Tolkien's Lesson for September 11

The conservative and liberal élites have been portraying Bush’s war on terrorism as a sort of crusade of good against evil. They have even tried to enlist John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) – author of the “Book of the Century,” The Lord of the Rings, for this endeavor. In their view, the coalition led by the United States is like the “league of the free” who fight against Sauron of Mordor – that is, bin Laden of Afghanistan.

Actually, this comparison is deeply mistaken. The main character of Tolkien’s trilogy is not a person but a thing – the Ring itself. What does this ring represent, and where can it be found in the current world? The Ring is absolute power. It makes its owner irresponsible, enslaves him, deprives him of his personality and free will. While making him absolutely powerful, it absolutely corrupts him, as Lord Acton would say. On the other hand, the Ring gives the illusion of ruling and ordering the world and society. J.R.R. Tolkien would hardly have taken a position in favor of the war on terrorism. He no doubt would have found it hard to join the “New World Order” at the end of the Cold War.

This is what Arthur Calder-Marshall said in his enthusiastic review of The Lord of the Rings: “Frodo, pursued by the Black Riders, is so frightened that to escape them, he puts on the Ring. But instead of becoming invisible, he becomes plainer to the Black Riders, the Ring having the same nature of evil as they have. I do not think Tolkien himself would object to my concluding that the parallel to this in the modern world is when one nation, convinced of the justice of its cause, employs a weapon of terror against its enemies, and in doing so becomes possessed by the very evil that it is fighting to destroy in the enemy.” (See Yates 1995, p.233)

Tolkien himself was horrified by war. On October 23, 1944, he wrote: “I have just been out to look up: the noise is terrific: the biggest for a long time, skywide Armada. I suppose it is allright to say so, as by the time that this reaches you somewhere will have ceased to exist and all the world will have known about it and already forgotten it… With regard to the blasphemy, one can only recall (when applicable) the words Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do – or say. And somehow I fancy that Our Lord actually is more pained by offences we commit against one other than those we commit against himself, esp. his incarnate person.” (Tolkien 1995, p.97)

Indeed, he defined Adolf Hitler as a “ruddy little ignoramus” who is “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” (Tolkien 1995, pp.55-56) And he was caught by a deep and bitter hilarity when he heard “of that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition of tyranny & intolerance!” (Tolkien 1995, p.65)

One might think that Tolkien opposed totalitarian regimes while appreciating democracy as the perfect form of government. Actually, not only was he a proud supporter of the English monarchy, he also strongly criticized democracy: “I am not a ‘democrat’ only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power – and then we get and are getting slavery.” (Tolkien 1995, p.246) With regard to the atomic bomb, he wrote: “Mordor is in our midst. And I regret to note that the billowing cloud recently pictured did not mark the fall of Barad-dûr, but was produced by its allies – or at least by persons who have decided to use the Ring for their own (of course most excellent) purposes.” (Tolkien 1995, p.165; see also Mingardi and Stagnaro 2002)

In fact, it is clear from the very beginning of the novel that the Ring can’t be used against the enemy. The Ring “is altogether evil – explains the Elvish lord Elrond – Its strength is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set off himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise.” (Tolkien 2001, p.261)

Power can’t be defeated by merely changing who holds it; indeed, it should be eliminated, so that men could have no such means to dominate their fellows. After all, Frodo’s goal in The Lord of the Rings is to destroy the Ring: not to hide it or “redeem” Sauron, or even to give the Ring to somebody who is perhaps “good and wise.” Since the Ring is evil in itself, it will always turn any action undertaken with it into evil, whether or not its owner intended to do good.

Tolkien himself pointed out that one should always be sure (at least, inasfar as it is possible) to join the right party. He didn’t believe a good end may justify evil means, nor that good means can make an evil end good. As Tom Shippey points out, “If evil were only the absence of good, for instance, then the Ring could never by anything other than a psychic amplifier; it would not ‘betray’ its possessors, and all they would need do is put it aside and think pure thoughts. In Middle-Earth we are assured that it would be fatal. However if evil were merely a hateful and external power without echo in the hearts of the good, then someone might have to take the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, but it need not be Frodo: Gandalf could be trusted with it, while whoever went would have only to distrust his enemies, not his friends and not himself. As it is the nature of the Ring is integral to the story.” (Shippey 1992, pp. 132-133)

Often, Tolkien has been accused of dividing people – or at least the characters of his novels – into “good” and “evil.” This isn’t true: Tolkien, as a Christian, strongly thought that good and evil do exist and are separate; at the same time, he knew that people are both good and evil. Good guys may be wrong, and bad guys may change their minds. The hero of The Lord of the Rings fails his mission and finally isn’t strong enough to destroy the Ring – it will fall into the fire of Mount Doom only thanks to his past mercy in saving Gollum’s life. On the other hand, Gollum moves very close to repentance.

Of course, this does not mean that one must choose every time between two alternatives, nor that choice is easy. “The utter stupid waste of war – wrote Tolkien – not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite propagandists).” (Tolkien 1995, p.75)

However, JRRT did not share pacifist ideas, since they can’t explain the reasons for war. “All things and deeds – he said – have a value in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects.’ No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” (Tolkien 1995, p.76)

From the perspective of The Lord of the Rings, war does not decide the future of the world. Of course, battles are big and important. However, they are not decisive. Even if they can be won by the good, they have no meaning without the success of Frodo’s mission. Indeed, the Dark Lord seems to be very likely to advance until the end, when the Ring is destroyed thanks to Providence. Such an unexpected end is among the deepest beliefs of Tolkien. In order to define it, he coined the word eucatastrophe: “The sudden happy turn in a story with pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (for which see the essay) – that this is indeed how things do really work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” (Tolkien 1995, p.100)

If you accept such a truth, you hardly going to find either aggressive nationalism or cowardly pacifism attractive. When one holds the truth that world goes on within a greater plan, and therefore any action has to be judged in itself, one will not fall into uncertainty. In Tolkien’s view, people are responsible for their actions before God, so that they must act according to His law, even though human laws are different, if they want to gain after their earthly existence. “Sometimes we need to be able to change our minds or even to disobey authority, when that authority invites us to go against our consciences,” Giuseppe Roncari noted. (Roncari 2002)

So, today’s war on terrorism seems a war to own the Ring, rather than a war to destroy it. Neither Bush’s nor bin Laden’s supporters fight for liberty; they all fight to strengthen their own power. One can hardly choose to join one or the other – and should only ask whether there is still a place for common, peaceful people in the lands of the opposing war lords. Indeed, the only rational position is that of Treebeard: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me… And there are some things, of course, whose side I’m altogether not on; I am against them altogether.” (Tolkien 2001, p.461)


RONCARI Giuseppe 2002, “The Ring” in: Franco Manni (ed.) Introduzione a Tolkien Milan: Simonelli Editore.

MINGARDI Alberto and STAGNARO Carlo 2002, “Tolkien v. Power” Ludwig von Mises Institute, February 26, 2002.

SHIPPEY Tom A. 1992 (1982), The Road to Middle-Earth London: Grafton.

TOLKIEN John Ronald Reuel 1995 (1981), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien London: Harper Collins.

TOLKIEN John Ronald Reuel 2001 (1954-55), The Lord of the Rings London: Harper Collins.

YATES Jessica 1995, “Tolkien the Anti-Totalitarian” in: Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. Goodknight (ed.) Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference (Keble College, Oxford, 1992) Altadena, CA: The Tolkien Society and The Mythopoeic Society.

July 25, 2002