There will be one big problem with this review: I truly cannot assess this book on its own merits. I was 22 when the first Peter Jackson adaptation came out, and over the years I’ve seen all three movies multiple times, as well as the extended versions. Not that I consider myself a The Lord Of The Rings geek – not at all – but the movies were such a dominant cultural force back in the days, with CGI and other special effects on a scale unseen before. In an age before streaming, popping in a LOTR DVD simply was easy escapism, even if you’d seen it twice already.
I had read The Hobbit in translation when I was 14 or so, but wasn’t that impressed, and subsequently got bogged down in a Dutch translation of The Fellowship of the Ring a few months later. When the movies came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like I needed to read the books – as my friends who had read them assured me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the story, so I wasn’t curious – I mean, why read 1000 pages just to get a few scenes with Tom Bombadil or Radagast The Brown? And yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a significant coda, but it wasn’t crucial to satisfy my escapist urges.
Today, I have read the books. I even read the 894-page A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull – well, I skimmed certain parts of that, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek, but the 2014 version of 2005’s Companion was included in the edition I ended up buying. I wanted to have a hardcover edition (with the appendixes) in 3 separate bands – as I’d found that the single tome I bought first was simply not practical to read, so I send that back, and an edition with the Companion turned out to be the cheapest. As I knew I wanted to write this review, I thought it would be interesting to read up a bit on LOTR now that I had that Companion anyway. For those of you interested, I’ve included a short review of Hammond & Scull’s volume at the very end.
All the prefaces and introductions and histories of the work’s origin and quotes from letters and notes and notes and notes did enhance my reading experience. It showed that Tolkien had too much time on his hands, and invested so much in backstories of details that the entire Middle-earth mythos is a work of art so far out there it borders on the insane – the fact that A Reader’s Companion makes crystal clear again and again Tolkien was foremost preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of his creation only amplifies that.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself: I was talking about the one big problem of this review. I will do two things in the remainder of this text:
First, I’ll talk about my reading experience in relation to having seen the movies first, and try to compare the two. That might be of interest to a whole lot of new LOTR readers, as I take it most newbies will have seen the movies first, but it might also be of interest to people who read the books first, as, paradoxically, having seen the movies first also allows me to reflect on the bare bones of the story as story, regardless of medium.
After that, I’ll write a fair bit on what I wrote in my 5500 words analysis of that other monument of speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune:
I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined. At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control. As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem (…).
It is my firm conviction such is also The Lord Of The Rings most basic problem, and it turns out again that authors are not always the best theoreticians about their own work: Tolkien’s writing on his own writing is a mess.
For those who might be confused by what I already wrote so far: I’m generally positive on this Monument of Fantasy. If pressed, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars as a literary accomplishment – which is excellent: 5-star reads are rare. As a work of outsider art, it’s way off the charts: 5+++ it is!
This text is the longest review I have yet written and especially the part on choice and “acts of will” is heavy with quotes from LOTR itself, but you can skip those if you want. Throughout this review, I will also quote extensively from letters Tolkien wrote, and I’d say those are crucial either way.
If you’re a seasoned Tolkien fan, I’m very curious about your view on what this LOTR newbee wrote about the matter, so don’t hesitate to disagree in the comments.
FOOL ME TWICE: I SAW THE MOVIE FIRST
There’s no beating around the bush: I do think the 3-part movie is better than the book, that is, if you take Tolkien’s own stated intention from the foreword to the second edition into account:
The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times excite them or deeply move them.
As for amusement & excitement Jackson’s version succeeds better – especially in the last third, as I felt the book version of The Return of the King to be a bit boring & repetitive at times. The fact that the battles and awesome beasts all are brought to the forefront in the movies, enhances excitement imo.
Also emotionally, the movies worked a bit better for me. It has been said over and over again, but Tolkien’s big book lacks a bit of characterization. Not that the movie does so much better – there’s only so much source material to work with – but as lots of human emotional communication happens non-verbally, just seeing the characters and their facial expressions on a screen enhances our emotional bonding instantly. Add to that the great choice Jackson made to put Aragorn’s relationship with Arwen in the limelight. It might not please Tolkien purists, but in the way Tolkien wrote it, their story doesn’t get enough page time, and as such fails to “deeply move”.
But then again, there is also something else to consider. In a letter to F.J. Ackerman in 1958, Tolkien wrote that the martyrdom of Frodo is “the most important part of the whole work”, as it “is the chief point of The Lord of the Rings that the battles were of subordinate significance.”
As such, I can understand the late Christopher Tolkien to have remarked that he thought Jackson’s movies made a travesty of his father’s work. On the other hand, I do think Jackson succeeded aptly in translating the martyrdom of Frodo to the screen too. As such, Jackson’s version scratches both itches. I also think Tolkien’s supposed philosophical depth is overrated, so I don’t think the movie is necessarily a lighter, derivative affair on that account – but more on that in the next part of this review.
So, how did I experience reading LOTR as a fan of the movies?
I was a bit afraid of the first chapters, as I thought the initial events in the Shire might be a bit boring – it takes some time before the story gets going, in the movie too. But to my surprise, I was wrong: all the details drew me in, and it felt nice to finally be in the book form of this world.
Throughout the entire book, there were also enough details that differed from the movies to keep things interesting, but I have to say an overall sense of wonder simply lacked, as most of the big scenes were in in the movie, and obviously I was familiar with the bulk of Tolkien’s world building. I guess this sense of wonder might be the most important part of the enjoyment for most first time readers.
I was also surprised how firmly the movies were imprinted in my brain. Normally, I’m not a very visual reader – I hardly envision faces for characters when reading – but this time, entire scenes easily came to my mental eye (and ear!), but as a result I also often felt the movies to be more awesome as what was written in the book. Visual readers that haven’t seen the movies might not have this problem: they probably invent their own awesomeness before their mental eye.
I already said so, but I think the book is a bit too detailed at times, and that hurts the tension. It’s hard to answer the question whether that feeling was enhanced because I have seen the movies. My guess is that even if I wouldn’t have seen the movie, I would have still felt that there were too much details. I can’t find where I read it, but there’s truth to the dictum that Tolkien provided too much details where it doesn’t matter (backstory of Middle-Earth), and too few where it does (characterization).
Similarly, the movie avoids the attention & repetition of nomenclature that Tolkien liked so much. A sentence like “But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit – indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends – I do not think (…)” doesn’t charm me.
I’m not sure the appendixes add a lot to the story itself – aside from backstory on Aragorn & Arwen. It does add a lot of depth to the history of the conflict and Middle-earth in general. The love story was included in the movie, and the introduction to the movie also included most of what was necessary, in a quick and salient way – as amusement or excitement a lot better than those rather dry pages at the end of a 1000-page story. The one thing the movies did lack was a clear explanation for Aragorn’s Númenorean/Dúnedain power.
In line with what I already said above, I think the appendixes don’t make for better literature, but they do make for better art – especially the part of Appendix F on translation is mind-boggling. So simply judged as a story, also here the movie wins in my opinion.
But there is some important stuff on the plus side for the books too. The character of Saruman is drawn way sharper in the book: his downfall from the deluded Machiavellian wizard that talks about “the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” to the petty old man at the end is great. The parlay with Saruman after the Ents have conquered Isengard would have made the movies a lot richer, and it’s a shame as well his appearances near the book’s ending weren’t included in the movie.
Also the scene with the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gates of Mordor should have been included. Jackson tried, but I don’t think it was handled well. The Mouth was portrayed too grotesque, the dialogue cut too much, and Jackson chose to show only Frodo’s mithril-mail, not the sword of Sam, and that made it less logical for Aragon & co to see that the Mouth was bluffing as he talked about 1 tortured Halfling only. I guess the producers knew it was subpar, and the scene was deleted. It’s on YouTube, if you’re curious.
Rated individually, I’d say the first two books get 4 out of 5 stars, and The Return Of The King only 3 – at times a bit too long-winded for my taste. Yet, I’d say the movies all get 5 out of 5 stars, and I have a slight preference for the last one. It goes without saying Jackson stands on Tolkien’s shoulders, and doesn’t deserve even half of the credit for those 15 stars I awarded him, but the fact that he made such an awful mess out of The Hobbit proves that it’s not just the source material that counts.
There’s one important caveat: I don’t think the movies will age as well as the books. Coincidentally, while I was reading, I saw two 10 minute glimpses of the movies on two consecutive Saturdays, as a local TV station aired the series. It struck me how dated some of the effects already seem. Only time will tell if that will mess with the viewer’s experience, and as such the movies’ powers of amusement, delight & emotion.
As I wrote in my introduction, most humans struggle with the reality of us being part of a physical world that is determined. As a result, there’s a fair amount of articles on LOTR & free will. But they are generally bullshit, like this one. How some people experience the story seems to be totally detached from what actually happens. It doesn’t help that Tolkien himself adds to the confusion. Take this passage of the Companion into account:
[Elrond] now says that Frodo has been chose, that he is fated to bear the Ring; but Frodo nonetheless has free will, and may choose whether or not to accept his fate. In his draft letter to Eileen Elgar, September 1963, Tolkien calls Frodo ‘an instrument of Providence’, and makes it clear that his quest succeeded in the end, despite his failure himself to put the Ring into the Fire, because he undertook it with free will, with humility and out of love for the world he knew.
I fail to see how Frodo has free will or makes a free choice. It’s clear that the Ring, nearly from the very onset, has power over Frodo, so surely he wants to hang on to it. Gandalf, when they are still in the Shire, already says “You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it.” If Frodo had refused to take up the quest at the Council of Elrond the result would have been that he would have been forced to give up the Ring, and he clearly can not do that. He makes a choice, obviously, but that choice is not made in freedom, nor is it made with full information – so that it can hardly be called a rational choice.
I make that last addition because when we talk about free choice we generally imply that humans are able to rationally debate their actions internally before making them. A rational debate presupposes adequate information, and Frodo clearly doesn’t have that: not when he departs for Rivendel from the Shire, nor when he departs from Rivendel for Mordor.
In a 1963 letter, Tolkien himself writes “it became at last quite clear that Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole ‘theory’ of true nobility and heroism that is presented.”
So it is clear that at the very end, all of a sudden, free will is not important anymore, but, on the contrary, the story hinges on “a mere event”. The destruction of the Ring is an accident, a literal misstep: nor Gollum, nor Frodo want it. It’s plain and simple the result of gravity as a deterministic force.
However, when Frodo refuses to cast the Ring in the fire, he uses these words: “I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine.” Yet, in a draft of this chapter Frodo said, instead: “I have come. But I cannot do what I have come to do. I will not do it. The Ring is mine.” In Sauron Defeated, Christopher Tolkien comments on this change: “I do not think that the difference is very significant, since it was already a central element in the outlines that Frodo would choose to keep the Ring himself; the change in his words does no more than emphasize that he fully willed his act”.
I think what we stumble on here is the age old confusion between making a choice, and making a free choice. The fact that Frodo chooses is not up for debate. Still, I would claim that the draft version is closer to reality. Likewise, it is of very little relevance that Frodo “fully willed his act” as Christopher says. That Frodo wills something is not up for debate either, because again, there is a giant rift between having a will, and having a free will. It’s clear that the Ring determines Frodo’s will at that point, and he is, as Tolkien wrote, “incapable of voluntarily destroying” it. The fact that Christopher nonetheless wants to stress that Frodo “fully willed his act” illustrates the sly power of the illusion of free will, and the distractions of language that illusion feeds on.
It’s more than telling that Frodo is delusional about his own role. After Gollum and the Ring fell into the fire, he even says: “But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring.” As such, Frodo is again a great Everyman, as we all constantly misjudge the nature our conscious agency.
It’s interesting to take a look at another crucial factor in the eventual destruction of the ring. Frodo’s humility has been already named, and also Frodo’s pity towards Gollum has been identified as pivotal. But taken at face value, also this pity was not the result of a free choice, nor a moral one. Early in the story Gandalf reprimands Frodo when Frodo utters he wished Bilbo had stabbed Gollum: “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” Gandalf clearly is the number one authority figure in the Hobbits’ world, so when He gives advice, it would be utterly foolish not to take it. As such, Gandalf’s words are a divine command, and Frodo just follows it.
But Tolkien fails to see what he has actually written, and ruminates as follows on the matter in a letter from 1955:
To ‘pity’ him [Gollum], to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.
In preparation of this free will part, I had about 50 other quotes I could use to illustrate how characters are determined in their actions, or how Tolkien hints at that at the very least. In the entire book, only two quotes might be read as advocating free will. I maybe missed a few, but I actively read for that, so 50+ vs. 2+ is still a telling tally.
Let me give you the most important ones. Among these quotes you’ll find utterances from different characters, to prove this sentiment is expressed numerous times across the board, by nearly every important character, in all three parts.
Granted, these are quite a lot of quotes, so if you’re not interested in the matter, please, just skip them.
From The Fellowship Of The Ring:
I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. (said by Gandalf, Tolkien’s own italics)
I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. (Sam says this when they find him eavesdropping, and is afterwards ordered by Gandalf to join Frodo to Rivendel.)
[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. (…) “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. (…)” (Frodo quoting Bilbo)
But the courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pockeet, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolved hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, (…). (When Frodo is near the Nazgûl, both the actions of his arm and his resolve are described as being outside his control.)
(…) after that your own luck must go with you and guide you (…) (Tom Bombadil)
When Merry notices Black Riders and follows them to see which way they go, Strider says he has “a stout heart” but “was foolish”, and Merry answers: “Neither brave nor silly, I think. I could hardly help myself. I seemed to be drawn somehow.”
There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond. (Strider)
You have come and here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we , who sit here, and none others, must no find counsel for the peril of the world. (Elrond)
At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’ (Frodo at the Council of Elrond)
However it may prove, one must thread the path that need chooses! (Gandalf before Moria)
Pippin felt curiously attracted by the well. (…) Moved by a sudden impulse he groped for a loose stone, and let it drop. (in Moria)
And in the watches I have made up my mind,’ he said. ‘I do not like the feel of the middle way; and I do not like the sell of the left-hand way: there is foul air down there, or I am no guide. I shall take the right-hand passage. (Gandalf’s choice in Moria is more a matter of intuition than of free, rational choice. Moreover, after he has fallen in the abyss, the fellowship doesn’t chose a thing anymore, they just react to events.)
For I know what I should do, but I am afraid of doing it, Boromir, afraid. (Frodo indeed knows what he should do, not what he wants to do.)
Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back! (Boromir)
He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think that it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed, if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger. (Aragorn on Frodo)
Sam did his best, but he could not keep up with Strider the Ranger, and soon fell behind. (Only then does he goes looking for Frodo. A bit later, Frodo says: “It is plain that we were meant to go together.“)
From The Two Towers:
Almost he yielded to the desire for help and counsel, to tell this grave young man, whose words seemed so wise and fair, all that was in his mind. But something held him back. His heart was heavy with fear and sorrow: (…). Better mistrust undeserved than rash words. (When he thinks of disclosing everything to Faramir for help, again, Frodo’s actions are guided by “something” that doesn’t seem to imply conscious agency.)
If you seem to have stumbled, think that it was fated to be so. Your heart is shrewd as well as faithful, and saw clearer than your eyes. (Faramir to Frodo, introducing also a duality between heart & head, describing the heart as an impersonal actor as well, as something reason has no control over.)
In the morning we must each go swiftly on the ways appointed to us. (Faramir)
I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done. (again Faramir – It’s of note that Tolkien described Faramir as the character that resembled himself the most.)
‘Yet since he [Mithrandir] is gone, I must take such paths as I can find. And there is no time for long searching,’ said Frodo.
Frodo and Sam were plodding along with heavy hearts, no longer able to care greatly about their peril. (near Cirith Ungol)
Then suddenly, as if some force were at work other than his own will, he began to hurry, tottering forward, his groping hands held out, his head lolling from side to side. (near Cirith Ungol)
There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hands, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. (Frodo takes the phail of Galadriel, in a confrontation with the Wraith-King.)
Even although Tolkien acknowledges the existence of a “will” here by using that word, it is hardly arguable that, in the face of imminent death, trying to grope for the one thing that might save you is a matter of free choice or even “will”. When Frodo’s actions do something positive, it is suddenly described with the positive noun ‘will’, while it is just the same a process as before, and a bit later Tolkien even describes it as an impersonal “it”, forcing his hand. What is interesting is that Tolkien in this entire passage actually describes how many neuroscientists see consciousness in 2020: as a monitoring device of our own actions, rather than something that makes rational, free decisions.
Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit. (Frodo in Shelob’s Lair)
On the near side of him lay, gleaming on the ground, his elvenblade, where it had fallen useless from his grasp. Sam did not wait to wonder what was to be done, or whether he was brave, or loyal, or filled with rage. He sprang forward with a yell, and seized his master’s sword in his left hand. Then he charged. (This occurs ironically in a chapter called “The Choices of Master Samwise”. A bit later, also Sam’s starts speaking Elvish, “a language which he did not know”. One can hardly call both actions a choice, in both instances he doesn’t or can’t think about it.)
But you haven’t put yourself forward; you’ve been put forward. And as for not being the right and proper person, why, Mr. Frodo wasn’t, as you might say, nor Mr. Bilbo. They didn’t choose themselves. (Sam talking to himself)
‘I’ve made up my mind,’ he kept saying to himself. But he had not. Though he had done his best to think it out, what he was doing was altogether against the grain of his nature. (…) ‘If only I could have my wish, my one wish,’ he sighed, ‘to go back and find him!’ Then at last he turned to the road in front and took a few steps: the heaviest and most reluctant he had ever taken. (Just before Sam hears Orc-voices, prompting him to do something else.)
He was not aware of any thought or decision. He simply found himself drawing out the chain and taking the Ring in his hand. (…) Then he put it on. (Sam)
You fool, he isn’t dead, and your heart knew it. Don’t trust your head, Samwise, it is not the best part of you. (Sam, again intuition vs. rational choice)
From The Return of the King:
‘(…) But I do not go gladly; only need drives me. Therefore, only of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and great fear, and maybe worse.’ ‘I will go with you even on the Paths of the Dead, and to whatever end they may lead,’ said Gimli. ‘I also will come,’ said Legolas, ‘for I do not fear the Dead.’ (Aragorn, and afterwards Gimli & Legolas)
Gimly and Legolas seem to make a free choice here. But what is their alternative? Go back and hide in Rivendel? Go back to Minas Tirith? Wait until Sauron destroys them? A true free choice presupposes 2 equal options – or otherwise the outcome of the choice is determined by the best option – and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
‘(…) for he has done as well as his fortune allowed him, (…)’ (Aragorn on Peregrin)
No choice was left them but to play their part to its end. (on the army at the Black Gate)
As far as he could see, there was only one possible course for him to take: (…). (Sam exiting Shelob’s tunnel)
From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. (Sauron seems to have a will, but his armies clearly don’t. The nature of Sauron falls outside the scope of this review, I haven’t read The Silmarillion, but as far as I can gather, also Sauron was corrupted.)
The Power that drove them [the Nazgûl] on and filled them with hate and fury was wavering, its will was removed from them; and now looking in the eyes of their enemies they saw a deadly light and were afraid.
As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.
But that [Sauron’s victory] has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of a spring in Bree. A chance meeting, as we say in Middle-earth. (Gandalf in Appendix A)
Aside from the will being describe as something impersonal, nearly forcing characters’ hands, there is a lot of talk of fate, predestination, and higher powers guiding actions. It’s like Tolkien tries to have his cake and eat it: either there’s Fate & Fortune, or there’s Free Will. Freedom as a moral force is either absolute, or it’s not.
If a choice is determined by outside factors, it’s hardly of any use to talk about the morality of intention, nor the nobility of the soul – and it is just that that interests Tolkien as a devout Christian. It seems to me Tolkien could not make up his mind – just like the letters show he was very conflicted about the nature of Evil and the existence of the Orcs’ souls, but that’s a whole other essay in itself.
It’s interesting how this ties into Tolkien’s conservatism, and the elitism that he is often accused of, as being born Noble is no choice either. It seems as somehow Tolkien understood that people are born into a role that will determine them – hence his embrace of Nobility as a concept – but couldn’t follow this thought to its logical conclusion. At the same time Tolkien kept believing in the illusion of freedom, and hence stressed the necessity for Frodo to undertake his actions “with free will, with humility and out of love for the world he knew”. The fact that both humility and love are no choices either, but rather states of being, only reinforces the flimsiness of his philosophical foundations.
In the famous 1951 letter to his first editor, Milton Waldman, Tolkien talks about this duality, and again stresses “acts of will”, failing to see the nature of what he has actually written – as is clear from all I’ve quoted above. This passage again shows talk is cheap, and illustrates some authors are trapped in their own concoctions, and fail to approach their own work with enough objectivity.
But through Hobbits, not Men so-called, because the last Tale is to exemplify most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in ‘world politics’ of unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil). A moral of the whole (after the primary symbolism of the Ring, as the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, ans so also inevitably by lies) is the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar are utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.
If you are not tired yet of my yapping on free choice – I can’t help it – I have two more things to say.
The first thing is that the ability to offer resistance is no proof of free choice existing.
At first it is pretty straightforward, Frodo’s resistance fails quickly:
The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. (…) something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. (…) He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.
He tries to rationalize his failure afterwards.
He bitterly regretted his foolishness, and reproached himself for weakness of the will; for he now perceived that in putting on the Ring he obeyed not his own desire but the commanding wish of his enemies.
But Gandalf tries to console him:
‘Yes, fortune or fate have helped you,’ said Gandalf, ‘not to mention courage. For your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last. (…)’
He does so by introducing the notion of ‘heart’. But as I have already discussed, having heart is not a choice, it’s something you are born with, just like you are born with courage or not. One does not will his or her character out of a vacuum. So I fail to see the distinction between being born with heart/courage and being born fortunate. Fate & heart are the same.
At the end of The Fellowship, there’s this:
The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again, Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. A black shadow seemed to pass like an arm above him; it missed Amon Hen and groped out west, and faded. Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree. Frodo rose to his feet. A great weariness was on him, but his will was firm and his heart lighter. He spoke aloud to himself. ‘I will do now what I must,’ he said. ‘This at least is plain: the evil of the Ring is already at work even in the Company, and the Ring must leave them before it does more harm. I will go alone. Some I cannot trust, and those I can trust are too dear to me: poor old Sam, and Merry and Pippin. Strider too: his heart yearns for Minas Tirith, and the will be needed there, now Boromir has fallen into evil. I will go alone. At once.’
Again there’s the conflicting language: “do now what I must” vs. “free to choose”. But more importantly, consider the choice here.
What’s the choice Frodo needs to make? The choice between keeping on the Ring and by doing so exposing himself to the Nazgûl & Sauron, or taking it off and saving himself, at least for that moment. So the choice between death, or at the very best becoming a wretch like Sméagol, and the choice between life. That’s no choice. Only the depressed might want option 1, and being depressed is no choice, it’s a condition. The Will to Live is Instinct, not moral Choice.
If you want more, there’s a long excerpt from a 1954 letter to Peter Hastings in the Companion on page 376. In it, Tolkien shows he struggles with these concepts, and his thinking is muddled at best.
My final remark on determinism is, granted, anecdotal – a fun fact to end this overly long section.
Some of the letters show that Tolkien at times also saw his own writing as being guided not by his own will, but by something else. Often that something else is partly linguistic, like he describes the origins of the Ents, in a 1955 letter to poet W.H. Auden:
The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark . . . was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait til ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that the Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon (…)
Another illustration is what he writes to his son Christopher:
A new character has come to the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.
The following quote from a 1965 letter tries to tie together a whole lot of the things I touched upon. It is again conflicted, but ultimately refers to a determining logic as the final arbitrator, both in the story itself, as in creating it – as if the story wrote itself.
There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person. I did not ‘arrange’ the deliverance in this case: it again follows the logic of the story. (Gollum had had his chance of repentance, and of returning generosity with love; and had fallen off the knife-edge.) In the case of those who now issue from prison ‘brainwashed’, broken, or insane, praising their torturers, no such immediate deliverance is as a rule to be seen. But we can at least judge them by the will and intentions with which they entered the Sammath Naur; and not demand impossible feats of will, which could only happen in stories unconcerned with real moral and mental probability.
The authors of the Companion suggest reading pp. 83-94 of Matthew T. Dickerson’s Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victories in The Lord Of the Rings (2003) on the issue of choice and freedom in Tolkien’s book. If somebody knows where I can read that, please drop me a note – I’d like to read it for comparison, but I’d be surprised if Dickerson can make a compelling case for freedom of choice, given everything I’ve written above.
It is more than apt that ‘magic’ in Middle-Earth is not something one can achieve. One is born with it. Let that be the moral of this story.
I could have written a section about Tolkien’s dislike for allegory, and how that applies to his own work. Tolkien himself says this:
I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
That sentence hits close to the mark, yet in his letters Tolkien shows again and again that he is very concerned with the content and interpretation of his work – and some of the letters I’ve quoted above illustrate this. Here’s one more:
In The Lord Of The Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. (…) Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants…
Yet to fully explain why I think his thinking on this matter isn’t always crisp would need a whole lot more of words, and I’m trying to wrap up here.
I liked reading The Lord of the Rings a lot – maybe you forgot that after all that talk about free choice and acts of will. If you are a fan of fantasy, the book simply is mandatory. Do try to read it before you see the movies though!
I’m not sure if I will read The Silmarillion – any advice on that is welcome in the comments. I’m sure it will again be off the charts as a work of art. All that history and backstory and thought on the linguistic origins is the work of mad genius – Tolkien is the God-King over his own creation – but I’m a bit afraid it won’t be much more than names & dates on page after page after page, a bit like big chunks of the Appendixes. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek…
A few notes on Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. It’s a treasure trove for hardcore fans for sure. I’d even say it is mandatory if you’re the type of fan that has read The Lord of the Rings multiple times, and plan to read it again. It’s 894 pages, with 15 pages of bibliography and a 64-page index.
It has a lengthy introduction on the history of the book’s origin and publication history, notes on the chronologies, calendars and moons, and some pages on the different maps. It also includes 30 pages of notes on the nomenclature, written by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. The main part follows the text, and offers thousands of notes – some trivial and short, others long, quoting from letters or earlier drafts, and from other scholars, including Christopher Tolkien’s extensive work.
It is meticulous about different ways of spelling dwarfs/dwarves/Dwarfs/Dwarves and printing errors in various editions of the book, should stuff like that float your boat. There’s also an index of all the changes that were made for the 2014 60th Anniversary edition by HarperCollins, but that would be interesting for scholars only.
Anyhow: you do not need it as a casual reader, not at all, but it is a tremendous achievement in itself.