On Tolkien’s Notes on “Fate and Free Will”

By Troels Forchhammer


In 2009 volume 6 of the academic journal Tolkien Studies included a transcript, edited by Carl Hostetter, of some notes that Tolkien had written on the concepts of fate and free will. The notes emerge from a linguistic discussion of the Elvish word-base √MBAR from which was derived the Quenya word umbar which is usually translated as fate. The transcriptions were followed also by an excellent article by Verlyn Flieger, “The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth”.

Regarding Tolkien’s notes, I think there are a couple of points about the context that are important:

  • The notes are written no earlier than 1968. This puts them a decade after the writings in the second phase of the Later Quenta Silmarillion (in Morgoth’s Ring), and even more after the later versions of the Ainulindalë.
  • The notes are specifically related to the meaning (and connotations) the Eldar gave to the Quenya word umbar – they do not necessarily reflect Tolkien’s thoughts on the operation of fate and free will in his sub-creation.

I think it is problematic to assume that these notes are – or even that they should be – consistent with the notions of ‘fate’ that are embedded elsewhere in the mythology, particularly in the various versions of the Ainulindalë. The last paragraph begins to address the Ainulindalë, but clearly in a different mode than that which is meant when we are told that the Music is “as fate to all things else” (e.g. Morgoth’s Ring p.36).

Some of this is related to ideas I have discussed previously with regards to The Lord of the Rings (see Forchhammer 2011) about the nature of Tolkien’s relation to his own sub-creation. In this case I think we need to also keep in mind what Christopher Tolkien says in the foreword to The Silmarillion, both with regards to his father using the mythology as “the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections” on matters such as theology and philosophy, but also what he says about not looking for a “complete consistency” even within The Silmarillion (to which one might add “and much less with or within anything published later …).

These points are here seen in with almost painful clarity: late notes in which Tolkien makes his mythology the vehicle of profound reflections on a philosophical and theological issue, and where consistency should not be looked for with any of his other writings.

Verlyn Flieger attempts to construct some degree of consistency between these two in her essay, but I do not think that she really succeeds with this, and I have no hope of doing a better job at it. The point of this is to say that I will not attempt to force my reading of Tolkien’s notes into any kind of consistency with my reading of the Ainulindalë (in any of its versions – see also Forchhammer 2012), The Lord of the Rings, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth or any other Tolkien text pertaining to this topic.

So, what does Tolkien say in the notes on Fate and Free Will?

(I will be using curly brackets for my own editorial inserts to distinguish them from the square brackets used in the text in Tolkien Studies.)

One key statement, in my reading, is the explanation that “‘fate’ so far [as] {the Eldar} recognized it was conceived as a much more physical obstacle to will.” I may freely will to walk unaided (and barefoot) head down on the ceiling, but that is not really going to help me actually do it. We are, however, not used to see this as a result of fate, but rather as a result of the physical laws of nature that govern us (gravity, in this case), but Tolkien suggests that the Eldar saw umbar in much the same way.

The examples given in the text are generally of the same physical kind – e.g. turning aside on your journey to go round a lake – but it is an open question whether he thought that fate might work in the same manner (forcing a certain direction upon us) even without such obvious physical obstacles, or whether he meant that fate always works in this way: i.e. to set up a situation where we are guided, through our less purposeful (and so, not really ‘free’, see below) choices, to where fate wants us to be.

Another interesting point is that the Eldar thought that the whole idea of free will is only relevant for a certain kind of willings – that “the Eldar held that only those efforts of “will” were “free” which were directed to a fully _aware purpose_.” Given the descriptions of this, I would guess that the Eldar, according to this, would say that this freedom actually affects only a few of our everyday willings, which is not as I understand current philosophical discussions about free will to understand this.

In a key passage, Tolkien states that

Umbar thus relates to the net-work of “chances” (largely physical) which is, or is not, used by rational persons with ‘free will.’ {….} — {T}he ‘determination’ that we each carry about with us in our given created character {….} was not included in Umbar by the Eldar; who said that if it was in any way similar it was on a different ‘plane.’

Tolkien here appears to translate umbar to ‘fate’ in a sense that is somewhat different from the sense in which we are told that the Music “is as fate to all things else”. Therefore, the concept presented here as umbar – and its antithesis of ‘free will’ – is, in my view, consistent with, and cannot be directly compared to, the corresponding concepts in the earlier writings in e.g. the Ainulindalë and the Athrabeth.

Tolkien also states that the Eldar did, “of course”, not resolve “the ultimate problem of Free Will in its relation to the Foreknowledge of a Designer,” but he then goes on to use the metaphor of the author composing a tale for which he has some general designs about the plot and the nature of the characters, but where the characters may do things that surprises the author (something Tolkien had certainly felt his own characters do).

Works cited

Tolkien, J.R.R., Hostetter, Carl (ed.). “Fate and Free Will” in Tolkien Studies vol. VI. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2009

Tolkien, J.R.R., Tolkien, Christopher (ed.). Morgoth’s Ring. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

Flieger, Verlyn. “The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth” in Tolkien Studies vol. VI. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2009

Forchhammer, Troels. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a transitionary work, blog post, 2011, retrieved 24 July 2015, URL: http://parmarkenta.blogspot.com/2011/02/lord-of-rings-as-transitionary-work.html

Forchhammer, Troels. “Voices of a Music – Models of Free Will in Tolkien’s Middle-earth” in Freedom, Fate and Choice in Middle-earth, Whitton: The Tolkien Society, 2012

Other suggested reading

Dubs, Kathleen. “Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings.” In Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, ed. Jane Chance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Fisher, Jason. “‘Man does as he is when he may do as he wishes’: The Perennial Modernity of Free Will.” In Tolkien and Modernity vol. 1, ed. Frank Weinreich and Thomas Honegger. Zollikofen: Walking Tree Publishers, 2006.

Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002.

Noad, Charles. “Fate and Freedom in Tolkien’s World: Unresolvable Paradox?” in Freedom, Fate and Choice in Middle-earth, Whitton: The Tolkien Society, 2012

Weinreich, Frank. “Brief Considerations on Determinism in Reality and Fiction.” In Tolkien and Modernity, vol. 1. Zollikofen: Walking Tree Publishers, 2006.


Troels has reviewed books about Tolkien for several journals, including Mythlore and Mallorn, and he blogs a monthly internet review.

Parma-kenta (translates as “Enquiry into the books”): parmarkenta.blogspot.com

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