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A Mennonite reads The Lord of the Rings} ?> There’s nothing quite like the use of grand and glorious battles in fantasy literature, where massive armies surge and strive to overcome each other, usually in a representation of the eternal struggle between good and evil. Heroes are created and even killed during these battles. Supreme dark lords show their true colours as elemental forces of evil and shadow. There is no ambiguity when it comes to who to root for in these struggles. It is always clear who is in the right and who is most definitely in the wrong. We who read such literature cheer for the heroes when they triumph, gasp when they face defeat, and mourn when they die.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories—including The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion¸and all the other gathered tales that his son, Christopher, has collected over the years—are no exception to this. In The Lord of the Rings alone, we know of the story of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men that overthrew Sauron. We read the vivid description of the battle at Helm’s Deep and Merry and Pippin’s recounting of the Ents’ triumph at Isengard. Much ink and paper are spent, especially, on the Battle of the Pelennor Fields before the city of Minas Tirith where the forces of Sauron attempt to conquer the last remaining true stronghold of men in Middle-earth.
Wars in epic fantasy are often presented as glorious, wonderful things to be praised.
For me, a Mennonite and Anabaptist (two Christian groups that are almost stereotypically anti-war and anti-violence), enjoying epic fantasy literature might appear hypocritical.
On the surface, Tolkien’s battles may seem to be war mongering, but I’m not convinced. Tolkien himself saw the “glory” of battle in The Great War (World War I). To come through the Battle of the Somme and still think war is something to be glorified just seems totally implausible. This is a man who knew that death is the only guarantee, not glory, not honour, only death.
There are three things in the books that seem to point to war being used as a tool against evil; a tool that, ultimately, will not win.
First of all, in a conversation that Gandalf (who is referred to as Tolkien’s spokesperson in his essay, “On Fairy Stories”) has with Frodo back in the Shire, Gandalf says, “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.” Here is Tolkien telling his readers that it is not quite so simple to justify killing, even if for a seemingly good reason. Even if a war and a battle seems justified, can we so easily say that there is nothing else that can be done?
Secondly, the Battle of the Black Gate, that occurs towards the end of the trilogy, is presented by Aragorn, Gandalf, and the others, not as a way of actually winning, but as a means to ensure that their true hope would be safe. The purpose of that final military action was to die. To sacrifice their own lives in a desperate attempt to ensure that Sauron would be focused on them, not on the two hobbits struggling up Mount Doom. This was a futile, last-ditch effort. Even Gandalf knew that their hope in Frodo was slim. For all they knew, especially after presented with the mithril coat, Frodo was already dead and all hope was gone.
This was not a glorious battle, for who would be left to sing about it? No, this was desperation when all other avenues were exhausted. When it comes to violence, that is the only possible justification. And even then, there’s always the question, “Was there something else we could have done?”
Finally, Frodo and Sam prove the point. It wasn’t huge armies or great warrior heroes that saved the day. It wasn’t some amazing campaign of strategy and tactics. There were no generals and marshals displaying great prowess in their military maneuvers. There were only two half-starved, weak and wounded hobbits climbing a volcano to drop a ring into the lava. That was all.
And those two hobbits knew that songs would probably not be sung about their achievements. Most likely, they would die in the darkness, unknown. But they did it out of love for all their friends and the world they lived in. It wasn’t war that won the victory. It was selfless love and sacrifice that conquered evil in the end.
I still read The Lord of the Rings regularly. And I don’t find any conflict in the images of violence in the book. Those images are not the point of the story and are not presented as the glorified means to the ends. They are, in themselves, horrible. But they are contrasted with the beauty of a love of two simple hobbits, who give up their lives to save the world. And, as a Mennonite, I’m comfortable with that.