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  • The Music and the Task:Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth
  • Verlyn Flieger (bio)

It is nothing less than an attempt to justify God's creation of an imperfect world filled with suffering, loss, and grief.

—John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War

During December and January of 1916-17, the very middle and depths of World War I, the young J.R.R. Tolkien, newly returned to England from the carnage of the Somme, began to write his great legendarium, the Silmarillion. This was intended to supply what Tolkien felt was missing from his country's literary pre-history, an indigenous English (not British) mythology on the order of the Finnish Kalevala and the Icelandic Eddas. He envisioned this ambitious project as "a more or less connected body of legend" ranging from the "large and cosmogonic" to the level of "romantic fairy-story" (Letters 144). In the process of creating his mythology, however, Tolkien did more than color in a blank space; he invented a cosmology whose operation depends on a paradox, a challenging teleological contradiction.

The contradiction resides in the simultaneous presence in his invented world of two opposing principles, fate and free will, imagined as operating side by side, sometimes in conflict, sometimes interdependent. The teleology provides that this paradox, established at the beginning in his myth's Creation narrative, will accomplish its end in both senses of that word—both as purpose and as completion—as described in the epigraph at the head of this article. The challenge arises when fate and free will intersect, for this collision of mutually contradictive forces engenders a cognitive disjunction that works against readers' acceptance of its operation in the Secondary World.

The trouble lies not with free will, but with fate. Readers who assume (and most do) that characters in Tolkien's invented world are free to choose, find the opposing notion that they are predestined hard to accept. And the idea that both principles are concurrently at work (and apparently at odds) is a concept even harder to encompass. It is, nevertheless, a concept integral to a mythology whose overarching scheme is that fate, conceived as a kind of divinely inspired and celestially orchestrated music, governs the created world—with one exception. Of all Middle-earth's sentient species, the race of Men (including Hobbits) is the only [End Page 151] group given the "virtue" to "shape their lives" beyond the scope of this music In contradistinction, the otherwise generally similar race of Elves, (both races being the Children of [the godhead] Ilúvatar) is, together with the rest of Creation, ruled by fate.

A Green Sun

In its apparent impossibility of reconciliation, this fate/free will dichotomy is what in his essay "On Fairy-stories" Tolkien termed a "green sun." That is to say, it is an element, a feature, or aspect intentionally contrary to the Primary world but essential and formative in the Secondary one. The concept goes to the heart of what he called "sub-creation," the making of a believable imaginary world. "Anyone," he wrote, "can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it." But neither the phrase nor the striking image it evokes is by itself enough to make his point, and Tolkien went on to explain what more would be necessary. "To make a Secondary World in which the green sun will be credible," he wrote, "commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft" (MC 140).

Labour and thought he most certainly gave it, as well as applying his own elvish craft, which was considerable. Yet for many even of his most devoted admirers, this departure of Tolkien's Secondary World from the laws or principles of the Primary World is not just a green sun, it is one green sun too many, putting a breaking strain on Secondary Belief already stretched by accepting Elves, Hobbits, talking eagles and walking trees. Perhaps for that reason it has been largely ignored in the search for the keys to his cosmology. The assumption that either of the principles in question by definition obviates the other has...


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pp. 151-181
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