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  • "Strange and free"—On Some Aspects of the Nature of Elves and Men
  • Thomas Fornet-Ponse (bio)

In her recent article on fate and free will in Middle-earth, Verlyn Flieger highlights the character of these concepts as being human interpretations of phenomena—and not facts that are easily demonstrable. In view of human interpretation of reality and history, her statement seems very convincing:

What emerges in Tolkien's depiction of Eä, the "World that Is," is a picture of the confusing state of affairs in the world that really 'is,' a state of affairs as it appears to us humans, an uncertain, unreliable, untidy, constantly swinging balance between fate and human effort, between the Music and the Task.

(Flieger, Music 176)

It is exactly this confusing state of affairs in our world that poses the challenges for philosophy and theology when they are addressing the question of freedom and determinism, fate or providence. Therefore, even if—as Flieger further states—Tolkien did not attempt to solve this problem but to show the world as he saw it (what is probable), this does not mean that a coherent philosophical or theological interpretation of it cannot be applied successfully to Tolkien's sub-creation—or emerge from it. Rather, Tolkien's non-simplifying depiction of this problem may help to clarify some of the possible philosophical positions since it prevents us from neglecting some important challenges—and stresses the character of concepts like fate or providence as being interpretations and not facts. Keeping in mind the fictional and sub-creational character of Tolkien's work, in the following article I want to argue that both Men and Elves are able to decide between alternative options of action and to act according to the decision (thus producing a different world than were the case if the decision would have been another). Theologically, this is important for the concept of providence which does not work without freedom but challenges it. Philosophically, it denies a complete determinism.1 Surely Flieger is right to emphasize "that Tolkien's characters and situations are his inventions. They are not real people in a real world, but fictive characters in an arbitrary and invented one. In that sense they are all fated, their actions determined by their author's plan" (Music 165). On the other hand, most readers fail to find secondary worlds in which free will and alternative options do not exist very interesting.

Furthermore, it is very important to distinguish between a determinism [End Page 67] (based on interpretations of scientific experiments) and the theological notion of providence since the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam claim the existence of both human freedom and divine providence—but raise the question of the "mechanism" with which providence works in human history thereby addressing the issue of determinism.2 This is important for Middle-earth because the existence of a creator god and the music of the Ainur strongly evoke the notion of providence and, consequently, raise the question how it works.3 Although human free will in Tolkien's work is denied by no scholar I know, the question of elvish free will is a little bit more complicated4—and though Tolkien's work is a fictional one and therefore is not obligated to be in complete accordance with notions of the primary world, in my view an interpretation which claims human and elvish freedom without contradiction to the texts is preferable to an interpretation which has to insert a determinism for explaining the impossibility of Elves affecting the course of events, thereby producing a tension with the claim of freedom. But since in my view, the difference between human and elvish freedom is closely linked with their difference concerning their fate after death, which on its part is dependent on the relationship between fëa and hröa, I want to discuss these matters before dealing with determinism (or fate) and free will.

Anima-forma-corporis or corpus-forma-animae? The relationship of fëa and hröa

There exists an intrinsic relation between the issue of the relationship between body and mind and the question of determinism and free will because the claim...


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pp. 67-89
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