The Fellowship of the Ring begins the story of the Company of the Ring who set out to destroy the One Ring, an action that will defeat the rising threat of the Dark Lord Sauron. Nine individuals choose to join the Fellowship for the purpose of saving the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. In many ways, though, their choices and decisions seem predestined by a greater overarching power that is hinted at in myth, circumstance, and conversation. Throughout the Fellowship’s journey, moments of foresight also become integral to the plot. Certain characters use the power of prophecy and vision to arm themselves with knowledge that will greatly help their forces in the contest between good and evil. Overall, this narrative interplay between ideas of free will, fate, and foresight suggests that free will can exist in a world also governed by predestined action.
Tolkien’s story hints at an overarching and all-powerful presence that has specific plans for the beings of Middle-earth. The diverse members of the Company of the Ring all come together by happenstance, as for various reasons they have been drawn away from their homes to Rivendell at the same time. Here, the Council of Elrond suggests that a small company is required to infiltrate Mordor and destroy the Ring. Despite all nine spontaneously volunteering their services, Elrond comments on the fortuitous nature of it all—that Nine Walkers of complementary talents have volunteered to oppose Sauron and his nine Black Riders seems too circumspect not to be fate. Situations like these abound in The Fellowship of the Ring, suggesting an overarching presence that directs the events on Middle-earth. These situations also offer readers glimpses of the possibility that everything that will come to pass is already destined to occur. Interestingly, it is difficult for readers to discern the priorities of this potentially all-powerful presence. Gandalf is certain that Bilbo’s finding the Ring and giving it to Frodo makes the Frodo the fated Ring-bearer (indeed, in Gandalf’s opinion Frodo is the very best person to bear the treacherous object and has the most chance at succeeding in the Fellowship’s quest to destroy it). However, the Grey Wizard is also certain that this overarching power would not protect the Free Peoples of Middle-earth by letting the Ring rest safely at the bottom of the sea. Readers can therefore interpret fate as having favorable or disastrous designs for the Fellowship and their quest to destroy the Ring.
However, Tolkien also champions the power of choice by free will throughout the story, which contradicts the very concept of fate. Gandalf is a character who strongly upholds all beings’ right to free will. As one of the wisest of the Istari, the wizards of Middle-earth, his knowledge and views hold great weight. However, Gandalf lets others make crucial choices about the wellbeing of Middle-earth, offering his advice and guidance only—especially regarding Frodo’s actions. It is Frodo’s choice to accept the mantle of Ring-bearer, to serve the Free Peoples of Middle-earth rather than return to his beloved Shire, and to often choose which physical paths the Fellowship shall take. Through Gandalf, Tolkien elevates the prevalence and power of free will over fate.
The idea of foresight complicates the conflict between fate and free will in the novel. Characters with skills of prediction, prophecy, and vision are able to arm themselves and their allies with insight and knowledge that can alter the power plays of Middle-earth. Gandalf predicts that Gollum still has a part to play in the fate of the Ring, Elrond foresees that the Fellowship’s quest will only be completed by someone seemingly weak whom Sauron will overlook, and Aragorn warns that Gandalf should not enter the Mines of Moria. All of these are occurrences in which the wise correctly predict events to come, offering advice and insights to their allies. Foresight troubles the concept that individuals have free will, as in these cases it is a prediction of fate. Characters also gain powers of foresight through their use of magically enhanced objects—for example, Galadriel can view present and future global events using her mirror. Foresight is again a prediction that seems to stem from the mysterious, overarching power of fate.
Although Tolkien champions characters who embrace the value of self-determination, he reveals that fate is a major player in his world, too. On Middle-earth, the potential for free will and choice exist alongside the inevitability of fate, which is sometimes predicted through foresight. In this way, The Fellowship resists a tidy ending, as the tension between free will and fate remains unresolved by the end of the first volume in The Lord of the Rings series.
Free Will, Fate, and Foresight ThemeTracker
Free Will, Fate, and Foresight Quotes in The Fellowship of the Ring
At no time had Hobbits of any kind been warlike, and they had never fought among themselves. [...]
Nonetheless, ease and peace had left this people still curiously tough. They were, if it came to it, difficult to daunt or kill; and they were, perhaps, so unwearyingly fond of good things not least because they could, when put to it, do without them, and could survive rough handling by grief, foe, or weather in a way that astonished those who did not know them well and looked no further than their bellies and their well-fed faces.
"So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."
Slowly he drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.
The music and singing round them seemed to falter, and a silence fell. Bilbo looked quickly at Frodo's face and passed his hand across his eyes. “I understand now,” he said. “Put it away! I am sorry: sorry you have come in for this burden: sorry about everything.”
“If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, [the Rangers] have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us.
[…] Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. 'Strider' I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.”
“It is true that if these Hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they dared, and be shamed and unhappy. I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom. Even if you chose for us an Elf-lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him.”
“Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir,” said Elrond, “until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you.”
“Maybe," said Boromir. "But always I have let my horn cry at setting forth, and though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night.”
Pippin felt curiously attracted by the well. […] Moved by a sudden impulse he groped for a loose stone, and let it drop. He felt his heart beat many times before there was any sound. Then far below, as if the stone had fallen into deep water in some cavernous place, there came a plunk, very distant, but magnified and repeated in the hollow shaft.
“What's that?” cried Gandalf. He was relieved when Pippin confessed what he had done, but he was angry, and Pippin could see his eye glinting. “Fool of a Took!” he growled. “This is a serious journey, not a Hobbit waling-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet!”
“Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal,” she answered, “and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold. What you will see, if you leave the Mirror free to work, I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be. But which is it that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell. Do you wish to look?”
[Aragorn’s] own plan, while Gandalf remained with them, had been to go with Boromir, and with his sword help to deliver Gondor. For he believed that the message of the dreams was a summons, and that the hour had come at last when the heir of Elendil should come forth and strive with Sauron for the mastery. But in Moria the burden of Gandalf had been laid on him; and he knew that he could not now forsake the Ring, if Frodo refused in the end to go with Boromir. And yet what help could he or any of the Company give to Frodo, save to walk blindly with him into the darkness?
Then the Lady unbraided one of her long tresses, and cut off three golden hairs, and laid them in Gimli’s hand. “These words shall go with the gift,” she said. “I do not foretell, for all foretelling is now vain: on the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope. But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.”
The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell bests. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.
Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion. Then turning south again he beheld Minas Tirith. Far away it seemed, and beautiful: white-walled, many towered, proud and fair upon its mountain-seat; its battlements glittered with steel, and its turrets were bright with many banners. Hope leaped in [Frodo's] heart. But against Minas Tirith was set another fortress, greater and more strong. Thither, eastward, unwilling his eye was drawn. It passed the ruined bridges of Osgiliath, the grinning gates of Minas Morgul, and the haunted Mountains, and it looked upon Gorgoroth, the valley of terror in the Land of Mordor.
"But I must go at once. It's the only way."
"Of course it is," answered Sam. "But not alone. I'm coming too, or neither of us isn't going. I'll knock holes in all the boats first."
Frodo actually laughed. A sudden warmth and gladness touched his heart.
[…] “ So my plan is spoilt!” said Frodo. “It is no good trying to escape you. But I'm glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road!”