From Middle Earth to Fionavar: Free Will and Sacrifice in High Fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay

by Susannah Clements

This paper, by Susannah Clements, was presented at the Conference on Christianity and Literature 2002, attended primarily by Christian scholars and students. The theme of the conference was whether there is such a thing as a “distinctly Christian literature.” Copyright Susannah Clements, reproduced with permission.

In 1971, a man who labeled himself “an unbeliever” wrote a letter to J.R.R. Tolkien praising him for creating, in The Lord of the Rings, “a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters 413). This positive yet rather inchoate response reflects the response of a good number of readers as they consider how religious faith is reflected in Tolkien’s work. Scholars have been debating for years about the presence (or absence) of Tolkien’s Christianity in The Lord of the Rings. The recent release of the film version of The Fellowship the Ring has, of course, moved this debate into popular culture as well. Reactions range from a vague shock that Tolkien was religious at all to claiming The Lord of the Rings as a Christian classic which can be used to teach teenagers about Christ to maintaining it is just plain evil because it deals with magic.2 Many scholars have analyzed this issue in considerable depth,3 but this range of popular responses is not particularly surprising given the nature of Tolkien’s vision and the simplistic perspective many Christian readers bring to texts. The most common conclusion in recent discussions is that The Lord of the Rings is Christian literature because Tolkien is writing from a Christian perspective. This fact, the argument goes, distinguishes and elevates him from other writers. Certainly, Tolkien was a professing Christian and a devout Catholic and claimed himself, in an often-quoted letter, that the trilogy is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letters 172), but in what way is this evident in The Lord of the Rings? What is the purpose of recognizing differing worldviews in texts if we are not going to analyze how they are reflected and explore rather than assume their implications for literature?

The trend of the moment is to compare The Lord of the Rings with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, and certainly that comparison brings out interesting characteristics of both novelists. But the results of such a comparison (and the conclusions drawn from most Christian readers of Tolkien) are not necessarily complete. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings as a work of fiction reflects elements of the Christian faith: a providential power at work in the world, heroism through love, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, corruption through power, the necessity of sacrifice. This cannot be all there is to it, however, because these elements appear in texts written outside of the Christian context; they are a staple, in fact, of the fantasy genre (witness their presence in the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which may be a hauntingly complex and sophisticated exploration of free will and sacrifice but is also a frequent punching bag for the Christian media). Certainly these elements are also present in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, another series of novels written in the tradition of high fantasy and with Tolkien very consciously in mind. My purpose in this paper is to analyze how Kay uses the elements and interests of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings but transforms them through a different worldview, and through this comparison-focusing specifically on the issues of free will and sacrifice-we can, perhaps, see more clearly how The Lord of the Rings reflects a Christian worldview.

The similarities between Tolkien’s and Kay’s trilogies are obvious and intentional. Like Tolkien, Kay creates a world that is different from our own, inhabited by races other than human (including dwarves, miscellaneous monsters, and his equivalent of elves-the lios alfar, “most hated by the Dark for their name was light” (ST 15)). Many of the characters are types Tolkien uses: the powerful dark lord, the noble wizard, the wizard who betrays, the warrior king. And the reader is introduced to this world by characters who are, in essence, outsiders, and yet who become the most important actors in the world; instead of hobbits, Kay uses five characters from our world-Kim, Jennifer, Paul, Dave and Kevin-who are brought by Loren, the wizard, into Fionavar. Despite these obvious similarities, Kay’s work is not a mindless imitation of Tolkien like the dozens that still appear in the fantasy sections of our bookstores. He uses the elements intentionally, and the ways in which he distinguishes himself from Tolkien shed light on the complexity of how issues like free will and sacrifice can be explored in literature.

The Providential vision at the heart of The Lord of the Rings has been discussed convincingly and in various ways by many scholars and readers. Certainly, it is not necessary for me to outline it in detail once again. Though a sovereign God is almost never invoked in the novels, clearly the events, decisions and actions work together to form one plan, one journey, one story-“What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?” Sam asks, recognizing an overall structure in the seemingly chaotic events around them (Return 245). Things that seem like digressions or coincidences end up being necessary to bring about the ultimate conclusions, and each character, however minor, plays a crucial role. Human choice, free will, is also important-no character is intrinsically good or evil, but rather makes a choice one way or the other-but free will goes hand in hand with the sovereign will. The final chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance, chronicles “The Breaking of the Fellowship.” Frodo is expected to make a decision on which direction to travel next, and the other members of the fellowship will be led for various reasons by Frodo’s decision. The importance of free will at this moment is emphasized by the obvious repetition of the words “choose” and “choice” in the chapter’s dialogue. However, instead of having the characters make conscious decisions based on Frodo’s choice, events are taken out of the characters’ hands. The various characters are described as “wandering aimlessly” (446), running “wildly” (449), “leaping blindly” (449), acting in “sudden panic or madness” (455), in danger of being “scattered and lost” (455). Frodo does end up exercising his free will, making a conscious decision to go to Mordor alone, but he does not have it his own way-he cannot stop Sam from going with him. Against their will, Merry and Pippin run off to be kidnapped. Thus Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli must decide to follow and rescue them. What seems to be a chaotic mess actually ends up getting the characters exactly in the places they need to be, which would not have happened had they followed the original plan of conscious choice. (Incidentally, this is one of the changes in the recent movie version, which has not just Frodo, but Aragorn, Merry, and Pippin all making reasoned decisions to go in different directions.) Similarly, all along we have been expecting for Frodo to use his free will to finally destroy the ring. When the time comes, he does decide . . . the wrong choice: “‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!'” (Return 239). Again, the decision is taken out of his hands when Gollum bites off his finger. Free will is important, and Tolkien makes it clear that each character is responsible for the decisions that he or she makes, but all choices (ultimately even Gollum’s) help to bring about the final plan that orders the universe. In this way, Tolkien reconciles two biblical truths-humanity’s free will and God’s sovereignty-which seem to be incompatible and yet must, in some way, work together.

By contrast, Kay’s exploration of fate and free will, one of the main themes in his novels, is rather more complex. In The Fionavar Tapestry, free will does not inevitably work together with fate-they are, in fact, often in conflict. At the heart of Kay’s trilogy is the image of a tapestry. There are multiple gods and goddesses present and at work in the world (religion, nearly absent in Middle Earth, is present and powerful in Fionavar). But above all of these gods is the Weaver at the Loom, who is much more clearly invoked than any sort of sovereign force in Tolkien’s work. The Weaver ordains the events of the world, weaving each person’s life as a thread in the tapestry. Not only do characters talk about him and use his name (the most common exclamation–“Weaver at the Loom!”), they also recognize how he acts in the world. For instance, the storm that wrecks the ship coming back from Cader Sedat is clearly attributed to the Weaver: “Paul gripped the Prince, and they both clung to their handholds like children, which they were. / The Weaver’s children. The Weaver at the Loom, whose storm this was” (DR 106). Much of what occurs in Fionavar is fated or ordained, as seen in the ta’kiena, an act of prophecy that reveals Finn’s fate, and the fight of Galadan and Cavall at the Summer Tree, which was “written in wind and fire long ago” (ST 161). The clearest consequence of the Weaver’s control over the lives and events in the world is the story arc of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Arthur, who lived first in our world, committed too great a sin: he killed hundreds of children in an attempt to protect himself from Mordred, the one who was destined to destroy him (a very small event in Mallory’s telling of the tale). For this sin, Arthur is cursed-he is doomed by the Weaver to live out the tragedy of his love for Guinevere and for Lancelot, and their love for each other, in this world and in other worlds, over and over again: “When the babies died the Weaver had marked him down for a long unwinding doom. A cycle of war and expiation under many names, and in many worlds, that redress be made for the children and for love” (WF 28). The Weaver’s will appears to be inviolate, and so when Kim summons Arthur from his death to war against the Dark, he is cursed to once again live out the story with Lancelot and Guinevere (who Kim thinks, mistakenly, are not present in Fionavar). Their story, at the center of the trilogy, is a constant, obvious reminder to the reader of the power of the Weaver’s sovereign will.

And yet, despite this clear, ordained destiny laid out for all who live and are part of the Tapestry, there is that which works against it. In contrast to “the woven” there is “the wild.” This wild or random element in the universe is embodied in the Wild Hunt: “Shadowy kings on shadowy horses that could ride between the stars and between the Weaver’s worlds,” (WF 100), until imprisoned under a stone to sleep until again summoned, belonging neither to the Light nor the Dark. Random, wild magic, part of the Tapestry but not bound by it. When Kim and Dave decide to use their gifts to free the Wild Hunt, even the Weaver watches “to see what would come back into the Tapestry” (WF 103). Flidais (Taliesin in our world) explains to Jennifer the reason the Weaver “spun their killing into the Tapestry” (DR 94). According to Flidais, who knows the answers to all riddles except one in the world,

the Hunt was placed in the Tapestry to be wild in the truest sense, to lay down an uncontrolled thread for the freedom of the Children who came after. And so did the Weaver lay a constraint upon himself, that not even he, shuttling at the Loom of Worlds, may preordain and shape exactly what is to be. We who came after . . . we have such choices as we have, some freedom to shape our own destinies, because of that wild thread of Owein and the Hunt slipping across the Loom, warp and then weft, in turn and at times. They are there . . . precisely to be wild, to cut across the Weaver’s measured will. To be random, and so enable us to be (DR 94).

The Wild Hunt allows for free will, human choice, and the “deepest, bitterest part of the story” is that Rakoth Maugrim (the Unraveller), because of this randomness, was able to enter the world from outside of the Tapestry-“He is the price we pay,” Flidais admits (DR 94). Kay has in this way fashioned a world where the creator values free will in his creatures so much that he is willing to risk their safety-their very existence-in order to achieve it.
It would be simple, then, to say that free will is always wild rather than woven, that human choice is always counter the will of the Weaver, but that would not be accurate. Much of the time, free will and fate run together in the Tapestry as they do in The Lord of the Rings. Paul’s choice to die on the Summer tree, he recognizes, seems “to have been written a very long time ago” (ST 142). And Kevin would not have made his decision to sacrifice himself “had he not been traveling toward the Goddess all his life” (WF 177). Their decisions seem to be freely made, but do not run counter to the Weaver’s plan. Other decisions, if not inevitable, are almost entirely guided by forces the characters cannot control. Kim, when she realizes that she has been gifted (or burdened) with Ysanne’s soul, recognizes that Ysanne has not completely forced Kim’s decision-Kim can still decide to shirk the responsibility she has been given-but it is not a choice she could ever really make. Like Arthur, who can never decide not to fight the Dark when he confronts it, Kim can never use her free will to “deny the dance” (DR 265). However, because of the wildness present in the Tapestry, free will is possible, and the Tapestry itself can be changed. This truth is revealed most clearly in Diarmuid’s character, who refuses to let the powers that be decide who will become the next king of Brennin, who insists that what other characters think is inevitable is “neither written nor compelled” (WF 240), whose nature is “wild anarchy” (DR 270), and who claims the dance, the death intended for Arthur, thus ending Arthur’s curse which the Weaver intended to be eternal. Because of the possibility for free will, the created are not slaves to the creator, an idea repeated increasingly as the trilogy progresses. This freedom allows for Darien as well, also not intended to be part of the Tapestry, the child of Jennifer’s rape, kept alive by her choice and for the purpose of being random, who eventually chooses to side with the Light, dies and kills Maugrim, his father, with his death. Although Darien is the character most truly “poised between Light and Dark” (WF 169), the necessity and centrality of his decision reflects the decision that everyone must make-his, as Jennifer tells him, “is only the hardest, and the one that matters most” (DR 100).

Both Tolkien and Kay are exploring possibilities for free will, but their conclusions are different. Tolkien’s novels always point back to some kind of sovereign will or plan for the universe-free will is the way this plan is carried out, which is why many readers question whether free will is really a possibility for Tolkien’s characters. In Kay, human choice is of such value that it can sometimes affect change despite the Weaver’s will and not because of it. Part of the joy at the end of Kay’s novels comes because the Weaver has not had his way completely, but much of the joy in Tolkien derives from the fact that there has been a plan after all. I should emphasize again that my purpose is not to downplay the importance of human choice in Tolkien, because in both trilogies, though written on an epic scale, the action centers around individual actions-the actions of one person make a difference to the entire universe. Particularly the sacrificial actions of individuals. The fantasy genre itself rests, not on the question of who will be victorious, but on how much it will cost in order for good to triumph.4 For both Kay and Tolkien, it is only through sacrifice that victory can be won. Therefore, the highest form of human choice, of free will, comes in the form of sacrifice.

Certainly sacrifice is an essential issue in The Lord of the Rings. The sacrifices the characters must make are difficult and various, often reflecting the nature of Christ’s own sacrifice. Among the most memorable is that of Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dûm, who is willing to give up his life to save others. Frodo, too, must suffer. The road to Mordor is terrible, and his only comfort and support on the hardest parts of the journey is the companionship of Sam. Frodo is nearly lost-physically and spiritually-because of this suffering. However, just when one thinks the inevitable will happen, that Frodo must fall into the Crack of Doom with the Ring and be destroyed with it, Gollum comes along and takes his death. Gollum, formerly a hobbit himself, has been set up all along as Frodo’s shadow personality-an example of who Frodo will become if he lets the ring take control of him. And in the end Gollum is sacrificed instead of Frodo-Frodo doesn’t have to pay the final price, despite losing the battle against the power of the ring. Gollum’s death is Frodo’s substitute; he is the ram sacrificed in Frodo’s place. Other characters in The Lord of the Rings also suffer, are forced to sacrifice, but it is never quite as terrible as it could be. The two characters who seem most clearly marked for death-Éowyn and Faramir-make conscious choices to risk (and perhaps expect) death in order to accomplish what needs to be done; however both of them not only survive, but also fall in love and get married. In one scene soon after they meet, Faramir feels hope for the first time as he stands with Éowyn on the walls of the city: “And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters of Anduin shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell” (Return 260). This is certainly a picture of grace-their survival, healing, and love representing good that comes unexpectedly and without a price. Perhaps the largest loss in the novels is to Middle Earth itself, as much that was beautiful and powerful in the past must vanish or leave. But the future of Middle Earth is promising; Sauron’s power is destroyed, the true king has returned in glory, and a new age has begun. Frodo himself ends up leaving; he has suffered too much to stay: he says at the end, “. . . I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them” (Return 338). But there is another world waiting for him, a world of fragrance and song. So hand in hand with human choice, the sacrifice that is a part of living in the world and fighting what is evil, there is such a thing as grace, a doctrine essential to the Christian faith. It is not all sacrifice; there is not a price for everything-some good is freely given in Tolkien’s world: unexpected, unearned and undeserved. Tolkien is writing from a worldview where the ultimate sacrifice has already been made. Grace exists, and although he never directly attributes this grace to a sovereign God, such an implication is inevitable.

Tolkien’s treatment of these issues becomes even clearer when compared to Kay’s portrayal of sacrifice. In The Fionavar Tapestry, in order to achieve victory, there must also be sacrifice. The whole action of the trilogy is propelled by individual decisions to sacrifice, and each one is more difficult than the last. Paul takes the king’s place and hangs on the Summer Tree for three days, dying to bring the country rain. Jennifer, having suffered the most brutal rape imaginable, keeps Maugrim’s son and then does not allow herself to raise him for fear of binding him and taking away his ability to choose freely. Kevin, in a shocking, heartbreaking act of power, sacrifices his life to end the winter and make the only stand he can against the Dark. Matt Sören gives all that is in him-ending his life as well-for Loren to have enough power to defeat Metran. Diarmuid chooses to take Arthur’s place, and thus his death, in order to challenge the Weaver’s curse and change the course of the Tapestry. And finally Darien, who must walk the Darkest Road, goes to face his father by himself, makes the most difficult choice of them all, and impales himself on the knife Maugrim is holding, thus killing them both. In the course of reading the novels, just when the reader thinks enough people have died, enough sacrifices have been made, there is another, and still another. The toll is almost unbearable, for the characters and for the reader,5 and so the victory at the end is a precarious balance between tragedy and peace. There is no such thing as grace in this world; the things identified as grace are actually bought at great price. Paul’s life is given back to him by the god Mornir, as a gift, but a gift that carries a burden, for Paul, because he is now the “Arrow of the God” (ST 275), must “walk alone in darkness” and “say the cold truths and the bitter,” making women cry (WF 81). Matt’s life is bought back at a price Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere must pay. And when the ship returning from the battle with Metran is nearly shipwrecked by the Weaver’s storm, it is only saved by the intercession of the sea god, Liranan. It is very clear from his words the price of this grace: “I will pay for this, and pay, and be made to pay again, before the weaving of time is done. But I owe you, brother-the sea stars are shining in a certain place again because you bound me to your aid. This is not binding; this is a gift” (DR 131). But it is a gift given in return for Paul’s gift to Liranan (allowing him to kill the Soulmonger), a gift which itself would not have been possible had Gereint not sent his mind unimaginably far in order to allow Paul, and thus Liranan, to act. There is no true, free grace-anything earned, won or claimed is only through sacrifice, and one sacrifice can never be enough.6

Perhaps the only thing that is given freely (and one thing that complicates my argument) is forgiveness. Arthur is never truly forgiven for his slaying of the children; he has simply suffered enough to compensate-“paid full, fullest price” (DR 328). There are, however, at least two instances of true forgiveness, one that is certainly not deserved. Dana’s intercession for Paul on the Summer Tree, allowing him to realize that he is human and he is forgiven for Rachel’s death and providing the opportunity for him to mourn, to cry, and to finally forgive himself, is a gift that asks nothing in return. This forgiveness is necessary and beautiful, but not entirely surprising. However, as a result, Paul-himself forgiven-grants forgiveness to Galadan, who has tried for a thousand years to destroy the world. Galadan, accepting it, goes to Cernan, his father, to find healing and return “with the blessing of what [he] always should have been” (DR 326). Galadan does not deserve to be forgiven, but he is. And there is no price for this forgiveness. This moment comes after the defeat of Rakoth Maugrim and so is not crucial to that plot thread, but the idea is thematically essential to the Tapestry. A thorough exploration of the significance of forgiveness in Kay’s trilogy is certainly worth doing, but, for the purposes of this paper, forgiveness is one thing that defines the Light as Light and distinguishes it from the Dark. Forgiveness is the grace that allows the victory in the end to be true and shifts the balance between happiness and sorrow. It also links Kay back to Tolkien, who has Frodo’s forgiveness (or pity for) Gollum be the act that allows the grace that ends up saving Frodo’s life.

The end of both series is a balance between victory and loss, happiness and sorrow. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Fionavar Tapestry also ends with a journey we never see the end of on a ship, but with a promise of peace (Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are granted reprieve at last because of Diarmuid’s sacrifice and set sail for the Weaver’s Halls-a final triumph of free will over fate). And in both series, the true king is restored to the throne and the characters return to everyday life. Kay ends his novels with a measure of hope-the possibility of a date on Saturday night-but all hope must be tempered by the sure knowledge of more sacrifices to come. Maugrim is defeated, but the Tapestry can still be random, and good must always be balanced with evil. This balance in Kay is far more precarious than the balance between good and evil in Tolkien. Evil is not destroyed completely in The Lord of the Rings; Saruman’s appearance in the Shire after the destruction of the Ring is our proof of that. But the good at the end far outweighs the pain, reflecting the Christian truth that although evil is real and powerful, it is also a foe defeated through Christ’s sacrifice. Which brings us full circle. And the answer at the end is the answer we had at the beginning, only far more complicated-it all comes back to worldviews. Although Kay uses the same elements and themes that Tolkien does, and in fact uses more Christian symbolism, Kay is not writing what anyone could classify as “Christian literature.” And how exactly The Lord of the Rings is Christian will always remain somewhat nebulous, although certainly we can locate certain characteristics, like his treatment of free will and sacrifice. Despite the inevitable vagueness, attempting to understand worldviews as we read is certainly worth doing, whether it is our world or another world, where hobbits live in holes in the ground and elves walk on top of the snow, or where a young woman might realize she is actually Queen Guinevere and sail off with a dog and the two men she loves for an eternity of peace.

1 This paper was originally presented at the 2002 Conference on Christianity and Literature (Southeast Region). The theme of the conference was exploring possibilities for a “distinctly Christian literature,” which is why I pose the question about Tolkien that frames the essay and why I address what I see as an overly-simplistic and problematic reading of Tolkien common among Christian readers. The conference audience was familiar with Tolkien but not with Kay-thus the very close reading of Kay’s trilogy.

2 The debate was, for several months surrounding the release of the Peter Jackson FotR film, present anywhere you looked in popular culture: in books, magazines, internet sites, churches. For an example of the “using-Tolkien-to-teach-values” perspective, see Bruner; for an example of the “Tolkien-is-evil” perspective, see Cloud, who seems to argue that because LotR is not allegory, it cannot be Christian.

3 I’m thinking here of Pearce and Purtill, but there are many more academic studies of Tolkien’s faith and The Lord of the Rings.

4 This idea is pretty common in discussions of fantasy fiction, but for an insightful analysis of its implications for suspense in Kay’s fiction, see Randall.

5 One should not disregard the power of the emotional pain involved in reading the Tapestry. One of the remarkable things about the trilogy is the way, even after so much tragedy occurs to beloved characters, readers (most readers anyway) don’t throw the books down in disgust and give up. For the reader, as for Kim at the end of the Tapestry, there is “so much glory and so much pain, all interwoven together and never to be untied” (DR 326).

6 Taylor analyzes the idea of double-edged gifts and the price paid for power in much greater detail, concluding
that the only gifts given which do not demand a price are Ceinwen’s gifts to Dave. I would argue that the price Dave must pay for all of Ceinwen’s gifts-his life, the horn and their child who will be named for Kevin-is that Dave must leave Fionavar. Admittedly, not the greatest sacrifice in the trilogy but a price nonetheless.

Works Cited

Bruner, Kurt. “Tapping Tolkien to Teach Teens.” Plugged In Dec. 2001. 20 Jan. 2002.

Cloud, David W. “Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings.” Logos Resource Page. 5 Feb. 2002.
5 Sept. 02.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Darkest Road. New York: Arbor House, 1986.
—. The Summer Tree. New York: Arbor House, 1984.
—. The Wandering Fire. New York: Arbor House, 1986

Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999.

Purtill, Richard L. J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Randall, Neil. “Shifting Focalization and the Strategy of Delay: The Narrative Weaving of The Fionavar Tapestry.” Canadian Literature 129 (Summer 1991): 40-53.

Taylor, Dena. “The Double-Edged Gift: Power and Moral Choice in The Fionavar Tapestry.”

Bright Weavings. Deborah Meghnagi. 6 January 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1984.
—. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
—. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine, 1985
—. The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine, 1984.

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