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  • Fate and Free Will
  • J.R.R. Tolkien and Carl F. Hostetter (bio)

Sometime after January 1968, Tolkien turned again to considerations of two Quenya words encountered and glossed in The Lord of the Rings, ambar 'world' and umbar 'fate,' and of their precise meanings and etymological and semantic relationship.1 Amidst a linguistic discussion of certain points of Elvish phonology, Tolkien cited the Eldarin base MBAR underlying both these Quenya words, as well as the related Sindarin forms amar 'world' and amarth 'fate' :

MBAR: basically "settle, establish" but with a considerable semantic development, being especially applied to 'settlement', sc. the settling of a place, occupation (permanently) and ordering of a region as a 'home' (of a family or people) > to erect (permanent) buildings, dwellings?2

Tolkien goes on to cite various derivatives of this base, including:

Q[uenya] and T[elerin] ambar, S[indarin] amar 'world,' 'the great habitation.'

Beneath these glosses he added a note of clarification:

The full implications of this word cannot be understood without reference to Eldarin views and ideas concerning 'fate' and 'free will.' (See note on these points.) The sense 'world'—applied usually to this Earth—is mainly derived from sense 'settlement': 'the great habitation' () as 'home of speaking creatures' esp. Elves and Men. (ambar 'world' differed from Arda in reference. Arda meant 'realm' & was this earth as the realm ruled by Manwe (the Elder King) vice-regent of Eru, for benefit of the Children of Eru.) But though mbar- was naturally mostly used of the activities and purposes of rational creatures, it was not limited to these. It thus could refer to the conditions and established (physical) processes of the Earth (as established at its Creation directly or mediately by Eru), which was part of Eä, the Universe. And so approached in some uses the sense 'Fate', according to Eldarin thought on the subject. Thus Q. ambarmenie "the way of the world" ("world" by the way never meant "people"), the fixed, and by 'creatures' unalterable, conditions in which they lived.

Then, a little further on in this discussion of derivatives of MBAR, Tolkien cites: [End Page 183]

S[indarin] amarth, 'Fate.' This sense is an application of the basic sense, augmented by its formation, of mbar: 'permanent establishment/order'; 'Fate' especially (when applied to the future): sc. the order and conditions of the physical world (or of in general) as far as established and pre-ordained at Creation, and that part of this ordained order which affected an individual with a will, as being immutable by his personal will.

The "note on these points" that Tolkien refers to here in connection with fate and free will arose in an earlier version of this same discussion of certain strictly linguistic points, beginning on a sheet which Tolkien subsequently titled "Fate" (after bracketing the discussion of MBAR and striking out the more strictly linguistic discussion that preceded it), and continuing on for four more pages, the first of which Tolkien titled "Fate and Free Will." Part of the note exists in two versions, sc. those paragraphs numbered here as §4 through §6. I give here the reading of the second version, which for the most part follows the first version very closely, but interpolate into the body of the text one significant paragraph (here numbered §7 and set in brackets) of the first version that is lacking in the second version.

As is typical of Tolkien, he begins in a careful hand, but soon lapses into an increasingly hasty scrawl, with the result that some words, and particularly the final paragraphs, are very difficult to interpret. I give all uncertain readings in square brackets with a query mark. I have editorially omitted a few brief technical passages of strictly phonological discussion (indicated by ellipses), silently incorporated all insertions, provided some necessary punctuation, altered some of Tolkien's square brackets (of no apparent special significance) to parentheses, expanded some abbreviations, repositioned some notes to stand nearer to their antecedent text, and numbered each paragraph. All other editorial alterations and indications are set in square brackets.

§1. MBAR 'settle, establish' (hence also, settle a place, settle in a place, establish one's home) also to...


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