Patrick James discusses “The International Relations of Middle-earth”

by Phillip Witteveen on February 27, 2013

The reason, James explains, that this series was chosen as a comparative text for an introduction into International Relations, was because of its “extraordinary completeness  and complexity as a world — the most completely specified fantasy world that has ever been created — enough to rival human history itself.” For this reason, in James’ view, Lord of the Rings can be made to serve as an enlightening allegory to the study of International Relations.

James related two broad philosophical themes of international relations — justice and order, to the plot of the trilogy, as well as concepts about the interactions of society, politics, and technology.  The International Relations decisions by American leadership during the Rwandan genocide are a key example of this. In the interest of justice, does Clinton send in troops to normalize the situation, or in the interest of order, does he maintain his public image, especially after a similar debacle in Somalia? The same struggle, argues James, is taking place in characters like Gollum and Boromir, as they struggle between the power and natural advantage of order that the One Ring provides, and the justice they owe to their fellow hobbits, or to the kingdom of Gondor, respectively. As with the conflicts in Africa, the One Ring serves as a kind of superior technology, or even a weapon of mass destruction, that tears apart an idyllic, functioning society. With its appearance to the river-dwelling hobbits, Sméagol is  driven to kill his relative and companion Déagol. Furthering the comparison, are the parallels between the decrepitude in the leadership in the time leading up to both the First World War, and the War of the Ring. That kind of study into the fiction allows the student of International Relations to consider the failures in diplomacy from both a broader systemic perspective, and also on the individual level.

Comparing the motives of leadership and key actors within Middle-earth, to our own globalized societies, James showed the similarities between Tolkien’s moral and philosophical presence within the story and International Relations theories such as constructivism, critical theory, imperialism, environmentalism that would allow the discerning academic to make a “neo-colonial assessment” of Sauron and his evil servants. Within the application of social science to fantasy, James elaborated on the strength of the book being a collaborative work. While James is “an exponent of rational choice theory, and the application of economic models”, co-author Ruane is more focused on critical theory from a societal and gender-based perspective. These two schools of thought within International Relations, can be directly tied back to their aforementioned founding principles of justice and order, that exist because of and somewhat in spite of one another.  “Each is a natural critic for the other — making a pragmatic, balanced book, where the Lord of the Rings lets that debate come through.”

In a very real side-note to this commentary, James explained that after the unpopular reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, Lord of the Rings was brought in to appease the unhappy people. Ironically, with its clear advocacy of freedom and self-determinism, and parallels drawn between similar Iranian epics, the Iranian people’s outrage only grew.

You can check out the full interview from the Scholar’s Circle here.







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