiar are strictly forbidden to force anyone to do anything or to manipulate their free will. It is up to the Elves to make something of the opportunities which are given to them, and to use them wisely. There are still capable of committing atrocities, precisely because their free will is always putting them to the test. Although they wouldn’t serve the Dark, it’s precisely because they are free to choose that some of them would become murderers and others would become heroes.

I will speak of the free will of the Orcs in another post, if only to keep you from an overdose!

Thank you for your attention and feel free to react in the comments!


  • JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  • JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Unfinished Tales of Middle-earth and Númenor
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, History of Middle-earth volume X
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The War of the Jewels, History of Middle-earth volume XI
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The people of Middle earth, History of Middle-earth volume XII
  • Leo Carruthers, Tolkien et la Religion

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