A pacifist reading of The Lord of the Rings

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2012

I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in January 1977 when I was working swing shift in a plywood mill in Eugene, Oregon. For two months I had a job that allowed me to have my “lunch” hour by myself. So, I got a lot of reading done. Not only did I read the Lord of the Rings, I also read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus for the first time.

As far as I remember, it was totally a coincidence that I read these books at the same time. My Lord of the Rings circle of friends and my Politics of Jesus circle did not intersect. But, nonetheless, having just read Yoder made me more interested than I might have been otherwise in the place of violence and warfare in Tolkien.

In the years since, I have continued to read and reread Yoder (and write about his thought). I would have been shocked (but delighted, I’m sure) those January nights 35 years ago to imagine I would end up a Mennonite, a pastor, and a theology professor. Over the next five years or so, I read the Lord of the Rings at least three more times. Two of those were out loud with my wife, Kathleen. Maybe twenty years ago, we read The Hobbit and the trilogy to our son Johan. And we watched the movies when they came out.

Violence in the Lord of the Rings?

I have remained fascinated by the issues of violence and war in the trilogy. About the time we read it to Johan, I also read with great appreciation Walter Wink’s wonderful Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. I learned from that book the phrase “myth of redemptive violence” that has provided a useful analytical tool for understanding books, movies, et al. This leads to my big question about Tolkien’s trilogy: Does “redemption” in this story rely on violence?

I think this is a totally appropriate question to ask of the trilogy as clearly it (or something like it) is a crucial question for Tolkien himself and in this story he gives us a challenging mediation on the place of violence and warfare in dealing with evil.

Just recently, for this first time in about twenty years, Kathleen and I read the trilogy aloud to each other. It was a fascinating experience for me. During the years since the last time we read it, I have continued to focus a great deal of thought and research and writing on issues relating to violence and war. How do I now understand Tolkien’s story in relation to these big issues?

It truly was a wonderful experience to reread Tolkien. It’s a long story to read aloud, but we whipped through it with amazing speed (one of our favorite ways to relax is to go on rides out in the beautiful Virginia countryside and read aloud—we had one especially great drive over my birthday weekend in May the full length of the Blue Ridge Parkway). Even though we remembered the story quite well and weren’t surprised by the events, it still brought many tears. I was especially moved, as always, with the powerful portrayal of friendship, loyalty, and courage—especially among the hobbits. I love Frodo more than ever, and this time ended with a greater appreciation for Sam than I even have had before.

Two tracks toward victory

But what about the myth of redemptive violence? Does Tolkien’s world still rest on the belief that violence is necessary to defeat evil and achieve the good? It’s complicated, for sure. The core of the story clearly is the essentially nonviolent perseverance of Frodo and Sam that leads to the ring of power being destroyed rather than wielded. To try to wrest the ring from the control of the evil lord, Sauron, would only result in the corruption of the wrester and the dynamism of evil would continue. For true victory, the ring’s allure must be resisted and it must be undone.

This is powerful magic, indeed. A wonderful portrayal of central Christian truths. Jesus’ self-giving love that defeats the Powers, not his use of enhanced firepower. I find it quite likely that Tolkien had in mind, as least subconsciously, Jesus’ “get behind me Satan” response to Peter’s protest that Jesus, as Messiah, should not suffer and die but should rather (by implication) use his great power to restore the Israelite kingdom and overthrow the Romans.

And yet. There is no Frodo and Sam victory without the military might of Gondor and its allies under the leadership of the miraculously returned King Aragorn. Gandalf the wizard voices the core truth that the ring must be destroyed and the powerless hobbits are the ones to do it—yet he is also a mighty warrior himself who wields the great elven-forged sword Glamdring to great effect. And, in the end, it is Frodo’s swashbuckling friends Merry and Pippin who “scour” their home, the Shire, with effective violence when, upon their return from their great adventures, they find it overrun with ruffians.

While we were reading the story, I learned of a short essay by the prominent British theologian, John Milbank, that amazingly brought together John Howard Yoder and the Lord of the Rings—in service of Milbank’s argument in favor of Christians embracing the use of necessary violence. He uses Tolkien to buttress his argument. I strongly disagree with Milbank’s position, but I am not sure I disagree with his interpretation of Tolkien (the italics are from Milbank):

To suggest that absolute purity is what matters…and otherwise a leaving of the fate of future generation to providence would somehow seem to “iconoclastically” devalue the fact that physical bodies and historical time mediate the Spirit.

Shocking as it may seem, because God creates us as hybrid material-spiritual creatures, the church includes certain physical spaces that one may have physically to defend. This defence would be in the name of secular justice rather than some “defence of the holy,” and yet without the space secured through justice the offer of the sacred cannot really be made.

In this respect I find it impossible to agree with John Howard Yoder’s view that coercive resistance to evil does more damage than original evil itself. This can indeed in many instances be the case, but there are surely too many counter-examples for this to hold as a general rule.

King Alfred was able to defeat the pagan Danes precisely because he was fighting wars for the sake of peace, whereas the Danes were fighting a war because that was what male heroes did. Thus Alfred called their bluff by offering a peace treaty which awarded them minor kingships on condition of conversion.

It is therefore clear that Alfred won his military victory in highly Augustinian terms and that an unqualified coercion grounded on violence was defeated by a qualified use of coercion grounded upon an eschatology of peace.

To say this is not in any way to deny the Mennonite attempt to incarnate a peace-seeking process that passes through non-resistance, suffering and forgiveness.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings expresses with genius just how the Christian strategy is double and paradoxical. Gandalf coordinates a military campaign while Frodo self-sacrificially seeks to destroy forever the idol of absolute power. Both tactics are cooperatively necessary, and yet Frodo’s tactic is more than a tactic. It is rather at one with the ultimate goal itself which is of peace and the renunciation of power for its own sake.

The pacifist rejection of “necessary” violence

The pacifist strain of Christian social ethics going back to the earliest churches, at its best, has rejected Milbank’s “double strategy.” Pacifism asserts that Jesus’ message self-sacrificial love never requires military force to make embodying such a message possible. Christians don’t need the use of violence to complement their “eschatology of peace.” The eschatological peace is the present norm for all Christians at all times.

Tolkien seems to have created a world that subverts the standard account of glorifying military might. He re-does the traditional story in a way that lifts up the humility and essentially nonviolent courage and steadfastness of the hobbits in a way that genuinely does create a somewhat different kind of mythology. But, still, his creation does not go all the way. I would say, for all its profundity, this story of Middle Earth remains an expression of the myth of redemptive violence.

Now, the military violence is not glorified. Aragorn, the returned king, much prefers peaceable endeavors and fights only out of necessity. When he gains power, he creates a genuinely peaceable kingdom. He recognizes and highly honors the absolutely central contributions of Frodo and Sam. Still, there is no victory without the death-dealing violence.

And note what is required in Tolkien’s world for the warfare to work. Compare these items to the real world.

(1) The enemy that must be resisted with violence is truly and purely evil, without even the shred of possibility of redemption. Certainly, Sauron can only be defeated through the self-giving perseverance of Frodo and Sam that destroys the ring nonviolently. They can’t hope to succeed, though, without the necessary warfare that pits the good guys against the unalterably evil bad guys.

In the actual world in which we live, even the Nazis were not purely evil—and in their nation that the Allies bombed to smithereens, millions of non-evil children, old people, and other non-combatants and non-Nazis were put to death.

The main physical agents who fought for Sauron are non-human, evil beings (the orcs). But are they truly completely different from the good guys? They are intelligent, they had feelings, they were capable of some sort of social collaboration. This time through, I especially noticed one exchange near the end of the story where two orcs are dreaming of the troubles ending and finding a place where they could live in peace. It probably is impossible to imagine creatures who work at independent actors in the drama who are utterly evil, utterly other.

So, though the wars in the trilogy are intended to be unambiguously good vs. evil, I don’t think Tolkien totally can pull it off. And the movie is worse. When you actually see orcs, you cannot easily imagine them as utterly other. Regardless, in real life no warriors ever go to battle against orcs; they fight human beings.

(2) Tolkien, in the story, accepts as a given a stable hierarchy among human beings with a birthright validity for rulers to give commands and send the masses to possible death in defense of the homeland. In Middle Earth, this hierarchy can be quite benign. But it is not something most modern-day people actually want to embrace. More to the point, this hierarchy is precisely a central aspect of empire as a way of life that the Bible subverts from start to finish.

(3) There is no military-industrial complex in Gondor!—where in the world in which we actually live there is. In Middle Earth, the army is to some degree a kind of militia that can be raised when needed then recedes into a morally neutral presence serving the peace and well-being of the society. To the extent that Gondor, especially under King Aragorn, would have a standing army, this institution would be a force for good and well-being, only for the sake of defense, and completely responsive to the will of the wise king.

In the real world (again we may be tipped off by the Bible), standing armies are never benign and simply the servants of wisdom and social welfare. One of the main lessons we may learn from the impact of World War II on the United States is that when a nation sells out to total war, that nation will be transformed to be more and more warlike (here’s where I develop my argument on this point).

An assessment

I believe that the best way to read the Lord of the Rings is to emphasize the essential role that Frodo and Sam (and, actually, the hobbits in general) play in the successful resistance to Sauron’s evil. However, I also think that Tolkien’s story still grants too much to the myth of redemptive violence. In doing so, the story can give the impression to someone such as John Milbank that it does correspond to life in the real world and provides a kind of model for how in actual life we Christians must support both self-sacrificial love and necessary violence.

However, it is precisely at the points where Tolkien’s world requires violence that it is the farthest from real life (that is, the farthest morally—clearly in our world people do believe [erroneously, in my view] that violence is required all the time, but their bases for such belief are always problematic because our world is not like Middle Earth). Only by imagining a world that simply does not correspond with ours (a world with pure evil, benign hierarchies, and wise standing armies) can Tolkien present necessary violence as redemptive (even as he simultaneously acknowledges that at its deepest, redemption is nonviolent).

I love this story and would recommend it without qualification for anyone to read (I cannot recommend the movies, they seem to diminish the tension that even Milbank recognizes as central and diminish the role of Frodo and Sam compared to the warriors). But I don’t think it works as well as it could in subverting our culture’s embrace of the myth of redemptive violence.

I do think it is possible to create a realistic world for “high fantasy” that does more thoroughly subvert this myth. Kathleen and I are just now reading the third volume of the Harry Potter books (our third time through). I will write more in the near future on a pacifist reading of Harry Potter. I think J.K. Rowling does an amazing job—much better than Tolkien—at subverting the myth. A couple of other series that we read some years ago also, in my memory, work better than Tolkien on this score (Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books and Madeline L’Engle’s Time series). Perhaps I should reread them too.

11 thoughts on “A pacifist reading of The Lord of the Rings

  1. Ted, I had the same experience with LOR. And I came to the same conclusion. Tolkien seems to believe in righteous ( justified ) violence. My kids liked reading it growing up, so it led to a good amount of conversation about the power of non-violence vs. the power of justified violence. I think the book actually helped us to sharpen our views on the matter. But my sense is that most people I talk with about LOR, are just fine with the violence in it. I think that justified violence is not questioned when it comes to overcoming that which is defined by a given social group as evil. And seldom does there seem to be the recognition that one’s enemy views your group as just as evil. It seems to me that Jesus taught by word and deed, that we should refrain from entering the dynamic of justified violence because no matter how the situation may look at any given time or place, justified violence unleashes ripples of suffering that reach out across time and space causing misery and the breakdown of human community. Whereas active non-violent love sends out ripples that lessen suffering and builds community.

  2. It seems to me that the whole problem with Tolkien and and C. S. Lewis Narnia Sequence is that they misunderstood the Kingdom of God. Their view was in some ways a pre-Jesus view of the connection between Kingdom of God and the nation that God had called together by a violent Exodous and Journey through the wilderness of learning to trust in the God with a strange name unlike all the other God’s in their life.

    Jesus called together a community to be his body continuing his redemptive work by active non-violent, non-coercive love, yet a love that also had to set limits and decide who was following Jesus or destroying the work of Jesus. This weekend at a family reunion I heard of an attempted Amish colony in Mexico that failed because people came and stole and kidnapped members of the community. There was no government presence that preserved order. I am challenged to understand the life of many Christians and Mennonites today in the world that live in places where the government does not preserve order. Mennonites have typically moved from the Russia’s of the world, or joined in attempting to establish order by violence themselves.

    I don’t know the answers, but I’m not clear that government order can be preserved without violence. Yet, I believe that the Kingdom of God, the body of Christ now is called to non-violence. The stories of Tolkien and Lewis are stories of great sacrifice, I am sure that the way of non-violence is also a way of great sacrifice even of life, but I don’t know what I would be given to do in a situation with not government order.

  3. Thanks for this, Ted. Really good. I now feel more inspired to draw comparisons between Caputo’s weak theology and Tolkien. You know most of what I think about this subject. While you make some excellent points, I still think Tolkien could be included in a ‘pacifist’ reading list. Tolkien hated allegory, arguing instead for applicability which depended upon the freedom of the reader rather than the domination of the author. Because of this, I would say that Gondor’s military victory is only possible because of Frodo and Sam. The diversion was helpful, but they would have been crushed if Frodo had not pitied Gollum, Sam had refused to kill the creature, and the Ring was not destroyed.

    And I still don’t think Milbank has read Tolkien well! You would argue well that those who read the Bible and justify violence are wrong, so I could argue the same with Tolkien. In a lot of ways, I think Tolkien writes biblically, and by that I mean through a complex literary terrain in which themes start converging and diverging (like Howard-Brooks’ argument that creation and empire wrestle throughout the biblical narrative) . Because good literature is complex, and in its complexity the better ‘argument’ is presented. Tolkien certainly doesn’t go all the way, but that’s partly why I think a pacifist reading is so profound because it deals with the narrative arc (Frodo/Sam, destruction of the Ring, Gollum’s salvation, the diverse company of accountability, characters like Bombadil and Faramir) rather than proof-texting. So you may very well be right that other lesser stories depict pacifism more strongly, but I think I prefer an artful story that subtly subverts the myth of redemptive violence even if it doesn’t go all the way. For instance, Spielberg’s Munich is one of the best pacifist movies I’ve seen. No character is pacifist, no one argues against all uses of violence, but its depiction of the cycle of violence and the destruction of everyone in its wake is a haunting pacifist account. And, I think Tolkien is bending genre here by placing the hobbits them within this high romantic epic and so subverting some of that genre’s values (the Shire is somewhat anarchist amidst all these ancient bloodlined kingdoms, the hobbits’ foolishness and weakness is greater than the warriors’ wisdom and strength, etc.). You make a fantastic observation that Tolkien might’ve created a world with good and evil in order to have redemptive violence, which is typical of high medieval epics. But his hobbits trouble this too by showing mercy to dehumanized creatures, asking whether the men of the South would have rather stayed home, and overhearing a very intimate orc conversation. In fact, I think there’s a post-structural streak in the old Oxford philologist: the text deconstructs itself through the interaction of these wor(l)ds! Also, I haven’t thought about this much, but I wonder if The Silmarillion, even without hobbits, subverts the myth of redemptive violence by portraying a world steeped in suffering and sorrow from war, treachery, and empire, which are contested with community, music, and meals. Just rambling now.

    I look forward to talking about this more. I have loved these literary and ethical conversations! Also, I highly recommend Tolkien’s collected letters. I think you would really like them. You’re welcome to borrow my copy.

  4. Very interesting post!

    I have two thoughts when it comes to the intersection of the Lord of the Rings and Christian understandings of violence.

    First, I wonder if there might be a reading of the Lord of the Rings where violence is a metaphor for resisting the powers of evil. I fully recognize that Tolkien was no respecter of allegory (unlike his friend C.S. Lewis), but at the same time to derive any ethics from Middle Earth requires a recognition that there is no one-to-one correlation between Middle Earth and the world in which we find ourselves. The question of whether or not Sauron or Sauron’s forces were capable of redemption does appear to enter Tolkien’s mind. The protagonists equate defeat at the hands of Sauron with annihilation leading the reader to understand Sauron (and presumably all of Sauron’s forces) as the embodiment of evil.*

    Beginning with this understanding, it does not seem entirely inappropriate to equate the struggle against Sauron as the struggle against evil, destruction, sin, and death. I fully agree with Wink that the myth of redemptive violence convinces us that violence is necessary to bring good ends about. However, understanding that Tolkien is constructing an epic based upon certain models (Tolkien himself being a scholar European mythology) explains the presence of warfare and violence. Certainly it would be inappropriate to say that the Lord of the Rings is a pacifist work, but that does not mean to necessarily has to advocate violence as a tool for achieving justice.

    Secondly, I might suggest that in the Lord of the Rings, there is an ambivalence about the effectiveness of violence. Early on in the story the reader is informed of Isildur’s earlier defeat of Sauron followed by his inability to destroy the ring of power. I would offer that in this important narrative lies the idea that violence may help you defeat your enemies, but it will not destroy evil (that is an internal matter). Even during Frodo and Sam’s journey to destroy the ring, they are consistently confronted by the temptation to use the ring to violently defeat the forces of darkness (i.e. Boromir and his brother Faramir). While this certainly does not represent Tolkien’s rejection of violence, I would offer there are two helpful lessons for pacifists reading the Lord of the Rings.

    1. Violence cannot defeat Sauron. While there are some major military victories present in the story (e.g. Helm’s Deep), they are all understood as prolonging the inevitable if the ring remains intact.

    2. The ring (power that corrupts) cannot be used, even with the best intentions. The entire saga could be summed up by Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” For pacifists we can use this part of the story to remind ourselves and teach others that violence is something that can overcome us. Jesus does not only forbid us to do violence because it is wrong (though that may be true), but also because it is not the violence does not and cannot bring about God’s Shalom.

    *I would note that there are some problems with identifying all of Sauron’s forces as embodiments of evil. Gandalf is clearly taken aback at Saruman’s joining sides with Sauron. This implies that Saruman is not an inherently evil character and that the enemy which has to be combatted (at least in the case of Saruman) is volitionally evil. There is also the problematic case of the Haradwaith (the men from the south who fight for Sauron). The existence of such men is problematic because it once again breaks down the possibility of treating Sauron’s forces as “purely evil,” and it also has some possible racial implications (C.S. Lewis unfortunately does this as well with the Calormenes in his Narnian Chronicles).

  5. Question: Would this similar hermeneutic on violent imagery be applicable to the OT? It almost seems like the OT, in it’s use of redemptive violence, depicts enemies as “utterly and unredeemably evil”… in that mindset and view, it seems that the violence in the OT would be as justifiable as in LOTR.

    Which means we need to confess that, when we’re reading the OT, we’re reading a humanly expressed revelation of God through a mindset and worldview that makes such assumptions…

    …and it means that we can then see God turning the tables back on Israel in the prophetic books… that Jerusalem and Damascus were both unredeemably evil and, therefore, the Syrian and Babylonian conquests were “redemptive violence”.

    And then we get to the NT and see, “But no one is, really, unredeemably evil… all have fallen short, and all receive grace.”

    Hrm… makes me wonder if a good lens of reading the OT is a lens via Middle Earth…

    1. I like this Robert.

      I find that my reading of LOTR is more sympathetic as I learn more about Tolkein’s own antipathy toward war. Perhaps what he is doing is taking an old form and actually breathing into it a spirit of nonviolence—that doesn’t fully transcend the form but points to pacifism.

      Maybe this is part of what is going in the OT, too. Much of the violence in the story reflects the “old form” within which the stories are told. But we should be most attentive to the counter-emphases that point toward peace. It helps that we have the NT to confirm this kind of reading.

      1. Being a scholar who specialized in old myths and literature (Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc), it seems that, yes, he is VERY familiar with those old forms. I did a paper my senior year in high school (Wow… was it THAT long ago) on Tolkien’s use of these old forms in his texts. For example, the opening passage of the Silmarillion reads like an ancient creation account with the universe being sung into being, Hey-Diddle-Diddle gets a reboot in Fellowship, and the legends of Balor the One-Eyed of Norse legend gets a makeover in Sauron. It would be in keeping with this pattern and Tolkien’s expression that his character comes out in the texts that “remaking the old forms” would be EXACTLY his aim, if not intentionally, then at least of that character of being a “sub-creator”.

        Okay… my mind is totally blown now… What a way to start my Monday. 🙂

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