Jay Richards and I have an Ignatius Press book on Tolkien’s commitment to freedom coming out soon, so we’ve been following developments in the Hobbit film trilogy more closely than we might otherwise. A recent development is director Peter Jackson announcing a subtitle change to the third film—from There and Back Again, to Battle of the Five Armies.
That’s maybe a bit narrow for a novel that’s also about food, fellowship and song, but I think it’d be going too far to say it’s somehow out of step with Tolkien. The book, a prelude to The Lord of the Rings, features the now titular battle of five armies, a narrowly avoided battle of three armies and, leading up to this, skirmishes with everything from clever spiders to dimwitted trolls.
The Lord of the Rings, though more sophisticated in its themes, is similarly chock-full of clashing swords and the like. In one battle, two of the nobler characters even compete to see who can kill the most orcs. Interestingly, the peace-loving hippies of the ’60s were among the first to embrace the battle-soaked novel in large numbers. What are we to make of this curious alliance?
Maybe the hippies were attracted to the hobbits’ love for mushrooms and pipe-weed. Or maybe it was their hobbitish fondness for strolling barefoot through the woods, or their Shire-like allergy to fussy regulations. Or maybe, and more substantively, they were attracted to the hobbit Frodo very nearly being a pacifist by the end of The Lord of the Rings, so much so that he only just barely countenances his fellow hobbits’ taking up of arms to scour their homeland of violent interlopers.
In the end, though, Frodo does countenance battle, and the result is a free, flourishing and peaceable Shire. Whatever resonance the hippies found in Tolkien, it was not pacifism.
This isn’t to say Tolkien’s fiction is warmongering. What we argue in The Hobbit Party is that it offers a nuanced meditation on war largely in step with the Just War Tradition. This tradition holds that war is terrible and should be avoided when other, better solutions are available, but that some battles are worth fighting, dying and even killing for. It recognizes that some military causes are senseless and immoral for all parties involved, but it refuses to make the facile generalization that war is “never the answer.”
Tolkien’s meditations on war were not purely academic and aesthetic. As a young man he fought in one of the bloodiest battles in human history—World War I’s Battle of the Somme, a clash that left more than one million casualties in its wake. A generation later he saw his two sons off to fight in a less morally ambiguous war, the fight against Hitler and the Nazis.
He viewed Hitler and the Nazis as a great evil that needed to be met in battle and defeated, but he was far from idealizing the Allied powers. In a letter to one of his soldier sons, for instance, he described the Saints not as the Allies but as “those who have for all their imperfections never finally bowed heart and will to the world or the evil spirit.” He went on to describe such a spirit “in modern but not universal terms” as “‘scientific’ materialism” and, alternately, as “Socialism in either of its factions now at war.”
Understand, he was miles from seeing a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies. He found Hitler so repugnant that when the German publisher who was readying a German translation of The Hobbit inquired about Tolkien’s German/“Aryan” ancestry on his father’s side, Tolkien ripped off a reply explaining that the whole idea of an Aryan master race was confused and dubious, and that he was proud to claim a number of friends from the admirable race of the Jews.
But at the same time, the very distaste for prejudice that led Tolkien to pen the letter also made him recoil from a wartime tendency among the English to portray all Germans, and the whole culture of Germany, as uniformly cowardly and despicable. He worried about the Allies losing their humanity in the very effort to save the world from a moral monster.
This concern of his predated World War II, and finds its way into The Lord of the Rings. The novel is, among other things, a meditation on the demands and temptations of those who have entered into a just war, in this case, a war against the evil tyrant Sauron. Frodo and his companions struggle in a just cause, but that does not relieve them of the burden of fighting the just war justly, or of facing down a host of temptations that accompany war and the wielding of power.
Everyone, but particularly those of us who are voting citizens in countries that project military power around the world, need to heed this lesson from The Lord of the Rings–never mind how reductive and annoying one may find the peacenik with a “War, what is it good for” ringtone. One doesn’t find truth by answering pacifism with jingoism.
The meditation on war in The Hobbit is less developed than what we find in its longer sequel, but it nicely sets side by side a just and an unjust war. The just war is the battle of five armies. This is where the men, elves and dwarves join forces under the shadow of the Lonely Mountain to repel the malevolent onslaught of orcs and wolves pouring in from the Misty Mountains. The good guys are far from perfect, but there’s no question that there is a good side and an evil side in the conflict, and that far greater evil would have resulted if the elves, dwarves and men had simply laid down their arms and sung “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
The unjust war is the one that was right on the cusp of breaking out just before the wolves and orcs show up. The dragon has been slain, but rather than uniting everyone in celebration, his demise ignites a quarrel among dwarves, elves and men over the now unguarded dragon hoard. The hobbit Bilbo pursues a risky and generous gambit to restore peace, but it serves at best only to delay the clash.
Eventually, the dwarves launch their attack on the men and elves: “Bows twanged and arrows whistled; battle was about to be joined.” But just then the wolves and orcs show up to wipe them all out. These attackers are malevolent to the core, bent on wholesale pillage and destruction. The men, elves and dwarves quickly set aside their differences, join forces and, with a bit of help from some outsized eagles and a shape-shifting man bear, repel the marauders. Peace, freedom and human flourishing are restored to the valley.
Thus does a short patch of The Hobbit distill the moderating wisdom of the Just War tradition. The reader is warned away from a jingoism that simply assumes his side is in the right, but the reader also finds the wisdom of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, that for everything there is a season, a time for peace, but also a time for war.
There is much more to be said about Tolkien’s exploration and experience of war. Daniel Hannan has a recent piece at The Daily Telegraph about how Tolkien’s World War I experience shaped his outlook and played a role in inspiring the character of Sam Gamgee. And Jay Richards and I dedicate a chapter to the subject in our upcoming book from Ignatius Press, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. If you love Tolkien and freedom, I encourage you to go to Acton.org/hobbit and sign up to get the book launch announcement.