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War and Peace: The Many Faces of Tolkien … or are they?

The trenches of 1916 were a hard place to learn war. Death not at the end of a missile trajectory, but at arm's length; close acquaintance not with computerized weapons technology but with the bayonet; deployment not to a peacekeeping force or to patrol duty, but to the front lines of defense against a determined invader with designs of conquest. J.R.R. Tolkien, a man of imaginative vision, depth of soul, and sensitivity of feeling, watched his comrades blown literally into pieces, saw the filth of trench life, and felt firsthand the bitter irony of the killing of his fellow men with whom he had no personal quarrel, men who, like himself, were following the orders of their government. With the utmost deference to our modern armed forces and respect for the missions they carry out, I submit however that far fewer of the world's fighting men today are called upon to witness scenes of horror such as those that presented themselves in the older style of warfare. Is it any wonder that Tolkien should have emerged from his war experiences, after the deaths of two of his three closest friends, somewhat in conflict about the nature and justice of war?

We see this conflict played out in many forms, both in his letters to his children serving in World War II, in the comments of his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, and, of great interest to us, in the characters of The Lord of the Rings. Though Carpenter has well recounted Tolkien's dislike of the school of literary "criticism" that proposed to plumb the depths of an author's works by examining that author's biography, the reverse, the process of shedding light on an author's life experiences by looking for the meaning in his writings, has a certain value that cannot be discounted. Tolkien himself knew that his writing sprang from the wells of his experiences as well as his imagination, and talked often of the great tree, whose roots were founded down in the dark mould of experiences taken in, composted, and allowed to sift together and recombine until not even he knew what might next rise to the top. Certainly his seemingly several views of war and peace were rooted in his experiences in the war as well as his intellectual judgments of the world around him.

So what are these conflicts of Tolkien's? Most obvious is the quandary of many if not most reasonable people: the desire for peace and safety against the defense of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Add to that a belief in the justice of one's position against a hatred of the atomic bomb ("fighting Sauron with the Ring") and of air battles ("infernal combustion engines")--essentially a severe concern for the rightness of the battle vs. a perceived wrongness of the method of fighting it--and a deep natural melancholy that colored all of Tolkien's opinions, and a picture begins to emerge of a cautious moderate, a man who believed in justice and freedom but knew firsthand the costs, sometimes, of obtaining them.

"If you go to war, needlessly, for I did not desire it, then men will be slain. … I say, Théoden King: shall we have peace and friendship, you and I? It is ours to command."

"We will have peace," said Théoden at last thickly and with an effort. Several of the Riders cried out gladly. Théoden held up his hand. "Yes, we will have peace," he said, now in a clear voice, "we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished--and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us."

Thus Saruman and Théoden after the battle of Helm's Deep. What stands out like a beacon from this passage is Tolkien's rejection of the "peace at any price" dogma. Éomer comments on Saruman's words: "So would the trapped wolf speak to the hounds, if he could." Thus also would many a dictator and invader speak to his victims: "If you go to war, needlessly, for I did not desire it…" No doubt he did not desire it! Clearly Saruman's preference, as the preference of Hitler, of Wilhelm, of Napoleon, of King George III, would have been for Théoden to have sat in Meduseld ignoring his enemy's encroachment until it was too late and Saruman would have gained dominion over the lands of Rohan and undoubtedly would have tried to spread his influence to Gondor. By implying that Théoden himself could have prevented war, Saruman is simply saying in effect "If you had let me take over as I wanted, none of your people would have been killed." But even that is a lie; before Théoden ever lifted a hand, Saruman's orcs had been at work burning and killing in the fields of Rohan. Thus the words of a traitor and a liar. Tolkien knows, and tells us through Théoden, the truth of the old words that those who buy peace with their freedom shall have neither freedom nor peace.

Contrast Théoden's hard-won knowledge of this fact with Frodo's position at the end of Return of the King. When it becomes clear that the Shire has been occupied while Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry were gone, Frodo is adamant that even if it comes to fighting, the killing is to be kept to a bare minimum, that he himself will take no part in it, and that at the end of all, Lotho Sackville-Baggins and even Saruman and Wormtongue are to be spared, at least spared through any actions of his.

"Fight?" said Frodo. "Well, I suppose it may come to that. But remember: there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side. Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians' orders because they are frightened. No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now. And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped. Keep your tempers and hold your hands to the last possible moment!"

"But if there are many of these ruffians," said Merry, "it will certainly mean fighting. You won't rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo."

Compare this outlook of Frodo's with the beginning of Fellowship, where he complains to Gandalf that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance! Frodo has undergone a great change in the course of the book, much as Tolkien's own experiences in WWI shaped him: after having seen death and destruction firsthand, Frodo now desires to prevent it as much as possible. But make no mistake: despite his "no-killing" policy, Frodo was able to accept the loss of life, both ruffian and hobbit, in defense of the Shire. Tolkien tells us his part in the battle was preventing the hobbits, "in their wrath at their losses, from slaying those of their enemies who threw down their weapons." It seems perfectly clear that what Frodo abhorred most was unnecessary or cold-blooded killing. Thus his attitude towards Saruman and Wormtongue: despite the injuries done by them to the Shire, he was willing to let them depart in peace, if they would. Even after Saruman attempted to stab Frodo himself, Frodo still would have allowed mercy, though Sam and the other hobbits did not. It is entirely open to question whether or not, if Frodo had not been wearing the mithril coat that turned Saruman's blade, he would have drawn sword to defend himself. These passages seem quite a struggle between Tolkien's belief in justice (i.e. defense against attack, with death for the attacker if need be) and his earnest desire to avoid killing. Wishful thinking, perhaps? Idealization of the real world (the thought that perhaps Saruman and Wormtongue would depart in peace) mixed with the bitter reality of human nature (Saruman's attempted stabbing and Wormtongue's actual killing of the wizard)? Regardless, Frodo clearly presents a second face of Tolkien's views of fighting.
"His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City."
Wow! They sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was upon them. How's that for a change from Frodo's sad earnestness?

A partial answer to all these conflicts lies in Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography of Tolkien's friends, The Inklings. In an imaginary conversation between the friends where their lines are taken from their writings, both published and unpublished, the Inklings discuss pacifism, most repudiating the doctrine of "peace at any price" and going on to state that one irritating outgrowth of pacifism is the school of thought that says if you must fight your enemy, you should do it as if you are ashamed of it, with a long face, even if you feel your cause is just. Clearly Tolkien, through the Rohirrim above, rejected this idea as well. It seems he felt that if the cause is just, the method correct, and you are willing to meet your enemy face to face to decide the matter in a conflict of arms, then you are justified in feeling joy that you are taking part in a great conflict, one that will decide a part of the battle of the Good vs. Evil.

So it seems that at the bottom of the matter, all of Tolkien's characters, even Frodo the seeming pacifist of the end of the story, held to the belief that if their cause was right, war and even killing could be justified. But there is a great difference between such things in story and such things in the real world, as Tolkien well knew. His innate melancholy tendencies colored his views of all of these matters, until he was writing to his sons that "Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint!" By which he seems to have meant simply that the struggle between Good and Evil will always go on, and no matter how dark you feel, you must not lose heart. Further, he hoped that "in after days the experience of men and things, if painful, will prove useful. It did to me." He understood that painful experiences were a part of life and strove against his natural darker tendencies to make good use of them.

Always in any question of justification, right and wrong, or Good and Evil, there is the question of surety. How can you be sure that your cause is just, that you are free from wicked motives? Here again, Tolkien seems to have idealized reality in The Lord of the Rings. I have spoken at length elsewhere on the black and white nature of his good and evil characters. They leave no room for doubt. But this was, as I say, idealization, and Tolkien knew it. He wrote to Christopher: "[The wars of 'romance'] are still derived from the 'inner war' of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!" The ideals of Tolkien's imagination were at constant war with the reality he found all around him of corrupted motives even on the "good" side, of "plain naturally honest men" among the invading Germans, and the stark finality of the atomic bomb. We see this struggle purified in The Lord of the Rings, free of taint and doubt, Good vs. Evil, just vs. injustice, right vs. wrong, "Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising!"

J.R.R. Tolkien was a man who desired peace, but who had seen war firsthand. He desired life and growing things but saw death and destruction. He was wary of judging his fellow creatures but saw evil human beings in the world. Through his characters in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly his many conflicting thoughts about war and peace, but though his views take different roads, they arrive at the same destination: justice in war, forbearance in peace, and mercy for all men--even the wickedest.


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