J.R.R. Tolkien’s Vision of Just War


Writing in the latest Imaginative Conservative,   and  offer a useful summary of Tolkien’s themes in Lord of the Rings. They point out that Tolkien’s epic is a war tale that was not intended to be an allegory, but still applicable to the issues of the time in which it was written. I’d add that Tolkien’s insights are applicable to many current issues  as well.

In response to the early criticism that the methods of Sauron’s forces and those of the Fellowship are “indistinguishable” since each side kills the other, Richards and Witt note that the Fellowship observes Just War theory: They fight aggression, they fight honorably, and, as far as circumstances allow, they are charitable to those they defeat in battle. But such acts rise from a fundamentally different worldview from their enemies:

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.

I think that’s the key to understanding the differences between Sauron and the Fellowship, as well as the difference between totalitarians and small “r” republicans. The desire to flatten reality and make all the same drives all totalitarians, whether Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. One of Russell Kirk’s principles of conservatism tell us, “They [conservatives] feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”

The notion that one possesses an absolute and universal truth is too often used to justify the initiation of violence to enforce that truth. As Tolkien counseled, men are not wise enough to choose for all. Now that lesson is certainly applicable today.

4 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Vision of Just War”

  1. As I’m sympathetically cited here, it may seem ungracious to disagree with one aspect of the comment. But ‘uniformity’ and ‘egalitarianism’ aren’t the same thing, and smuggling the latter into an accusation against the former is misplaced. Egalitarianism doesn’t mean everyone being the same. It means people having an equal -or at least not grossly unequal- share of resources, so that they have a fair chance of pursuing their individual aims.


    1. I believe the point RIchards and Witt intended was that “evil” hates the self-respect that makes individuality and personal choice possible. Power, that is, an unnatural desire to exercise power over others, is what motivates Sauron & Co. In the example RIchards and Witt cited, Théoden and Aragorn respected the Woses’ choice not to join them.

      My observation is that real-world bad guys such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot also despise individuality and personal choice — at least, when exercised by anyone other themselves.


  2. Yes, that point I would certainly agree with. And the ‘just war’ analysis of Tolkien’s narrative is spot-on, I think. BR


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