Too many pundits, politicians, and priests nowadays treat war as a relic of a barbaric past. President Obama speaks for many when he denounces ISIS and other terrorist groups by invoking the date on the calendar. Nevertheless, he has found himself re-entering a war in the Middle East that he first opposed and then claimed to have won, appearing more interested in the short-term need to be seen “doing something” than in pursuing and articulating a coherent strategy for victory.
Such ambivalence about war is very much the spirit of the age in the industrialized West. But militants such as ISIS care not a wit what year it is. Now as much as ever we need clear thinking on the nature and proper conduct of war, ideally in an accessible form.
Happily, J.R.R. Tolkien offers a rich and extended meditation on the Just War tradition in his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, an exploration the Peter Jackson movie adaptations hint at but hardly exhaust.
The Just War tradition has its roots in the great minds of Christendom, from Augustine to Aquinas. Given Tolkien’s background, we should not be surprised to find him in sympathy with it. He was a world-renowned Oxford scholar of medieval languages and literature, an orthodox Catholic, a combat veteran of World War I and a thorough conservative. The Just War tradition was very much his tradition.
Just War reasoning, in a nutshell, is a defense of war as morally right, even imperative, under certain conditions and according to certain rules of engagement. A Just War is one (1) pursued publicly, (2) as a last resort but (3) with a realistic chance for success, (4) by the proper authority (5) for the right reasons (6) for a just cause (7) without using far more force than is needed to win. These principles also provide guidance on how to treat a defeated enemy. Just warriors will not exterminate a hostile military or civilian population, or enslave them after hostilities have ceased.
Tolkien’s Middle-Earth novels exemplify the principles of Just War through the action of his noblest characters. But more than this, they draw readers into a rich exploration of the challenges and temptations commonly faced by those who would be both just and victorious in a time of war.
A War Book
Tolkien insisted that his fantasy novels were not allegorical, but he did allow that they were applicable to events in our world. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey rightly describes The Lord of the Rings as “a war-book, also a post-war book, framed by and responding to the crisis of Western civilization, 1914–1945 (and beyond).” That makes it especially applicable to questions of war.
In an early review of the novel in the Times Literary Supplement, Alfred Duggan noted this warlike dimension of the novel and complained that the heroes and villains are indistinguishable: Each side simply kills the other.
The poet W.H. Auden gave the classic response to Duggan, arguing that the difference between the two sides is central to the plot and to the Fellowship’s strategy. They have come into possession of the “One Ring to rule them all,” forged by the evil Sauron long ago. But rather than using the powerful ring against Sauron, Gandalf urges them to sneak it deep into enemy territory and destroy it in the one fire hot enough to melt it, the volcanic fires of Mount Doom. Sauron is tied to the magical ring. Destroy the ring and you destroy its maker.
It is a desperate gambit, and some urge the Fellowship instead to use the powerful ring to overthrow Sauron in battle. The problem is that the evil ring corrupts anyone who uses it for any length of time. They could not use the ring to overthrow the unjust tyrant without themselves becoming unjust, could not vanquish the enemy without themselves becoming the enemy.
So they follow Gandalf’s advice. Because Sauron can imagine only the desire for brute, top-down domination, he never dreams that anyone among his enemies would choose to destroy the ring rather than seize it and try to set himself up as a tyrant. That blind spot is Sauron’s undoing. While he prepares to meet a powerful foe who will wield the ring in battle, a pair of humble hobbits, Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, slip through Sauron’s many defenses, the ring is destroyed, and Sauron overthrown.
“Evil,” Auden observed in his 1956 review, “has every advantage but one—it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil—hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring—but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself.”
Duggan missed this fundamental difference between Sauron and the Fellowship. He also missed the obvious: The villains of the novel try to enslave and kill while the heroes try to protect the freedom of free people. And he missed a host of smaller differences in the way the two sides wage war, differences that further elucidate the differences between a just and an unjust war.
Mercy and Empathy
Gollum is a shriveled, formerly hobbit-like creature who possessed the ring for hundreds of years before he lost it and it fell into the keeping of the hobbit Bilbo. Eventually Sauron captures Gollum and tortures him until he reveals the location of the ring.Later Gollum escapes, and at various times Aragorn, Gandalf, the wood elves, and later Sam and Frodo all coerce, interrogate, threaten,and hold Gollum captive; but in all this they treat him with dignity and even kindness. The wood elves so dislike keeping the creature in captivity that they even take him for walks in the forest, thus inadvertently giving him a means of escape.
Similarly, when riders of Rohan capture the marauding hillmen aligned with the forces of darkness, the riders take their weapons and force them to repair the damage done, but the riders also offer them forgiveness and a fresh start. “Help now to repair the evil in which you have joined,” they tell the hillmen, “and afterward you shall take an oath never to attain to pass the Fords of Isen in arms, nor to march with the enemies of Men; and then you shall go free back to your land. For you have been deluded ….”
Surely Tolkien intended a lesson here. Victors in war, while enjoying the fruits of victory, should offer reconciliation and forgiveness to the vanquished, rather than annihilation, slavery, or crippling reparations—as had been imposed on Germany after World War I to disastrous effect.
The capacity for mercy in the novels is connected, in turn, to a capacity for empathy. When Sam and Frodo first come upon Faramir and his men, Faramir is leading an ambush against the Haradrim, men from the south who are marching north and east to join the forces of Sauron. In the ensuing fight, one of the Haradrim falls through the trees to his death, just where Sam and Frodo are hiding. Sam, we are told, “wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”
In the Peter Jackson movie adaptation, the sentiment is transferred, plausibly, to Faramir—plausible because in the book we learn that Faramir feels compassion for his enemies. He tells Sam, “I do not slay man or beast needlessly, and not gladly even when it is needed.” For Sam and Faramir, the marauding Haradrim are not wholly the other. They recognize a common humanity and grieve that it has been so misled and warped by Sauron.
In a similar vein, when Frodo says it was a pity Bilbo had not killed the vile creature Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf insists it was rather “pity that stayed his hand.” Frodo admits he feels no pity for Gollum; “He deserves death,” he says. Gandalf replies, “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Gandalf goes on to say that he senses somehow that the mercy shown to Gollum might one day prove a powerful good for the free peoples of the West.
When Gollum later falls in with Frodo, the hobbit heeds Gandalf’s advice and even comes to feel a deep empathy for Gollum, a creature who, like Frodo, long suffered under the corrosive effects of the ring. Their mercy toward the creature ultimately saves the day. When they reach the Cracks of Doom, Frodo no longer has the willpower to cast the ring away. Fortunately, Gollum—still alive because he was spared by Frodo and others—is there to snatch the ring from Frodo and, in his joy at finally recovering his “Precious!”, stumbles over the edge and into the Cracks of Doom. He thus accomplishes what Frodo was too spent to accomplish by dint of his own will alone.
Sauron the merciless, undone by mercy.
The Diversity of Good
There is also the stark difference between what Brian Rosebury calls “the diversity of good and the sameness of evil.”Among the free peoples of Middle-Earth there is widespread and mostly tolerated diversity, which extends to what does not happen. For instance, King Théoden and later Aragorn might have tried to insist that a primitive and ancient people known as the Woses join their military alliance. Instead Théoden takes the gracious help they offer, and both he and Aragorn honor the Woses’ desire to otherwise stay out of the war.
Compare this to the homogenizing slavery and oppression of those who bow the knee to Mordor. The contrast is stark enough that only a reader blinded by a philosophy of war devoid of even the crudest nuance could miss it.
One rule of thumb in determining whether a war is just is whether it is, in some sense, defensive. Some have employed this element of the Just War tradition to support narrow isolationism. One might have expected Tolkien to do the same since he saw an especially ugly side of war in the Battle of the Somme, fighting against a German civilization he admired and in a war that many viewed as senseless. While Tolkien’s writing choices in The Lord of the Rings emphasize the defensive rule, however, they also expose the pitfalls of isolationism.
According to the Just War tradition, entering a war to take land or property from one’s neighbor is theft, but a war to help an ally who has been wrongly attacked would qualify as defensive. The structure of The Lord of the Rings bears out this distinction.
So, for example, the tree-shepherding Ents initially hold a narrow view of defense, believing they should only fight when directly attacked and not worry about injustices in the wider world. Fortunately for the other free peoples, the Ents eventually interpret the defensive principle more broadly and go on the attack both at Isengard and at Helm’s Deep.
That decision proves crucial to the later victory over Sauron, and thus crucial to the Ents themselves, since Sauron and his minions of orcs would hardly have left them alone had they conquered the other free peoples.
Of course, it does not follow that a powerful nation must play the role of indiscriminate global policeman, defending every worthy group against every unjust attacker. Drawing the line between a prudent and imprudent intervention involves a host of tough judgment calls. This is why even proponents of Just War may disagree as to whether a given military conflict is good and wise to enter.
Tolkien acknowledges this complexity. He presents a group of thoughtful leaders who all implicitly employ Just War reasoning but who must come together both at the Council of Elrond and in other smaller meetings to debate their way to wise decisions about when and how to go to war.
Any debate of this sort is likely to be far more illuminating if the parties in the conversation first embrace the wisdom of the Just War tradition. Doing so allows them to avoid a reflexive and self-centered isolationism on the one hand and an indiscriminate do-gooder adventurism on the other.
Just War Enriched
Tolkien witnessed war firsthand and at its most unglamorous in the trenches of World War I. And yet in his novels and letters he clearly held to the twin truths that war is not to be sought, but neither can it be wished away with peace slogans and sentimental talk of the brotherhood of man. He dramatized the painful truth that sometimes it’s morally obligatory to go to war.
At first glance, however, one might think that Tolkien’s heroes departed from Just War by abandoning one of its principles: probability of success. Again and again, the noble characters in The Lord of the Rings seem to profess despair and count their situation as hopeless, with little or no chance of victory. And yet they fight.
Before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields commences, Pippin and Gandalf are reflecting on the perils that they imagine Frodo and Sam are enduring. “Tell me,” asks Pippin, “is there any hope?”
“There never has been much hope,” replies Gandalf, putting his hand on Pippin’s head. “ Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.” Yet Gandalf still believes that the errand of Frodo and Sam is proper, as he does the idea of sending a group to Mordor to destroy the ring. “Despair, or folly?” he asks. “It is not despair; for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”
Similarly, the stand at Helm’s Deep looks until the very end as if the forces of Saruman, an ally of Sauron, will annihilate Rohan. Later, when King Théoden and the Rohirrim march to Minas Tirith in the “gathering gloom,” they do not expect to win or return to their homes.
This courage in the face of overwhelming odds owes something, Tom Shippey has suggested, to the Norse model of courage Tolkien encountered and admired in his studies as a philologist. This is a courage that held even when the hero saw before him certain and permanent defeat. Such a model serves as a healthy corrective for an interpretation of the Just War tradition that leans so heavily on the pillar of prudence as to become practically indistinguishable from pacifism.
This interpretation has been quite common among academics and churchmen of our age, who have used Just War as a cover for policies of appeasement and de facto pacifism. War is treated as a necessary evil that is never quite necessary.
Tolkien witnessed a Europe besotted with the politics of appeasement, and the ensuing failure to stand up to the German Nazis. The strategy promised “peace in our time” but only emboldened and strengthened the hand of a bloodthirsty Hitler. In Middle-Earth, King Théoden under the spell of Wormwood, as well as the Ents, have a similar impulse to stick their heads in the sand. Tellingly, they were roused to war in time to avert a much costlier war.
Now, no one in The Lord of the Rings is commended for rushing foolishly and prematurely into battle just because it’s “the right thing to do.” When Denethor sends Faramir on a suicide mission to protect the eastern defenses, Gandalf implores Faramir, “Do not throw your life away rashly or in bitterness…. You will be needed here, for other things than war.”
But how does one distinguish foolhardiness from courage in desperate times? The Hobbit illustrates three key virtues that together, Tolkien implies, can help us negotiate such murky waters.
First, Gandalf and Bilbo demonstrate the virtue of moral clarity in their desperate attempt to stop the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain from plunging into an unjust and stupid war against the men and elves below.
Second, Gandalf and the other leaders exercise the virtue of prudence in the strategy they hurriedly draw up against the invading wolves and orcs after the dwarves, men, and elves finally lay aside their petty differences.
Third, the resulting alliance exercises steadfast resolve even when the odds against them seem overwhelming. This willingness to fight and die for a just but seemingly hopeless cause allows them to hold out till the bearlike Beorn and the great eagles arrive to turn the tide.
Today, we need just such a model of courage, where we see clearly what is right and then address it with prudence and heroic resolve mingled in equal measure. Without prudence we overextend ourselves in a series of foolish conflicts. Without heroic resolve, the rule of probability of success devolves into an excuse factory for weak resolve, risk aversion, and easy surrender.
A Charism to Nonviolence
The Lord of the Rings provides additional nuance on the subject of war, courage and the impulse to nonviolence, much of it missing from Peter Jackson’s necessarily condensed cinematic retelling.
Tolkien, keep in mind, knew war in a particularly ugly and nearly futile form. From June to October 1916, he served with the Lancashire Fusiliers on the front lines at the River Somme in France. He languished in cramped and disease-ridden trenches where months of bombardment by mortar and machine-gun fire resulted in prodigal death and destruction, but little military progress. By the end of this “War to End All Wars,” millions of Europeans—including two of Tolkien’s closest friends—had died from injuries in battle, and millions more had died from disease and hunger. Tolkien contracted trench fever, and spent the last two years of his service convalescing and, for a time, manning the sea wall in southern England.
These experiences surely lent him sympathy for pacifists of the brave and sincere sort. And while he rejected pacifism as a universal ethic, he created a respectful space for it in The Lord of the Rings.
After Frodo and Sam are rescued from Mount Doom and the free peoples celebrate in military attire, Frodo swears off such dress, having no desire to carry a sword. He retains this stance to the very end of the novel, in what one might call a charism to nonviolence. During the scouring of the Shire, Frodo urges restraint on the hobbits as they take up arms to regain their liberty from a group of thugs who have seized control of a lightly defended Shire situated far from the protective arm of their friend, King Aragorn.
In all this Frodo is quite different from the academic pacifist who from his ivory tower enjoys the peace won by the soldier’s courage while sneering at the soldier’s work. Frodo has a high regard for Aragorn and other just warriors. He himself served in the war of the ring, enduring the greatest danger in the journey to Mount Doom. And he remains close to the danger in the battle for the Shire, putting himself, if anything, in greater danger for going unarmed. It would be hard to imagine a more respectful presentation of a more beloved character’s decision to lay down arms forever.
Nevertheless, Tolkien gives the combative Merry the more pointed line in the scene: “‘But if there are many of these ruffians,’ said Merry, ‘it will certainly mean fighting. You won’t rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo.’”
The outcome is not a verbal feud. Instead, the war-weary Frodo’s revulsion to killing and Merry’s military pragmatism both inform the conduct of the hobbit soldiers. Ultimately, the hobbits expel the invaders from the Shire, but in a way that, per Frodo’s injunctions, is merciful in victory to the surviving invaders and hobbit traitors.
Just War Justly Rendered
In his portrayal of war, Tolkien wove the themes of power and its renunciation together into a complex and satisfying whole. Might certainly does not make right, but it does not make wrong either. There are times to reject the allure of power, especially when it involves dominating others, and there are times when the right course is to take up arms and fight unreservedly against the forces of darkness. Indeed, Tolkien suggests, there are times when we must do both.
In our times, we would do well to lay aside both the unbridled jingoism of the war monger and the facile bromides of the never quite recovered Hippie generation: “Make love, not war.” “War isn’t the answer.” “Give peace a chance.” “Violence Never Solved Anything.” Such slogans work nicely to signal moral superiority from the rear bumper of one’s car, but they do nothing to clarify the way forward in a dangerous world. For this we need stronger medicine.
The moral realism of Tolkien’s beloved fantasy novels is a good place to start.
This essay is taken from the authors’ book, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.