Title: Evil and Free Will, With Examples from Lord of the Rings
Subject: A written response to a statement about evil and free will, as it applies to characters and situations in LotR.
Author's Notes: The essay is something I wrote a number of years ago, in response to a statement someone made in a Lord of the Rings discussion forum of which I was a member. I don't remember the context of the statement or who made it, whether it was a quote from something, or part of a larger discussion or essay, or if it was made simply to generate discussion among the members of the forum. The discussion forum and its accompanying website have long since been taken down, so all that is left is the statement itself and my response to it.
Word Count: 2,204
Evil and Free Will
With Examples from Lord of the Rings
EVIL ROBS YOU OF FREE WILL, EVENTUALLY IT MAKES THE CHOICES FOR YOU.
With Examples from Lord of the Rings
EVIL ROBS YOU OF FREE WILL, EVENTUALLY IT MAKES THE CHOICES FOR YOU.
For the most part, I disagree with this statement. Yes, Evil can take over at some point, but only after it is allowed to. At some point in the encounter (or repeated encounter) with Evil, there is a choice made, not by Evil, but by the person himself; not just the choice to resist or not to resist, but also the choosing to give in to a desire that may have been acknowledged a long time before. I do not believe that Evil is all-powerful, therefore it cannot get a foothold unless it is allowed a foothold. But once it has gotten in, then beware! At that point, Evil will be essentially in charge and influence future choices to such an extent that it will be hard to break away.
This point of choice to surrender one's will to the whim of Evil is different for each one, as is the ability to resist the evil influence once it begins its pressure. This may have something to do with original intention, or innate ability to resist outside influences, or moral strength -- or on the negative side, pride and selfishness.
Let's look at a couple of examples.
Boromir: He is the best example of what Evil can do to a normal person. Here we have a man who is strong and good, who loves his family, his city, and his country, almost to the exclusion of all else. He is noble and totally committed to the fight against Sauron, to the extent that his concern with defeating Sauron is so intense that he is open to using anything powerful enough to do the job. He is personally aware of the difficulty of the task and finds it inconceivable that a weapon like the Ring that has miraculously come to hand should not be used. He is also proud and confident, feeling that, where the high and mighty like Elrond and Gandalf might legitimately refuse the Ring, could not good, sensible men like Aragorn, or even Boromir, wield it without danger?
Boromir gives in to desire when he refuses to believe the policy of destroying the Ring is the right one. He desires aid above all else for his City, and he is not willing to let this opportunity go in the end; he is therefore open to falling under the Ring's evil influence when presented with constant temptation and opportunity. He is weakened to the point that he makes the final choice, to act selfishly instead of for the greater good.
A case can be made for this final push coming from an evil outside influence (the Ring), but the choice to listen had actually already been made, perhaps after Gandalf's fall, and Aragorn's decision to go to Mordor instead of Minas Tirith, or perhaps when Frodo finally refuses the invitation to lend him the Ring; we do not know when. But there was an earlier choice that made Evil's final push over the edge easier.
Denethor: Denethor's relinquishing of his will is similar to Boromir's in that he seeks to protect his kingdom by whatever means possible, even to the point of expending his sons to accomplish it. He is proud in the extreme and sees the battle with Sauron almost as a personal battle. Denethor never actually submits to Sauron's evil, because he is very strong, but his extreme pride defeats him in another way. By allowing his pride and his jealousy of Gandalf and Aragorn to rule his decisions, he makes use of a tool that would have been better left alone: the Palantír. He knows full well that Sauron has the master stone, but he is confident of his ability (and his right to its use as a ruler of Gondor) to prevail. Denethor's desire to know everything and be in control of all that concerns Gondor opens the door to Evil's influence. Though Denethor never actually obeys Evil, he is broken by it in another way: it affects his mind so that he knows nothing but despair, and in his despair, he chooses wrongly.
Saruman: Saruman starts out as one committed to seeking a way to oppose Sauron. He is of the Maiar, as is Gandalf; but so are Sauron and the Balrogs (as we learn in The Silmarillion). Maiar make choices just as others in Middle Earth make choices. There are indications in some of Tolkien's other writings that Saruman was always a proud one; whether this is a factor or not, is hard to say for sure, though obviously pride is a factor in the fall of many. Saruman, unlike the others, knows perfectly well what the Ring is and what it will do, and he does not care. In his study of how to defeat Sauron, he comes to the decision that the only way to defeat him is to replace him, so why not be the one to do the replacing? Rather than wanting to destroy the Ring, he wants to find it himself, and expends much secret energy searching for it. I believe there comes a point when Saruman loses himself totally to evil, and at that point, ceases to have the strength to make decisions for himself -- he may be not fully controlled by Evil, but he is at least controlled by the consequences of his original choice. The deeper in he gets, the harder it is to crawl out again. We don't know at what point Saruman's desire becomes one of domination instead of opposition, but that is the choice he makes that sends him over the edge.
The Ringwraiths: These nine kings are probably all Men who were easily swayed by Evil, because they were willing to commit themselves to it in return for earthly power. By the time they knew what they had chosen, it was too late. Though I wonder if it mattered? Some of them, at least, no doubt had an evil bent themselves, and were happy to make the choice. As Nazgûl, they no longer have any will of their own.
Gollum: Gollum is an interesting case. He is hooked almost from Day One, because his desire for the Ring when it is found is so strong that he is willing to murder his friend to obtain it. He goes downhill from there, and is quickly controlled by Evil. Yet not totally. There is still something in Gollum that resists final control, and that gives him the ability to continue to have a say in what he does and where he goes. But in the end, it is his desire for the Ring that controls him and decides for him which way he will go.
Frodo: It is a bit of a risky business to talk about Frodo in this kind of a discussion because it is hard to say anything bad about him. But we must say something, because he is the one who at the end confronts Evil at its most powerful. Frodo is perhaps the one who comes the closest to being controlled without making a choice, and therefore is the one who almost throws my point out the window -- though not quite!
Frodo's intentions are good from the beginning, and his desire is not selfish but very selfless: to take the Ring to guard it and keep it safe. Along the way, he makes some bad decisions, using the Ring when he shouldn't have; but he also makes good choices -- one of them being to trust Gollum, which saves him in the end. But whether his decisions are good or bad, all along his desire is to see the Ring hidden safely, or destroyed. Eventually, though, there is a point where Frodo says, "It is too much, I cannot give it up." That is a choice he makes himself, it is not the Ring, though the Ring is responsible for beating him down to such an extent that he has no strength left to resist, and no doubt Frodo's decision to claim the Ring is in accordance with the Ring's wishes. Perhaps Frodo's choice is to give up, which opens him up to final control by the Ring.
Whereas we can point the finger and say Boromir was wrong to do this, or Saruman was wrong to do that, it is hard to point the finger at Frodo and say he was wrong. We can't blame him for finally giving in.
Really, it is a very fine point, and some may think I am splitting hairs here -- and maybe I am! You might say that if Frodo is so weak he cannot resist because of the influence of Evil, then he is obviously controlled by Evil. But my point is that there is always a choice to let Evil take control, and it is the same for Frodo as it is for Gandalf, or Saruman, or Boromir. Perhaps it is not conscious, especially if the person in question has been slipping or weakening for a long time, or perhaps it is conscious: no, I will not do this, or yes, I will allow this to happen. Either way, a choice is made. I'm just glad that Gollum is there to immediately negate Frodo's choice, so that Frodo has no chance to go further down that road. Perhaps that is why he is so clearly free of the burden when the smoke clears and Sam has hauled him out of the furnace room.
Please, Frodo people, don't get after me for this; I am in no way saying anything against Frodo here, and if you think I am, I'm sorry, because I am not saying this to blame Frodo. I am just trying to apply my idea consistently to all who were affected by the Evil influence of the Ring. That Frodo's case is so hard to pin down is truly amazing! Obviously, there was only one person in the history of Middle-earth who could have and should have had the Ring to hold it and then to take it to its destruction, and that was Frodo. He was the only one capable of resisting the Evil until the end, and in the end, when he couldn't stand it, the way was provided for him to be held blameless.
So now that I have "dealt" with the issue of Evil and free will (hopefully not contradicting myself too often!), what about the issue of Destiny and free will?
What do we do with Boromir? If he had not taken on the quest instead of his brother (through pride or destiny or whatever), would things have turned out the same? If Frodo had met Boromir in Ithilien instead of Faramir, how would he have fared? Boromir did wrong to try to take the Ring, but if he had not, would Frodo have made the decision to go alone to Mordor? What of Denethor? If he had not chosen to use the Palantír, then Gondor would have been ill prepared to defend itself against Sauron, and would have fallen perhaps even before having an opportunity to seek aid from Rivendell. What of Saruman? If he had not tried to take the Ring for himself, Merry and Pippin would not have been captured, and a whole series of events that lead to the downfall of Sauron might not have occurred. What of Gollum? If he had not been totally committed to the safety of the Ring, he would not have wrested it from Frodo, to his downfall and the destruction of the Ring as a consequence.
It is a complicated issue, but when you have Evil you must also have Good. And I believe that Good is stronger. The author of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues1 makes a valid point: "Evil twists good things to evil purposes, and good twists evil into greater good." We see this over and over again in the Lord of the Rings. Good people are corrupted by Evil and fail, and bad things happen; but those bad things turn out for good. Evil people succeed and do more evil, yet good things come of it. That doesn't make it okay to do bad things or make bad choices, and that doesn't make it right to give in to temptation. But it makes it realistic.
So, there is Evil, and there is Free Will. The freedom is there to choose which way to take, and the choice is made. Once the choice is made for Evil, it is no longer easy to make choices that are not determined by Evil, so in that sense, you become the slave. But while it's a lot harder to choose Good again after once choosing unwisely, it is not impossible -- you are never totally robbed of the option to choose one way or the other. Evil influences, but cannot make the choice for you. It is yours to make, and the consequences are yours to deal with.
1. Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings, by Mark Eddy Smith, p. 80.
by Linaewen ©2002