Book: Fate and Free Will


Fate and Free Will

Edited by Carl F. Hostetter

So writed Carl F. Hostetter comments

 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’

Fate and Free Will

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:

 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 preordained 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 insquare 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 erect (permanent buildings, dwellings, etc.); extended form

Fate and Free Will

with greater intensity . . . > Common Eldarin

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‘permanent establishment’ > fate of the world in general as, or as far as, established and pre-ordained from creation; and that part of this‘fate’ which affected an individual person, and not open to modification by his free will.*

§2. *E.g. one of the Eldar would have said that for all Elves and Men the shape, condition, and therefore the past and future physical development and destiny of this ‘earth’ was determined and beyond their power to change, indeed beyond the power even of the Valar to alter in any large and permanent way. ([Marginal note:] They distinguished between “change” and redirection. Thus any ‘rational [?will-user]’ could in a small way move, re-direct, stop, or destroy objects in the world; but he could not “change” into something else. [3] They did not confuse analysis with change, e.g. water / steam, oxygen hydrogen.) The Downfall of Númenor was ‘a miracle’ as we might say, or as they a direct action of Eru within time that altered the previous scheme for all remaining time. They would probably also have said that Bilbo was ‘fated’ to find the Ring, but not necessarily to surrender it; and then if Bilbo surrendered it Frodo was fated to go on his mission, but not necessarily to destroy the Ring—which in fact he did not do. They wouldhave added that if the downfall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring was part of Fate (or Eru’s Plan) then if Bilbo had retained the Ring and refused to surrender it, some other means would have arisen by which Sauron was frustrated. Just as when Frodo’s will proved in the end inadequate, a means for the Ring’s destruction immediately appeared—being kept in reserve by Eru as it were.

§3. In Q. 

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> umbart > umbar (genitive umbarto) ‘Fate’. . . in S. amarth. . . . The word from the simple stem mbar- . . . was ambara ‘establishment’, Q. ambar ‘the world’, T. ambar, S. *amar (not found). This was to [the] Eldar more obviously related to

Fate and Free Will

than we might feel it to be, since ‘fate’ so far [as] they recognized it was conceived as a much more physical obstacle to will.

§4. They would not have denied that (say) a man was (may have been) “fated” to meet an enemy of his at a certain time and place, but they would have denied that he was “fated” then to speak to him in terms of hatred, or to slay him. “Will” at a certain grade must enter into many of the complex motions leading to a meeting of persons; but the Eldar held that only those efforts of “will” were “free” which were directed to a fully aware purpose. On a journey a man may turn aside, choosing this or that way—e.g. to avoid a marsh, or a steep hill—but this decision is mostly intuitive or half-conscious (as that of an irrational animal) and has only an immediate object of easing his journey. His setting-out may have been a free decision, to achieve some object,* but his actual course was largely under physical direction—and it might have led to/or missed a meeting of importance. It was this aspect of “chance” that was included in umbar. See L.R. III p. 360: “a chance-meeting as we say in Middle-earth.” That was said by Gandalf of his meeting with Thorin in Bree, which led to the visit to Bilbo. For this “chance,” not purposed or even thought of by either Thorin or Gandalf, made contact with Gandalf’s “will,” and his fixed purpose and designs for the protection of the NW frontiers against the power of Sauron. If Gandalf had been different in character, or if he had not seized the opportunity, the “chance” would, as it were, have failed to “go off ” (misfired). Gandalf was not “fated” to act as he did then. (Indeed his actions were most odd, idiosyncratic, and unexpectable: Gandalf was a powerful “free will” let loose, as it were, among the physical “chances” of the world). [4]

§5. *Thus if a man set out on a journey with the purpose of finding his enemy, and the purpose then of doing this or that (pardoning him / asking his pardon / cursing him / seeking to slay him): That purpose governs the whole process. It may be frustrated by “chance” (—in fact he never met him—) or it may be helped by chance (—in fact against likelihood he did meet him), but in the latter case if he did evil he could not [?throw] the blame on “chance”.

§6. Umbar thus relates to the net-work of “chances” (largely physical) which is, or is not, used by rational persons with ‘free will.’ That aspect of things which we might include in Fate—the ‘determination’ that we each carry about with us in our given created character (which later acts and experience may modify but not fundamentally change) was not included in Umbar by the Eldar; who said that if it was in any way similar it was on a different ‘plane.’ But the ultimate problem of Free Will in its relation to the Foreknowledge of a Designer (both of the plane of Umbar and of the Mind and the blending of both in Incarnate Mind), Eru, “the Author of the Great Tale,” was of course not resolved by the Eldar.

[§7. But they would have said it is the continual clash of umbar, the ‘chances’ of ambar as a fixed arrangement which continues to work out inevitably (except only for ‘miracle’ a direct or mediate intervention of Eru, from outside umbar and ambar), and purposeful will that [?ramifies] a story [or] tale (as an excerpt from the total drama of which Eru is the Author or as that Drama itself). Until the appearance of Will all is mere preparation, interesting only on a quite different & lower plane: like mathematics or observing the physical [?events] of the world or in a small way the workings of a machine. Will first appeared with the Ainur/ Valar, but except for Melkor and those he dominated their wills being in accord with Eru effected little change in Ambar or deflected Umbar.] [5]

§8. They said that, though this likeness is only a ‘likeness,’ not an equation, the nearest experience of the Incarnates to this problem is to be found in the author of a tale. The author is not in the tale in one sense, yet it all proceeds from him (and what was in him), so that he is present all the time.* Now while composing the tale he may have certain general designs (the plot for instance), and he may have a clear conception of the character (independent of the particular tale) of each feigned actor. But those are the limits of his ‘foreknowledge.’ Many authors have recorded the feeling that one of their actors ‘comes alive’ as it were, and does things that were not foreseen at all at the outset and may modify in a small or even large way the process of the tale thereafter. All such unforeseen actions or events are, however, taken up to become integral parts of the tale when finally concluded. Now when that has been done, then the author’s ‘foreknowledge’ is complete, and nothing can happen, be said, or done, that he does not know of and will/or allow to be. Even so, some of the Eldarin philosophers ventured to say, it was with Eru.

§9. *If one ‘character’ in the tale is the author then he becomes as it were only a lesser and partial picture of the author in imagined circumstances.

The note originally ended here, about a third of the way down the page; but at a later point (judging by the change of writing implement), Tolkien added one more very rough and faint paragraph (readings marked here as uncertain are for the most part very uncertain indeed), apparently applying the simile of “the author of a tale” to his cosmogonic myth:

§10. [? ?] Music of Ainur ancient legend from Valinorean days. Firs[t] stage the music or ‘concert’ of voices and instruments—Eru takes up alterations by [?the] created wills (‘good’ or bad) and adds of His own. Second stage the theme now [?transformed is provided with] a Tale and presented as visible drama to the Ainur [?bounded but great.] Eru had not [?complete] foreknowledge, but [?after it His] foreknowledge was [?complete] to the smallest detail—but [?He] did not reveal it all. He veiled the latter part from the eyes of the Valar who were to be actors.

[1] These notes date to no earlier than 1968, since they were written on discarded Allen & Unwin publishing notices dated January 1968. Tolkien had already written extensively on the same topic in notes dating to the mid-1960s: see Tolkien’s “Words, Phrases & Passages in The Lord of the Rings,” published in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (in particular 104–10, 123–4, and 163–4). These earlier notes likewise range beyond strictly linguistic discussion into the nature and relations of fate and the created world, and as such have direct bearing on the discussion presented here and should be consulted by the reader.

[2] The query mark is Tolkien’s own. The symbol “>” is commonly used in linguistics to mean “yielded”, either in form (by phonological development) or meaning (by semantic variation). Here the meaning is that from the basic sense ‘settle, establish’ arose the sense “to erect permanent buildings or dwellings.”

[3] In keeping with the sense of the rest of this marginal note, Tolkien’s intent here may have been to write “he could not change them into something else,” referring to the preceding objects, which can be altered in form or state (as water to steam) or even analyzed into constituent elements (oxygen and hydrogen), but cannot be changed into another thing entirely.

[4] Cf. also Gandalf ’s statement, “I did no more than follow the lead of ‘chance’” in “The Quest of Erebor” (Unfinished Tales 322).

[5] This paragraph, interpolated from the first version of the note, continues with a partial sentence: “Ambar is complex enough, but only Eru who made and designed both Ambar (the processes of Eä).” Tolkien interrupted the sentence at this point to provide an etymological note on , which reads: “Ea ‘it is’ only = the total of Ambar: the given material and its processes of change. Outside Ea is the world/sphere of aware purpose and will.” This was followed at the bottom of the page by an etymological note on the Quenya word for ‘will’ :

?DEL: Q. lēle, v[erb] lelya (lelinye). To will with conscious purpose, immediate or remote. To be willing, to assent, consent, agree—quite different, for it partakes of will but is an additional [?accident]. A man may say ‘I [?wish], I agree, I will’ to some proposition of another without special purpose of his own (but he may also have reflected that it fits in with some design of his own and so agree to it as he might not otherwise have done).

The top of the next page begins the second version of the text.


Tolkien, J.R.R., Words, Phrases & Passages in “The Lord of the Rings” ed. Christopher Gilson. Mountain View, CA: Parma Eldelamberon, 2007. Parma Eldalamberon no. 17..

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