Note: this essay gives away several key elements of the plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies and don’t want the plot spoiled, don’t read this essay.
Is The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) Christian in its intent or effect?
Various arguments could and have been brought forward to answer this question. It could be argued that LOTR manifests Christian influences. Tolkien was a strict Roman Catholic. The tale seems to be one of good versus evil. The good characters exemplify Christian virtues such as perseverance, honesty, humbleness, loyalty, and so forth. On the other hand, it could be argued that LOTR is not Christian. “Good versus evil” is a common theme in many different religions, not just Christianity. There are no references to any religions, or to God, to God-like Creatures, or to an overarching moral code. In fact, the single figure in the book which comes closest to resembling God is the evil Sauron himself, whose “eye” sweeps the world much as we might imagine God would do.
But these details are not nearly as important as the question of violence. Violence plays a key role in the plot of LOTR. Does Tolkien present violence in a Christian, or an anti-Christian way?
Anyone who says “love your enemies” and “do not violently resist one who is evil” must favor peaceful outcomes. This point could of course be argued, but that is not my purpose here. For purposes of this essay, I am assuming that Jesus was in fact nonviolent, and that true Christianity (whatever various pseudo-Christian ideologues might claim) is also nonviolent. If Tolkien is trying to justify violence, then it would seem that this is an anti-Christian theme. There certainly are a lot of battle scenes, so for anyone trying to find a pacifist message in LOTR, rather than a glorification of war, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to hope for.
Reading LOTR, one seems to be caught up in a world which is very similar to how we remember the Second World War: as an epic struggle of good versus evil. For most of us, the Second World War was surely justified: and surely the violence used in resisting the evil Sauron in LOTR would be justified. But how does LOTR call forth these images, and what do they tell us?
Harry Potter in Middle Earth
I think it is best just to admit at the outset that the way in which Tolkien is able to evoke the ethos of the Second World War, in a mythical way, is absolutely uncanny. In both the battles of Middle Earth and the Second World War we had an epic, universal struggle of good versus evil. Many tried to remain neutral, but found it impossible. Frodo, Gandalf, and friends are not just up against a personal evil, but against universal evil, involving them in a struggle which obliterates all other petty struggles and concerns.
But just how does Tolkien do this? Explanations as to how this is done often come up short. People have tried to identify Sauron with Hitler, and you might try to draw an analogy between the Hobbits, the humans, and the Western democracies, but these kinds of crude comparisons generally fall flat.
What Tolkien does is to evoke the social context of a great crisis, and that is what makes LOTR “feel” like the Second World War. Social relationships in a time of crisis are fundamentally different from social relationships at other times. It is not at the level of the individual, but at the level of society, that the vividness of the struggle between good and evil is brought to light.
Compare, for example, Harry Potter (at least in the first books of the series — which is not yet complete) with Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Harry Potter is also a figure who is in a struggle against evil. But Potter travels in a completely different social setting than Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf in LOTR. There is conflict between good and evil, but it lacks an epochal scope.
Unlike the fellowship of the ring, which knows who its enemies are, there is confusion at Hogwarts as to who the real villains are. Sure, Lord Voldemort is evil, but are the students (or some of them) in Slytherin the villains also? Or are they merely friendly school rivals? Or are they morally confused, without being morally evil? Is Snapes an enemy of Potter, as he appears to be at first — or is he at heart really an ally of Potter? Are the professors at Hogwarts trusted knowledgeable elders with whom difficulties should be readily shared, or are they teachers who arbitrarily discipline them, or worse yet, enemies who might expel them or even kill them? None of these questions have clear answers in the early Potter books. We’ll see how Rowling develops the story — it’s possible that Harry Potter may wind up in some sort of universal epic by the time the series finishes.
This makes Harry Potter a very different person from Frodo or Sam. Potter’s virtues are that of an enterprising individual, unsure of all but his very closest allies. He sometimes fails to confide even in clearly friendly adults. Potter in each of his early adventures routinely violates several basic rules of Hogwarts. It is individualism which is the predominant virtue of characters in the Harry Potter books. Potter is the often lonely individual battling evil all by himself, or with only a few close friends.
The virtues of the heroes of LOTR — and significantly, there is no single hero — are those of teamwork. Frodo does not constantly choose to violate the social norms of the fellowship of the ring. Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and the others are sure of a broad range of their allies; they are equally sure of a broad range of their enemies. There are some people in the middle who are unsure, but they gradually take sides. Frodo is simply an important character in a universal struggle; all of the Shire, and all of humanity, shares and supports his efforts.
Aside from the issue of different characters and different forms of magic which Hogwarts and Middle Earth contain, the social worlds are completely different. LOTR achieves the “feel” of the Second World War not through its characterization of individuals, but through its characterization of society.
Where are the Germans?
So far, so good; but when we try to push the analogy between LOTR and the Second World War, it starts to break down. The most important problem is the characterization of the “bad guys.” If LOTR is a parable of the Second World War and the need to confront aggression (or however you want to read the Second World War), then where are the Germans in LOTR?
Presumably, the Germans are the bad guys: Sauron is Hitler, the Orcs are the German armies, and so forth. But in that case, and if it is a parable of the Second World War, what would be contained in the non-existent fourth volume of the LOTR trilogy, in which the tales of what happened in Middle Earth after this epic confrontation are found?
In real life, the Soviet Union and the Western allies then engaged in a dangerous “cold war.” The fourth volume would then have to show how the Dwarves fell out with their Hobbit and human allies, and both sides armed themselves to the teeth, possessing weapons even more terrifying than any that had been used in the previous struggle.
But even more bizarre is how Tolkien would have to dispose of the Orcs. In real life, Germany and Japan became some of American’s closest allies. Sauron is gone, so presumably this fourth volume would show how the Orcs suddenly come to their senses. After having their realms occupied by legions of friendly Hobbits and humans, and after being re-educated, would they adopt the freedom-loving habits of the Hobbits and spread gardens throughout the land of Mordor? Would they elect new leaders, and would Orcs then become a trusted ally of the Hobbits? Would the Uruk-Hai and Nazgul have been taught to eat tofu, and all settled down to become peaceful farmers, employing wargs as beasts of burden?
Even allowing that anyone would want to write, or read, such a fourth volume of LOTR, this doesn’t fit at all. The enemies of the Shire must not merely be vanquished, they must be destroyed or at least completely isolated. They are of an alien race. The attempts to describe Orc social life show how ludicrous the idea of integration of the Orcs into the rest of Middle Earth Society is. The best the Orcs can hope for, once they are defeated, is to be exiled to a part of Middle Earth where they will do no harm. We cannot envision a multi-cultural future society of Middle Earth in which Orcs and Hobbits will all dwell together. They really do belong to a different race.
Tolkien cannot be accused of simple racism here: clearly there are some races in Middle Earth, such as humans and Hobbits, which can co-exist; there are others, such as elves and dwarfs, which are antagonistic to each other but which can learn to cooperate. And there is certainly no dispensation from LOTR for one set of humans to regard another set of humans, of different religion or different ancestry, as vermin.
However, we can see in the LOTR myth a reflection of the way in which the Nazis saw the world. For these other races of beings in LOTR are simply inherently different. And what makes the evil nations in LOTR evil, is not that they have chosen evil, but that they are evil. This is exactly how the Nazis saw their racial enemies. There was nothing specifically immoral with them, but — like termites or rats — they simply had to be destroyed.
LOTR does not merely represent in mythical form how we saw the Second World War. It also represents, in mythical form, how many Germans saw the Second World War (with a different ending, of course). In fact, in this respect it probably represents the German point of view better than it does that of the Western Allies. The enemies of Middle Earth for the most part do not represent people like us, whose leaders who have duped and misinformed them — the enemies of Middle Earth represent forces which are irredeemably evil.
In fact, this way of viewing “the enemy” represents how we — and virtually every nation — saw its enemies, during the war. The U. S. A. interned the Japanese Americans during the war; and while they were treated much better than their Jewish counterparts in Nazi Germany, who knows what would have happened had the Japanese been advancing massively and steadily towards the American countryside, first to Hawaii, then to Mexico, then to California? American soldiers similarly had to learn to hate their Korean, Vietnamese, and Iraqi opponents in subsequent wars. The good news is that we suspended this belief shortly after our victory. Our World War Two enemies — Germany and Japan — later became our closest allies. But for the duration of the war, we acted as if those opposing us were monsters to be eliminated.
The “Second World War” analogy tells us more about ourselves than about Tolkien. In Middle Earth, the orcs really are biologically different from humans. That we nevertheless experience the Middle Earth crisis as “like” the Second World War, tells us that during this vicious conflict, everyone experienced their opponents, at least the opposing soldiers, as Orc-like beings. Some took this comparison further than others; the Germans, evidently, extended it to include even civilian Jews. Tolkien spends little time in mourning the tragedy of the deaths of so many Orcs killed in a struggle which they barely understood.
This is the chief anti-Christian feature of LOTR. At least at first blush, it glorifies violence as necessary, and presents us the image of violence as not merely a political inevitability but as an almost biological inevitability. This was the viewpoint of most of the opposed nations in the Second World War, but it reflects no one’s viewpoint as accurately as it represents that of the Germans.
You could argue that such violence is necessary — and you may be right. This is what C. S. Lewis seeks to justify in the “Chronicles of Narnia”: there is no redemption possible for the White Witch. This glorification of violence is fundamentally anti-Christian. Otherwise what do we make of someone who said, “love your enemies,” and even as he was about to be crucified urged Peter to forever put away the sword?
The Nature of the Ring
But there is another way of looking at Tolkien’s story which undoes everything which has gone on before. Tolkien’s story does not offer us a single message about violence, but two messages, both contradictory to each other. The second message is contained in the significance of the ring itself. What precisely does the plot device of the ring contribute to the story? The ring represents power, but a special kind of power. It is a weapon, the mere possession of which is evil, regardless of the intentions of the user.
We normally think of a sword, a bomb, or a gun, as being in itself “neutral.” In the hands of the rightful authorities, it maintains order; in the hands of a criminal, or an evil nation, it creates destruction. The ring is not this kind of weapon. It is inherently evil, no matter what the subjective purpose of the wearer is. Sam, when he briefly wears the ring, begins to be overcome with visions of Hobbit-gardens overtaking all of Middle Earth, with himself as the prophet of this new order. Had he continued to wear the ring, all might have been lost. Frodo, of course, also briefly wears the ring, but this perhaps in conjunction with his constant carrying of the ring is enough to tempt him, at the end of the story, to actually put on the ring instead of casting it into Mt. Doom.
What in our modern world — or in our mythos of the Second World War — does the ring stand for? It might stand for atomic weapons, which cannot be used without destroying civilization. Yet one nation, the United States, continued to possess this “ring,” and even use it once. In time, a total of seven nations have come to acquire this power. This ring has not only not been destroyed, but has proliferated. So if this is what Tolkien is getting at, then the Second World War does not correspond at all with the mythos of LOTR. Instead of the Second World War destroying the ring, it would have proliferated it.
There is something else which the Ring could stand for: it is the power of war and greed itself. What would Sauron have accomplished, absent any hope of obtaining the ring? From the rapid collapse of his empire when the ring was destroyed, one can assume that Sauron would have been greatly diminished. Struggle would have doubtless continued; but it would have naturally taken a very different course in which the kind of total domination envisioned by Sauron could have never been accomplished. It would have more closely resembled the limited violence which accompanied the last year of the Soviet Union, than the sort of “total war” which destroyed millions during the Second World War. This is what happens after the chief struggle is finished and Frodo and Sam return to the Shire, and find that some of Sauron’s henchmen have established themselves in positions of power. They are fairly easily disposed of.
Without the enchantment of power, violence, and greed, what would happen? Nations would collapse and people, even beings of different races, would live together in peace. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” but that’s the other message of LOTR, whether we agree with it or not. The fact is, that the central plot device of the ring is totally dissimilar to anything in the historical, or even the mythic, Second World War.
If we were to try to introduce the Ring into the Second World War, or make the Second World War sound like LOTR, we would say this: the ring represents Hitler’s power. Hitler’s power is his ability to cast a spell on Germans (and potentially the rest of the world), and tell them that other nations and races are vermin, and to extend this power to all of Europe and all of the world. Hitler was able to mobilize millions and embark on a plan of aggression, violence, and conquest.
But what have we done, after seizing the ring and breaking Hitler’s spell and his power? We have kept the ring for ourselves. In other words we have used the same weapons that Hitler used. We have tried to use the ring wisely, but it has still had a corrupting influence. Thankfully, in Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq, Americans did not use this power as much as Hitler did. But today, we again confront the same sort of lawless, violent world that we saw in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Governments wage opportunistic wars, relying on past justified grievances to advance their own agenda. Others are being tempted to take this ring from us. There’s an obvious lesson here: the ring must be destroyed, but it is still loose in the world.
LOTR, therefore, could be read as an allegory rather than a straightforward story about war. The ring is (except for very brief and very dangerous episodes) exclusively a power for evil. The ring is the enforcer of evil, and stands for all the things which nations use to force or induce people into evil actions: ignorance, the enchantment of war, the picture of our enemies as inherently evil, power, greed, and wealth. Even if one must use it, ever so briefly, because of a specific tactical situation which demands it, one must immediately afterwards put it aside, or one is in fatal danger. Even the minimal use made of the ring is too much for Frodo, who at the end cannot cast the ring into the fire. Once the ring is destroyed, the power of evil melts away, without any need to resort to violence.
In this allegory, the idea of opposing violence with even greater violence is an illusion. You cannot fight Sauron with the ring. Rather, the ring must simply be destroyed and not used at all. We can break this spell by destroying the ring. That is a struggle truly worth engaging in. The ring becomes the sword that Jesus warned Peter against, because those who acquire power through the ring, are destroyed by that ring.
Hitler was not a uniquely evil individual in history. Hitler was a typical tyrant in uniquely incendiary conditions. Today the conditions are even more incendiary than they were in the 1930’s: we have atomic weapons, racial conflicts, religious hatreds, gross and growing disparity between rich and poor, and an incipient environmental crisis which will force us to fundamentally restructure our society and the world economy or be destroyed. Hitler is long dead, but instead of dealing with these problems, we are still on Mount Doom, struggling among ourselves as to which of us will have his ring.