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).
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.