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? Continue reading “A pacifist reading of The Lord of the Rings”