Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Do Tolkien’s Elves have free will? Do we?

Free Will!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 Carl Hostetter has even stopped by to further elucidate Tolkien’s unpublished thoughts on Elvish fate and will, as situated in their concepts of ambar and umbar.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.


  1. I've never thought of Tom Stoppard as a fanfiction author before, though I imagine others have described him that way.

  2. Tom Stoppard as fanfic author, yes, that’s come up before. I can’t recall where or when or in what conversation (helpful, I know!), but describing him in that way definitely rings a bell in the back of my memory.

  3. I haven't the Tolkien scholarship to assess the literary aspect of the question, but one thing I'd drop into the debate based on what I've been exposed to as a student of philosophy is: are Elves rational? Do they make 'judgments'?

    There's an argument in circulation which loosely states that rationality presupposes free will. (The idea is to shove psychologists back out of the debate by contending that science is supposed to be a rational process, and therefore science can never prove we don't have free will without undermining its own authority and the attempted proof.) So the question as applied here would be: before an Elf makes, or thinks he makes, or appears to make, a 'choice', is his appraisal of what options are open to him basically that of a hugely intricate calculator (programmed for correctness or not), or is what's going on psychologically what we might prefer to call 'judgment'?

    I'm not sure anyone would wish to deny that Elves can make rational judgments, so maybe that's why the TORn thread looked so heavily concerned with external concepts like fate/destiny.

  4. Robert, thanks for your insightful thoughts. I think free will is one of those perennial questions we will never — and can never — answer definitively. No appeal to religion or science is sufficient, and appealing to philosophy tends to lead us around in circles, focused mainly on defining our terms and formulating largely futile gedankenexperimenten that are no more conclusive. Still, the question nags at us, and we can’t let it go, can we?

    To your point about whether Elves makes judgments, they do. Part of the discussion in Tolkien’s unpublished notes revolves around ambar (= “the world”) and umbar (= “fate”) as descendents of a root whose meaning was something like settlement. In the one case, physical settlement, and in the other, in the sense of judgment, settling a question.

    (P.S. Some time ago, I happened onto a post on your blog about “Elven Latin”, in which you linked back to something I wrote about Gandalf and Albus Dumbledore; I’ve been meaning to revisit that. Keep an eye out for it. ;)

  5. Dorothy Leigh Sayers was not a Roman Catholic, she was Church of England. At the time of her birth, her father was headmaster of the Choir School of Christ Church College. She was christened in the Christ Church chapel, which boasts the distinction of being a Church of England Cathedral.

    At the end of her life, Sayers was associated with the C of E parish of St. Anne's, Soho, and her ashes are buried in its tower. (The church was destroyed during World War II, but a new church was built in the 1990s. The parish has a web site at, and the history page on the site mentions Sayers.)

    Sayers also wrote a play, _The Zeal of They House_, for the (C of E) Canterbury Festival, presented in 1937.

    I don't know to what extent Sayers concerned herself with the differences in doctrine between the Roman Catholic Church and the C of E, but she was associated wih the latter.

  6. Thanks for setting me straight, Julian. I’m not sure why I thought Sayers was Catholic, or if I read it, where. More likely, it was a fault of memory, not misinformation. Thanks again. :)

  7. That's a quite beautiful question if I'm understanding your meaning. Of course its the ones who go against the grain who are the most interesting .. but then they are following the authors pen still so yeah ....

    I'll have to follow your Torn thread to see what wiser souls than I are saying :)

  8. Hi Cat. Thanks for the comment! The TORn thread has finally wound down, but not before gathering more than 150 replies. That should keep you busy for a little while, hahae. It’s not a question we can ever really answer — frankly, I think it’s beyond the limits of our human understanding — but the debate itself can be rewarding. :)