There’s a further Tolkien-related question that needs to be discussed after last week’s comments by George RR Martin, concerning the role of violence in Tolkien’s legendarium. Martin asked in the interview if Aragorn hunted down and killed all the orcs after his ascent to the throne, “even the little baby orcs in their orc cradles?”
As it happens, this is a terrible way of raising an interesting point. We need to talk about violence in Tolkien if we are to talk intelligently about his politics, but talking about the orcs is the wrong way of doing that. Tolkien is fairly dodgy about the origins of the orc, but the best hints we have are that orcs were originally elves who joined with Morgoth, the original Dark Lord for whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant. Due to their allegiance to Morgoth, the orcs were, by definition, evil to their core and were incapable of redemption. So the only thing left was to fight them and attempt to eradicate them. You can find ambiguity in Tolkien’s work regarding violence, but if you go looking for it in his treatment of the orcs you’re looking in the wrong place.
Martin’s comment about “little orc babies” is especially telling as it betrays a surprising ignorance of Tolkien’s world—it’s far from clear that there ever were such things as baby orcs. Tolkien never describes how exactly an individual orc comes to be, but there’s some reason to suspect that Peter Jackson’s view that orcs were made rather than born is correct. Indeed, if one reflects on the fact of Tolkien’s Catholicism it’s not hard to imagine him thinking that orcs, by virtue of their essential selfishness and lack of even the most basic form of affection or love, would be incapable of having sex and giving birth in the same way as the free peoples of Middle Earth. The simple act of sex, as Tolkien understood it, would have been the least orc-ish thing one could possibly do. (It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who writes sex in the way that Martin does would fail to pick up on this point.) So while it may seem an obvious place to go in thinking about violence in Tolkien’s work, the orcs are not the best place to begin.
That said, there are two more promising avenues for exploring Tolkien’s understanding of violence. The first incident is the kin-slaying, which is an episode described in The Silmarillion. Without wading into the entire storyline, the short version is that an incident took place in the elder days in which one group of elves fought and killed members of another group of elves. This was one of the most horrific forms of evil possible in Tolkien’s world and the elves responsible for the kin-slaying were banned from the Undying Lands in the west as a result of their role in it. The lone character in LotR who was around for the kin-slaying is Galadriel. She wasn’t involved directly in the kin-slaying, but she followed those who were back to the lands in the east, which in itself was a punishable act in the eyes of the Valar. It was only when Galadriel demonstrated, in The Lord of the Rings, that she had given up the ambition that drove her east (and led to the kin slaying) that she was allowed to return to the west.
So the first point we ought to be clear on is that Tolkien is no lover of violence. He recognized it as a necessity in rare cases, but he also hated much that was associated with it. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his life story, as Tolkien served in World War I, which is one of the most brutal, bleak wars the world has ever known. (The role of World War I in the destruction of Christian Europe can’t really be overstated.) Unlike his friend CS Lewis, Tolkien actually spent some considerable time at the front lines, including being present at the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest and most horrifying battles in one of the bloodiest and most horrifying wars the world has ever seen. Some have actually speculated that the idea for the Dead Marshes came from Tolkien’s experience at the Somme. Point being, any attempt to portray Tolkien as some kind of war-loving hawk is a horrifying misrepresentation that says more about the person speaking than it does Tolkien.
Of course, Tolkien was also no pacifist. Like Lewis, Tolkien recognized that war was at times necessary and could even be just. Recall that both Aragorn and Boromir comment at multiple points on the work they did to keep others’ land safe. One of the very rare criticisms Tolkien makes of hobbits, in fact, is that they fail to recognize that the only reason they can enjoy the life they have in the Shire is that the Rangers patrol their borders. War is one of the great themes of Tolkien’s legendarium and much of the time the wars being fought are viewed as just. The struggle against Sauron is certainly cast in these terms, as is the fight against Saruman. (The fight against Melkor in The Silmarillion is slightly more ambiguous, as the real injustice of the Silmarils being stolen is countered by the destruction brought about by Fëanor’s vanity and pride.)
The value in thinking about Tolkien’s attitude toward war and violence more general is in this tension. On the one hand, Tolkien seems (again) like a fairly conventional Catholic who affirms traditional just war teaching. The wars against Saruman and Sauron fulfill the demands of classical just war theory (I’ll let Matt say more about that when he has the time, as he is far more qualified than I am) and so the leaders in those wars are commended by Tolkien.
In fact, just wars are seen as a proving ground for their participants in which their character is revealed. The redemption of Théoden is accomplished through his courage in war—he is present at Helm’s Deep, which is more than he had been capable of only a few months before, and yet there is he overshadowed by Aragorn. But then his redemption is fully realized at the Pelennor as he leads his men in battle against Sauron and dies an honorable death. (I’ll fight anyone who disagrees with me that his speech at the Pelennor is the best moment in the film trilogy.) So it’s not just that war can be just, but that in certain circumstances it is necessary, heroic, and glorious.
However, there’s also a warning in Tolkien’s work for those who love war too much and have never seen a war they don’t deem just. The kin-slaying is a black mark on the Elves and those involved never fully recover from it. The greed of the Dwarves and Elves leads to calamitous wars between them. And the wars that are waged against Morgoth are perhaps the best statement about the terrors of war, as the once-free Elves of the west are drawn deeper and deeper into darkness the longer they fight against Morgoth. If your only familiarity with Tolkien is the triumphal Lord of the Rings then the slow building tragedy of The Silmarillion will feel all the more devastating. The story of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad and the tragedy of Turin Turambar are the most effective warnings I know to those who would glorify all war and who would neglect doing the hard work of thinking through how a specific conflict measures up to classic just war theory.
Tolkien was a man whose work was driven forward by the loves he had for a certain relatively simple, narrow way of life. He loved the English countryside, he loved family and the quiet of home, he loved good food and drink shared in simple lodgings. And because of those loves, he also loved the heroic figures who fight to protect those things. But Tolkien was shrewd enough to know that warlike men could threaten those things as easily as they can protect them. And so his attitude toward violence is complex. Understanding it requires wisdom, good judgment, and rightly oriented affections.