Contingencies of Doom:

Destiny versus freedom of choice in the history of Middle-earth

By Irmo-(Valar)
Oct. 19, 2000
Tolkien Encyclopedia > Papers > Doom

    Of Oedipus it was foretold that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His parents knew this and did everything to avoid it. And by doing everything to avoid that fate they brought about the very fate that was prophecied. Fate became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Epic literature has always been preoccupied with the themes of Destiny and Doom. It boots nothing to avoid Fate. Efforts to avoid Fate just make for great tragedies and great reading.
    But what about Tolkien?
    What for instance about the doom of the Noldor? Was the fate of the Noldor as certified and predestined as the fate of Oedipus? Was it always certain that Nargothrond would fall? Why then did Ulmo even undertake the effort of warning Orodreth about his doom, when that doom was already certain?  Was that great Vala in the habit of fooling himself and others?

    In chats or discussion platforms, not only our own at the Valar Guild, but everywhere where people gather to talk about Tolkien, this seems to be a central and returning theme. How much of the world's doom was (pre)destined with the Music of Making? And what is the relative significance of free choice, of moral choices between good and bad?
    Both destiny (prophecy, doom, the Music of Making) and free choice (e.g. the choices of  Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, Bilbo and Frodo to have pity on ol' Gollum) seem to have explanative power for the history of Middle-earth. How are these two forces intertwined?

    Some argue that moral choices matter, but that even these choices were predestined by the music of making. The history of Arda is following a plan, a pattern that was determined in advance. All and everyone's choices are axiomatically following that pattern. Following this line of thought, destiny (transfixed in the Music of Making) is the explaining factor (explanans), and seeming freedom of choice is what needs explanation (explanandum). Everything that happens in the world, from the first light of the Lamps till the destruction of Mount Doom, can be explained as destiny. What then is to be explained, is that things could not even possibly  have taken a different route, might  not have gone differently if one or another central actor (Feanor for instance) would have made moral choices that are different from the ones they made.

    Others argue that moral choices not only matter, but that freedom of choice is central to Tolkien’s worldview. The great lesson that the Valar learn about all that is in their care, Arda and its inhabitants, is that no power of theirs can lift the burden that Melkor and Sauron are to the children of Iluvatar. That in the end only the choices of these Children themselves can lift the burden. Following this line of thought, moral choices (of the Ainur and of the Children) create the destiny of the world. Moral choices are then the explanans, but destiny, doom and the plain fact that events and fates can be foretold are the explanandum. What is to be explained is that in the history of Middle-earth  prophecies are not only made, but constantly proven to be right.

    It is easy to understand why so many commentators are tempted to take the first view: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and especially the Silmarillion (SIL), are full of prophecies with the tantalizing power of correctness.
    And not just prophecies by the Valar, like Ulmo’s words to Turgon: “Thus it may come to pass, that the curse of the Noldor shall find thee ere the end, and treason awake within thy walls. Then (…) even from Nevrast one shall come to warn thee, and from him (…) hope shall be borne for Elves and Men.” (SIL 144)
But also SIL 146, Melian to Thingol: “the fate of Arda lies locked now in these things (…) They shall not be recovered, I foretell,  by any power of the Eldar; and the world shall be broken in battles that are to come, ere they are wrested from Morgoth”.
And then on page 150, Felagund to Galadriel: “An oath I too shall swear, and must be free to fulfill it, and go into darkness.  Nor shall anything of my realm endure that a son should inherit”.
    Thrice within 6 pages: An overwhelming burden of proof, it would seem, that the history of Arda is predestined.
    And even much later, when eras have passed, a visionary named Malbeth lives among the Dunedain in the times of Arvedui, who prophecies the coming of the heir in the days of the Shadow, coming from the north, walking the Paths of the Dead….

    Yet, it is the thesis of this article that taking the view of the history of Middle-earth as following a predestined path, completely laid out in advance by the Music of Making, that this interpretation of Tolkien may lead to a serious misunderstanding of his work. The future is only laid out in the Music of Making as far as that future does not consist of the choices of action that are to be made by the Children of Iluvatar.
    It is crucial that these choices are free and that both the choice and its outcome are not already predestined. Ulmo gave Orodreth a warning because fate can be changed. He was neither fooling himself nor others. Orodreth could have chosen another line of action, which could have led to a different outcome.

    I will now elaborate this thesis. It is clear that destiny and doom are the explanandum. How, if freedom of choice is the essential key to understanding the History of Middle-earth, can we explain the fact that Malbeth foretells the actions of Aragorn and is proven right? That all knew the fate of Huan and are proven right? That Tolkien so often lets his - most wise - characters say "You cannot deny your doom"?
    And most certainly we cannot overlook the capacity of Namo/Mandos: “and he knows all things that shall be, save only those that lie still in the freedom of Iluvatar”.
    What then, if not a blueprint-in-advance of the history of Middle-earth, is the Music of Making? This is a complex question to which no simple answer is sufficient, so please bear with me.

    Let us first be agreed upon the fact that the Music does make for some certainties. The coming of the Children of Iluvatar for instance is certain, and Namo knows accurately - almost to the day – when they will come. These certainties stem from the Music – as acts of will – of the Valar and of Eru himself. But the Children of Iluvatar did not participate in making the Music.

    With Ea (by which the Music was transmaterialized) not only the space and the substance, but also the time of Arda was created. Ea gives things not only a place but also a sequence. The happening of events is not random. And as far as space, substance and time have been filled in by Eru and the Ainur in their song, the future is laid out. But are in in this future the choices of Men and Elves predestined?

    Let us start from the assumption that the Music consists of large chains of "If-then"'s. If choice "a" is made then result "b". If choice "c" is made then result "d".  In the Music the contingency of the world is given a pattern. Apart from maybe Manwe and Varda, Namo/Mandos is the only one who has a really deep understanding of these chains. But as with all gifts of the Valar, shadows of this gift can be found with some of the Children of Iluvatar. Some make great smiths, some make great sailors, some make great visionaries.
    I do not think it was certain from the Music that Feanor would take his Oath. But Namo knew this "if-then" all too well. If Feanor was to take the oath - and it was always probable from his raising and his character - then the results can be foretold.
    At the moment the Oath is spoken, the Doom of the Noldor becomes a fact. Namo does not create it by speaking it; he is so kind as to share his understanding.  From the Oath it  was clear that the Noldor would want to go to Middle-earth. It  was certain that the Valar would give no help. The Noldor would have to ask help from Aqualondë, and they would not receive it voluntarily. Thus the oath would lead to violence between the Eldar.
    At the moment Namo speaks his Doom, it is clear therefore that the Eldar in Beleriand will be divided. Therefore they must fail against Morgoth. This can be foretold as a result from the oath: "If then-if  then-if then”.

    Now note that very often when a doom is foretold an Oath is involved. This is significant. For by taking an oath the inhabitants of Arda diminish their freedom of choice. Moral choices will be led by choices already made. The capacity of discerning right from wrong is blinded by the Oath.
    By taking an oath the children of Iluvatar stab whole patterns of "if-then"s in the Music of Making. The if-then"s become "then and then"s .  By taking an oath they transform parts of the music of making to fixed destinies, both for themselves and others. They take away freedom.
    From this we can understand why the wise are never happy when an Oath is sworn (cf. Melian about Thingol, SIL 196).
Every oath taken in the SIL, whether it be by Thingol, Felagund or Beren, seems to ensnare them in previous oaths, particularly the Oath of Feanor. In taking these oaths, they coproduce the Doom of the Noldor.
    Now if taking an oath is nothing but a realization of what was already predestined, why would the wise worry so much about them? The wise worry, because taking an oath is not a manifestation of doom, but a creation of doom.  Taking an oath is not destiny, but it most certainly creates destiny. A destiny that can then be misunderstood as being a predestined or preordained part of the Music instead of a realized part of the Music.

    Only by not mistaking destiny for certainty can we understand why power is such a subtle theme in SIL and especially in LOTR. Domination - taking away freedom of choice - is immoral. It is the lesson the Valar learnt in SIL, and the lesson Galadriel and Elrond have learnt at  the start of LOTR. Exerting power is not the way by which evil - either Morgoth or Sauron - can be defeated, and it is not the way the Children of Iluvatar can be brought to the right path.
    If the lesson the Valar learned during the history of Arda would have been that they can do nothing to change destiny, they would have resorted to fatalism. But no such thing. They learn how to teach the Children to make the right choices, how to be guides, how to intervene without domination.

    This is also an important factor in explaining the nature of the One Ring. The One Ring is apt for domination, it takes away freedom, both of yielder and yielded. The ring is therefore always evil, whoever the wielder may be. That is why the question sometimes asked at the Discussion Fora: " would Galadriel (or whoever) have won if she had wielded the Ring against Sauron" is completely irrelevant. Maybe she would, but the wielder would in doing so always lose. Evil cannot be destroyed that way. Evil can only be destroyed by moral choices that are made in freedom  - with outcomes that can well be sort of lucky and unforeseen, as the “fate” of Gollum showed us.
    It is when freedom of choice has been restricted that the possibilities of success against the Evil Ones are seriously detrimented – as the example of Felagund so beautifully shows. Sauron wins by reminding Felagund that he is not morally free – as a result of more than one oath.

    After the War of Wrath, would the Valar have sat back in complacency, thinking “Ah, destiny has been fulfilled”? Or would they have been thinking: “Oops, I hope we did right”? And after Gollum and the One Ring had fallen down Orodruin, they were probably not thinking, “We knew all along it would work out fine”, but “Ah :} Surprise!”.

    Now all of this is not to deny that destiny and doom play indeed a major role in the history of Middle-earth. This is probably especially the case in the earliest and latest writings of Tolkien.
    But Tolkien’s historical concept is nevertheless a relatively modern one. His concept of Doom is related to moral choices people make. Destinies can be changed. That is why the history of Middle-earth is different from earlier epics, from Greek heroism to the tragic leading roles in the Nibelungenring. And that is why SIL and LOTR are still relevant to the actual and virtual world of the 21st century.

    It is in my opinion by no means coincidental that Namo, with his intimate knowledge of the Music, has been given by Tolkien a brother Irmo and a sister Nienna. While Namo is intimate with the probable and predictable “if-then’s” and even quite a few “then-then’s”, Irmo, master of Dreams and Visions, is intimate with the also-possible and otherwise-possible (and maybe even the: “never-thought-that-that-could-also-be-possible” :}). Namo who dwells in Mandos is the Master of Doom, Irmo who dwells in Lorien  is the Master of Contingency. And Nienna’s influence on the history of Arda is so often underestimated, as our friend Gwindor quite rightly underlines in his article .  For those who listen to Nienna “learn pity, and endurance in hope” (SIL 19). And hope is the most powerful weapon against complacency and fatalism.

    It is also no coincidence, that Olorin dwelt in Lorien (of Aman) and often came to the house of Nienna. Gandalf’s victory in the War of the Rings is molded form Vision and Pity, and his ability to teach vision and pity to e.g. Aragorn, Faramir, Bilbo and Frodo. Gandalf taught hope: doom is not unavoidable (cf SIL: 22).

    When trying to explain why events in Middle-earth take place,  an apodictical reference to destiny - "It was ( pre)destined so in the Music “ - simply won't do. Such “explanations” are an underestimation of the richness and complexity of the history of Arda and Middle-earth. And especially an underestimation of the central importance to JRRT of morality and freedom of choice. When we state that an inhabitant of Arda was apparently doomed, we still have to explain why. For instance by finding the commitment or even the Oath by which choices of action were led and maybe even reduced. A simple reference to the Music of Making is not sufficient.

    I am conscious of the fact that quite a few questions have not yet been answered. Quite obviously for instance there is the matter of the role and nature of Eru. I  have chosen to exclude speculations about and references to Eru. From Augustinus to Thomas of Aquino to modern times, freedom within the divine scheme has been a central theme of argument to Christianity. I would rather not enter into an argument like that in relation to the History of Arda. Furthermore, I don’t think I have very much conclusive material on the nature of Eru and his role in the history of Middle-earth.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Harper/Collins 1977, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings, Harper/Collins 1991.

Contingencies of Doom Part II - Úmarth: The Ill fate of the House of Hurin Thalion