Providence, chance, luck, coincidence?

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halfir 01/Aug/2006 at 01:37 AM
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One word that Tolkien studiously avoids mentioning in LOTR -and indeed- I think I am right in saying also avoids in the Letters- is ’Providence’. Given its historical  religious connotations as ’The finger of God’ this is not suprising in a work which was not designed to be allegorical.

Instead of ’Providence’ Tolkien uses ’chance’, but couches it in such a way that the ’chances’ we read of clearly have some guiding force behind them e.g.

’Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.{FOTR-The Shadow of the Past}

’You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered.... {FOTR-The Council of Elrond}

But this thread is not desigend to discuss that concept and its meaning in LOTR , or indeed in Tolkien’s other writings, but to ask a question about Tolkien himself. How far did he feel that "providence’, ’chance’, ’luck’ - call it what you will, played a role in his personal life. And how far did that belief- if indeed he had one, influence his approach to that topic in LOTR? Or, if he did believe in a ’Providential ’influence in his own life, was it merely coinciental he used it so strongly in LOTR?

The reason I ask the question is because I was struck by a comment he makes in Letter # 294 when he is talking about how fortune smiled on him with regard to the publication of The Hobbit ( for the actual letter and story of that publication cf.

The Hobbit….for children?

 

http://www.lotrplaza.com/forum/display_topic_threads.asp?ForumID=24&TopicID=204917&PagePostPosition=1

 

Tolkien wrote:

"I have always been undeservedly lucky at major points’

Can anyone  think of other points in his life when he was undeservedly lucky and do you think that attitude influenced him at all in the ’Providential’ aspects of LOTR?

goldenhair 01/Aug/2006 at 11:57 AM
Scholar of Isengard Points: 1480 Posts: 1194 Joined: 10/Dec/2002

Halfir,
I can certainly think of very many points in his early life when he was undeservedly unlucky. I am reluctant to talk about them as I am not in the mood for such melancholy right now.

Here is a similar if tangential thought to yours on fate or destiny;

"What I meant, and thought Chris meant, and am almost sure you meant, was that TCBS had been granted some spark of fire-certainly as a body if not singly-that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, kindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war (which is for all the evil of our own side wiht large view good against evil)." Letter 5 1916

Granted and destined!

he goes on to say of TCBS;
"its work in the end be done by three or two or one survivor and the part of the others be trusted by God to that of the inspiration which we do know we all got and get from one another." Letter 5

trusted by God to that of the inspiration

It seems he believed in Providence not only in touching the lives of the four, but in also bringing new light or "truth" to the world. Pretty clear he believed TCBS destined to greatness. One could certainly attribute it to hubris, but that would not discount the point that he believed it.

I cannot read this letter and compare it to

’Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.{FOTR-The Shadow of the Past}

without tying the personal view to the art.

halfir 02/Aug/2006 at 04:53 AM
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goldenhair: I have made this p[oint before, but I will make it again. I always seen the TCBS as almost an RL ’Istari’ - though not with it’s  fallings by the wayside as such- although only Tolkien carried on the torch (like Gandalf) as Chris Wiseman observed that he would. And if you recall in that Letter  (# 5) Tolkien talks of :

’the TCBS had been garnted some spark - certainly as a body if not singly- that was destined to kindle a new light, or what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world’.

Compare that with this comment from ROTK App B The Tale of Years-Headnote:

’For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle  hearts in a world that grows chill’

and UT The Istari:

’may wield it for the kindling of all hearts to courage’

’opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles and succours in wanhope and distress’

Coincidence? Possibly, yet I somehow don’t think so.

goldenhair 02/Aug/2006 at 05:21 AM
Scholar of Isengard Points: 1480 Posts: 1194 Joined: 10/Dec/2002
Halfir,

Yes, yes. I was not in mind of those two quotes when I wrote, but of your lengthy description of of Gandalf as ’kindler’ many months ago. I do not think it a coincedence at all (either the actual words or Gandalf’s nature and task!)

Tolkien apparently in some sense must have felt the hand of destiny over 90 years ago. And here we are talking about it across half of the world!
geordie 07/Aug/2006 at 04:07 AM
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How far did he feel that "providence’, ’chance’, ’luck’ - call it what you will, played a role in his personal life.

It occurs quite a lot - I expect he felt very lucky to have been invalided back to Blighty with trench fever during WWI; and also very lucky not to have been posted back to France. At the end of the war, he was told by an Army board to return to Oxford ’to complete hs education’ which irked him, as a proud young man; but, he recalled in a radio interview ’I did’nt know my luck - and, thanks to the kindness of several people to a returning serviceman, I got a job on the New English Dictionary’.

And in a TV interview, Tolkien said ’I was elected... mainly because of the lack of applicants due to the war... too big a job for me’
[Tolkien in Oxford; BBC TV, 1968. Here, talking about his election to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford, in 1925].

In these example, I don’t mean to suggest that Tolkien thought he was ’lucky’ - the illness in WWI, taking him away from his mates; to leave them to possible death in the trenches. That thought would have seemed intolerable to him, yet I guess many soldiers felt just that; tinged with an unnecessary sense of guilt. Then, his comments about his getting a job on the N.E.D. He got that through William Craigie, the noted Icelandic scholar, who’d ben Tolkien’s tutor. Tolkien was being modest; Craigie knew exactly what Tolkien could do, and the Dictionary needed a man just like him. [See ’The Ring of Words; and ’The Meaning of Everything - Th Story of the Oxford English Dictionary]

I think Tolkien was being equally modest about his election to the Anglo-Saxon chair. We know that there were only a few likely candidates; whether this was partly due to the War or not, I don’t know. But it came down in the end to two candidates; Tolkien and another of his former tutors, Kenneth Sisam. Tolkien won the election only by the casting vote of the board’s chairman. I think this had more to do with Tolkien’s ability as a scholar, and at oxford politics, than mere luck, or providence.

In short - Tolkien, looking back, saw several examples of ’good luck’ at certain crucial times in his life. As Gimli said to Mery and Pippin - ’Luck served you there; but you seized the chance with both hands, as you might say’. A difference being that, as with most great men, Tolkien seems to have t a large extent, made his own luck.

halfir 07/Aug/2006 at 04:19 AM
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A difference being that, as with most great men, Tolkien seems to have t a large extent, made his own luck.X(

I agree.

Rohanya 11/Aug/2006 at 12:13 AM
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Providence et al is an interesting theme. I have long been surprised, therefore, why nobody seems to notice the 3 in 1, it being a unity of the three:  TLOTR. There are three books, though one, and it was mere `providence,` if you will, that made it so.

Hey, just talking about matters, well, spiritual.

I would believe that objective testament, to some degree, of providence, even outside, regardless of what official statements we have in Letters, or not, to the effect, by Master Tolkien.

Not quite answering the question, posed, yet not quite outside. Any thoughts?
inafadingcrown 11/Aug/2006 at 12:00 PM
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I think Tolkien felt lucky to have survived WWI. Since it was such a major war I’m sure he used his survival as a means to write of the survival of a peaceful people, hobbits, in the War of the Ring, by mere "chance." It was "chance" that lead the Ring to Frodo and "chance" that three other hobbits went along on (at least part of) the journey and came back to save the shire. As most of us know, hobbits are Tolkien’s English countrymen.
geordie 11/Aug/2006 at 12:56 PM
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I would believe that objective testament, to some degree, of providence, even outside, regardless of what official statements we have in Letters, or not, to the effect, by Master Tolkien.

Not quite answering the question, posed, yet not quite outside. Any thoughts?


I don’t understand the words. Could you be clearer?
Maiarian Man 11/Aug/2006 at 06:33 PM
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Halfir - there is one point in his letters where Tolkien quite significantly uses the word "Providence."  Indeed, he is describing no less than the entirety of Frodo’s quest, and also the moment of its success:

I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral  failure.  At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum - impossible.  I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exchausted.  Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved.  His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest hounour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed. (Letter 246).

Tolkien adds in a footnote to the next paragraph: No account is here taken of ’grace’ or enhancement of our powers as instruments of Providence.  Frodo was given ’grace’: first to answer the call (at the end of the Council) after long resisting complete surrender; and later in his resistence to the temptation of the Ring (at times when to claim and so reveal it would have been fatal), and in his endurance of fear and suffering.  But grace is not infinite, and for the most part seems in the Divine economy limited to what is sufficient for the accomplishment of the task appointed to one instrument in a patter of circumstances and other instruments.

This is probably one of the more significant letters of Tolkien’s that is published (it is taken from drafts, for what it is worth).  I don’t have anything to add about Tolkien’s life-chances, but thought I’d add that--though it doesn’t take away from your point that TOlkien is careful to avoid the word "providence" and even any direct reference to what he means by such statements as "bilbo was meant to find the ring."

halfir 11/Aug/2006 at 07:02 PM
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mm: Thanks for that timely intervention. I was incorrect in saying that he doesn’t use the word ’Providence’ in the Letters- although he certainly does’nt in LOTR. But even in the letters he uses it in a very de minimis way in the sense that I think the Letter you pinpoint is the only time he uses it, albeit a very important one.

I have always found it strange that those who insist on imposing an overtly Christian intrepretation of LOTR are not sensitive to the significance of the fact that Tolkien’s avoidance of the word ’Providence’ is deliberate - and fail to ask themselves why this might be.

Indeed, commenting on her own  her book  Battle for Middle Earth Fleming Rutledge, a female Protestant Episcopalian priest bemoans the fact that this honored theological term -Providence - is now unfortunately less used - yet fails to draw the obvious conclusion as to why Tolkien deliberately avoids using it!

This is obvious from the phrase in letter # 246 his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed. Tolkien is almost obsessive about ’control’ even of a Divine nature, and here as elsewhere he seeks to establish the fundamental point that it is the freely willed acts of Frodo that gained him Mercy and redressed his failure.

Rohanya 14/Aug/2006 at 06:36 PM
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geordie, in Christianity, as you well know, there is a Three in a One, divine. And so this TLOTR book, neat (and yes, I shall use that inoffensive word), came out as a Three in One.

Which does not mean that all have to register this neat symbolic parallel. That is all I meant.

One outside, however, very much interested in symbols, how symbols relate to reality, how symbols manifest patently in life, can of course think that, well, providence. But I have no external evidence that Tolkien himself,
The Master, saw it that way. Perhaps he ought to have, were that the case.
goldenhair 17/Aug/2006 at 06:38 AM
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Halfir,

You comment:
I have always found it strange that those who insist on imposing an overtly Christian intrepretation of LOTR are not sensitive to the significance of the fact that Tolkien’s avoidance of the word ’Providence’ is deliberate - and fail to ask themselves why this might be.

JRRT does hint at providence. His suggestion that Bilbo was meant to find the ring and not by its maker is close enough for anyone to use it as "proof" from a stand point of applicability.

I stick with the real proof of Tolkiens letters and all of the back history that the supported of the Christian interpretation conveniently ignore (or more likely have not bothered to read).

I find the issues of Free will in light of Providence, chance luck and coincidence two of the most difficult issues to resolve in all of Tolkiens writings. (Not quite as difficult or high minded at whether or not Balrogs have wings)I suspect it is because as he developed his myth (right up to his last days) he had not quite found the answers yet.

For example his ongoing discourse in Morgoths ring, Myths Transformed, Text 10. I say ongoing because it seems to me that it is not a continuous text and as he was struggling to determine the ultimate origin of orcs, he was also struggling with the "domination" of the will of orcs. Kind of the flip side of the coin from providence.

How does free will apply to an orc? As grace was not infinite, neither was Morgoth who; "though in origin was possesed of Vast power was finite."

Kirinki54 18/Aug/2006 at 03:45 PM
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Returning unexpectedly to the Plaza   and returning to the closing question posted by Halfir

 

Can anyone  think of other points in his life when he was undeservedly lucky and do you think that attitude influenced him at all in the ’Providential’ aspects of LOTR?

 

I think there is – albeit with a certain twist - a poignant example relating to his creation of LotR per se. The Hobbit was not meant to be part of his magnum opus (by this I mean his legendarium consisting of the Silmarillion corpus) and yet the success of this work paved the way for his venture deeper into the mythology and presenting it to a larger audience.

 

In a sense, the small hands of the Hobbits was the key as he was ‘forced’ to struggle with the sequel, while his mind to a large extent was bent on developing the Silmarillion mythology (or so I perceive his situation) and I gather that for a long time while creating the LotR, he could hardly imagine the doors they would open.

 

In retrospect, he might have considered himself “undeservedly lucky” of a success at least from the outset totally expected, as this task was almost imposed on him: he took a lot of convincing to get started. But he did take it on by his own free will, and as Geordie remarked, Tolkien did indeed made his own luck also out of these circumstances of the (again in light of the weightier Silmarillion mythology) humble task of the sequel.

 

There has been made references in the posts above to the use of ‘chance’ (as a synonym to Providence). It is interesting to note that Tom Shippey (The Road to Middle-earth) thought that However, ‘chance’ was not the word which for Tolkien best expressed his feelings about randomness and design. The word that did is probably ‘luck’.

 

Shippey goes on to explain why ‘luck’ (given etymological roots) is better than ‘Providence’ to describe the influence of free will, establishing the possibility of the individual to ‘change their luck’, and can in a way say ‘No’ to divine Providence. Perhaps this is why Tolkien was often reluctant to use the word ‘Providence’? People could act of their own free will, thus causing changes, but they had to bear the responsibility of the consequences of their decisions, for good or for bad.

 

Halfir wrote: Tolkien is almost obsessive about ’control’ even of a Divine nature, and here as elsewhere he seeks to establish the fundamental point that it is the freely willed acts of Frodo that gained him Mercy and redressed his failure. I think this is in line with the above.

goldenhair 24/Aug/2006 at 06:36 AM
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Kirinki54,
Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree.
Letter 163

A fuller version;

But if you wanted to go on from the end of The Hobbit I think the ring would be your inevitable choice as the link. If then you wanted a large tale, the ring would at once acquite a capital letter; and the Dark Lord would immediately appear. As he did, unasked, on the hearth at Bag End as soon as I came to that point. So the essential Quest started at once. But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there...

But even more to the point earlier in the letter;

On a blank leaf I scrawled: ’In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.

I certainly agree with Geordies earlier comment that like all great men, JRRT largely made his own luck. But no wonder he felt like he was researching to find out what happened rather than inventing it.

halfir 24/Aug/2006 at 03:56 PM
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Shippey goes on to explain why ‘luck’ (given etymological roots) is better than ‘Providence’ to describe the influence of free will, establishing the possibility of the individual to ‘change their luck’, and can in a way say ‘No’ to divine Providence. Perhaps this is why Tolkien was often reluctant to use the word ‘Providence’? People could act of their own free will, thus causing changes, but they had to bear the responsibility of the consequences of their decisions, for good or for bad. X(

 

I think this is a very powerful point that Shippey makes. Apart from Tolkien’s clear reluctance to avoid any overt references to organized religion, ’Providence’ carries its own ’verbal luggage’  -as the OED identifies:

 

3. The foreknowingand beneficnet care and government of God (or of nature etc); divine direction, control or guidance ME; 4. Hence applied to the Deity as exercising prescient power and direction.’

 

a ’luggage’ that would most certainly conflict with Tolkien’s concept of freely willed choice.