The question is less innocent than it sounds. At Mythcon earlier this month, I heard two presentations on the subject of whether the Elves in Middle-earth exhibit free will or some kind of predestination. I gave a short summary of the two papers, by Carl Hostetter and Verlyn Flieger respectively, in my conference report, here. As I wrote in the report, an argument (but a civil one) took off immediately and raged during the entire weekend, and now well beyond it, giving “the whole Shire something to talk about for nine days, or ninety-nine more likely.”
Last week, I opened this Pandora’s Box on TORn, posting the same summaries and ultimate question: do Tolkien’s Elves have free will? The debate there has been one of the liveliest I’ve ever seen on the site, with almost 150 responses — and counting! Carl Hostetter has even stopped by to further elucidate Tolkien’s unpublished thoughts on Elvish fate and will, as situated in their concepts of ambar and umbar.
In a way, the question can actually be abstracted to ask to what extent a fictional being created by any author (with the authority, one might say, equivalent to that of God, but within a narrower scope) can exhibit free will. (Hence my illustration above, which I hope you enjoyed. I spent entirely too much time on it! ;) We tend to talk about Tolkien’s Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits as if they were actually real, living beings, independent of their Author. Dorothy Sayers has much to say on this subject in The Mind of the Maker, and I could appeal to Tolkien’s concept of the sub-creator, too (as described in “On Fairy-stories” and in his published letters). Sayers was a Catholic like Tolkien, but Lewis, an Anglican, espoused similar views on sub-creation.
And so, to continue, might we argue just as well (or ill) about whether Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had a free choice whether to go to England or not (whereby avoiding death)? That may sound silly, but the question isn’t entirely rhetorical — just ask Harry Potter fans whether they feel that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are “real” people capable of making their own “free” choices. In a way, the whole essence of fanfic is to follow through on the consequences of such assumptions. I didn’t bring up any of this on the TORn thread, though; I think they’re just about ready to start throwing things at me as it is! ;)
A thorny subject, but an interesting one! Perhaps it’s even worth getting scratched up a little in the debate. Stop by TORn and read along, or post your own thoughts — there or here.