Free will reigns in Middle-earth

By Aristophanes


J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy makes two central claims about the nature of free will and governance. In this article, I’ll explain both, as well as why these two claims, if true, necessarily lead to a singular conclusion.

The first claim presented is the idea that free will, or the autonomous ability of independent beings, is the greatest achievable good. This is illustrated by Tolkien’s composition of the character of Frodo Baggins, whose goals are better accomplished when coercion and enslavement, the main tactics of the Dark Lord Sauron, are avoided entirely. The second claim is the idea that it should be the primary function of any governing body to pursue the greatest achievable good, if one so exists. This is illustrated through the excellent leadership decisions of King Aragorn of Gondor, in contrast to the oftentimes poor decisions of his predecessor, the steward Denethor. By combining both claims, we can conclude that Tolkien would have a governing body pursue the free will of its citizens as a primary function. We see this, the combination of Aragorn and Frodo, in the leadership of the wizard Gandalf as he lends help and advice to the good people of Middle-earth in opposing Sauron, while also choosing to surrender this high role once the Dark Lord is finally overthrown.

To explore these ideas, we must first define the term “free will.” According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, free will is “a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” For example, we can say that Frodo Baggins exercises his free will when he choses willingly to take the One Ring of Power from Hobbiton to Rivendell, and, following the Council of Elrond, from Rivendell to Mordor. When Gollum, with the hope of reclaiming his lost “precious,” chooses to pursue Frodo on this same journey, we might say that he is not acting in a manner befitting a truly free individual. Gollum, in contrast to the pre-ring-bearing Frodo, is almost utterly controlled by the compulsion of the Ring; because of this, he is unable to exercise true agency.

Now we begin to see clearly why Tolkien placed so heavy an emphasis on the innate good of free choice, but we have not yet established it as the greatest achievable good. In order to do this, I will present two further examples: that of Frodo before the fires of Orodruin and Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful servant, in the tower of Cirith Ungol after his master’s capture. For the first, we see that Frodo, finally weighed down by the burden of the Ring, is no longer able to exercise his free will by casting that very burden into the fire. Had Gollum not intervened (albeit for his own selfish reasons), all would have been lost and the Ring reclaimed by Sauron, a fact which no achievable military might, power, or other traditional good could have changed. For the second example, Sam does something clearly illogical with his free will, as by completely abandoning Frodo the Ring might have stood a better chance at being safely destroyed. Yet Sam’s love for his master proved a driving force during the difficult journey from Cirith Ungol to Orodruin, a will that was desperately needed for the journey’s completion. Thus, seeing no alternatives, it is safe for us to claim free will as the greatest achievable good in The Lord of the Rings.

Next, we must turn our analysis toward Aragorn’s governance of Gondor. Following the downfall of Sauron, Aragorn does a few curious things. First, he grants the forest of Druadan to the people of Ghân-buri-Ghân for their support in the war, despite the strained relations Gondor has had with that same group in the past. Second, he holds no claim or reparations against Sauron’s allies from the South, knowing that they were merely deceived and not truly acting of their own accord. Finally, King Aragorn spares Beregond, who by full right of the law should have come to harsher terms than he did. Instead, the man who left his post is allowed to serve on Faramir’s new guard in Ithilien. All three of these instances represent a government exercising its power for a clearly achievable utilitarian good. All of these examples produce good in the kingdom of Gondor, a state of affairs that might have been tainted with more malicious, revengeful decrees. When Denethor forces oaths from Beregond and Pippin, for example, does this not lead them to love their master less? Beregond abandons his post to confront Denethor, and Pipppin confronts the steward in a like manner by seeking for Gandalf. Thus, we can say that a governing body is better off when seeking achievable good, and should therefore seek the greatest achievable good, if something of that nature truly exists in the idea of free will.

Given the two above points, that free will is the greatest achievable good and that the greatest achievable good serves as the ideal purpose of a righteous governing body, it logically follows that governing bodies should seek to maximize the free will of their citizens. We can see this illustrated in the characterization of the wizard Gandalf, the primary mastermind of the free people’s opposition to Sauron in the Great War of the Ring. Gandalf never forces anyone to follow him, even though he knows that such course of action would be in their best interest, anyway. When the Council of Elrond convenes in Rivendell, Gandalf never forces, or even coerces, Frodo into assuming the task of Ringbearer. Neither does Gandalf seek oaths from any of his company, as the steward Denethor later seeks of Pippin.

Gandalf also takes it upon himself to be as merciful as possible — a mercy that results in good ends. Gandalf spares the life of Saruman after the Ents destroy the land surrounding his tower of Orthanc. Although Saruman does manage to cause some mischief in the Shire near the end of Book VI, this plot merely works to unite the hobbits (both those that were returning to and the ones that remained in the Shire), resulting in more good than before. In perhaps what is the greatest example of Gandalf’s mercy, he also continually preaches the doctrine of pitying those who have fallen, such as Gollum, who is corrupted by the power of the Ring. A concept first mentioned in Book I, this is something that Frodo particularly takes to heart in his journeying. Because Gollum was not killed, as many, such as Sam, suggested he should have been, the Ring was able to be destroyed. Gollum bit off Frodo’s finger that wore the Ring outside Orodruin, thus ensuring its destruction when he himself slipped into the mountain’s fires.

Even further, Gandalf leaves the task of fighting evil to others once the great evil, the Dark Lord Sauron, is defeated. Gandalf knows that Gondor can now stand against any remaining enemies and that the hobbits can deal with whatever befouls their life in the Shire, thus allowing them to choose their own way. This is the ultimate maximization of free will, and is immeasurably wise upon the part of Gandalf, who chooses to leave Middle-earth by way of an elven ship in the Grey Havens.

Thus, we can see in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that free will is the clear and ultimate good. Other things, such as military power, aren’t necessarily bad, however; the riding of the Rohirrim helps to save the city of Minas Tirith, after all. But in the case of the Rohirrim, it is much more important that these men exercised their free will to answer the distress calls of Gondor (the red arrows in the hands of horseback messengers from Minas Tirith), with their fighting prowess coming in as merely secondary to their willingness to engage in battle. (For further examples of this, just look at all accomplished by the weak-seeming Merry and Eowyn, who ended up besting the Chief Ringwraith, himself.) By incorporating this high designation of free will into a style of leadership, as done by Aragorn and Gandalf especially, even more good can be accomplished. Therefore, Tolkien suggests our course to be that of caring for the gift of free will, bestowing it generously and using its power to extract even more good from the world. ■


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