Rings of Power Struggle

USC Dornsife’s Patrick James bases his new book, The International Relations of Middle-earth, on a course he teaches illustrating the power shifts among nations using J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as inspiration.
ByAndrew Good

Everyone knows a Hobbit’s traditional forum is in English class.

But for Patrick James, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien is more than escapist fantasy. The Dean’s Professor of International Relations in USC Dornsife has co-authored The International Relations of Middle-earth: Learning From The Lord of the Rings (University of Michigan), a new textbook that analyzes the causes of war through the characters and factions in Tolkien’s beloved novel. Co-authored by USC Dornsife alumna Abigail Ruane, who earned her Ph.D. in international relations in 2010, the textbook is based largely on a 101-level course James and Ruane designed and started teaching at USC in 2007.

James’ creative course has proven popular with students, and he has earned national recognition for his teaching in the past. He was recently named a dean’s professor, the first under the leadership of USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay. He was also recently honored with USC Dornsife’s highest honor, the Albert S. Raubenheimer Award, given for outstanding contributions in research, teaching and service.

His book uses the War of the Ring, arguments between Gandalf and the wizard Saruman, and even minor characters like the Ents to highlight how different balances of power can shift nations from cooperation to conflict. Explaining the nuances of abstract theory for students can be like giving them a sleeping pill, James said. But by tying those subjects into a dramatic storyline — one that many students are already familiar with, both from Tolkien’s books, as well as Peter Jackson’s films — it’s easier to grasp the material.

The International Relations of Middle-earth has already been picked up for use at the University of Glasgow and Heidelberg College.

“With our use of characters and storylines in the War of the Ring, you can look at the intersections, the unique points, so the depth of understanding of the causes of war is at a maximum,” said James, director of USC’s Center for International Studies. “It serves as a bridge between things that are often just hard to compare to each other.”

Each class views Jackson’s movies and then students draw connections between specific “scenes” and international relations theories for actual conflicts, such as World War I and the Iraq War. Both are rigorously studied in international relations, but they are very different battles — the first involved numerous countries and an unstable balance of world power, while the second was a regional conflict, primarily driven by the United States and less dominant states that joined in on the cause.

The book walks students through the War of the Ring, highlighting its defining qualities. Then it does the same for the two aforementioned wars. The Lord of the Rings is similar to World War I in the sense that there are numerous established kingdoms whose power is challenged by the armies of Mordor, a rising power; James uses this aspect of the story to expound on power-cycle theory.

In another section, James and Ruane look at reactions to the pardoning of the Lockerbie bomber, and the ethics revolving around the decision. The authors use a series of villainous Lord of the Rings characters — Gollum, Saruman and Wormtongue — for comparison, raising the opportunity to discuss different kinds of ethics.

When James and Ruane first spoke about teaching from the book, they expected Tolkien’s detailed world would allow them to only touch on mainstream international relations theories.

But after a deeper look, they realized a wide variety of theories — including postcolonialism, postmodernism and feminist thought — are represented in the book. The Ents and Old Man Willow are analyzed in the textbook in terms of their quasi-Marxist philosophies. To these walking trees, the outside world is made up largely of invaders exploiting the forest for their own gain.

“Old Man Willow’s anger parallels that of places the United States sometimes doesn’t understand very well that react negatively to intrusions,” James said. “He can teach certain kinds of advising regarding the colonial experience, intruders and occupations.”

The visual and dramatic nature of The Lord of the Rings makes it ideal for teaching. And besides — after all these years, it’s still a brilliantly written tale with global popularity.

“Few would want to defend The Lord of the Rings as being as deep as Proust or Shakespeare — but it’s not trying to be,” James said. “It’s the everyman book. Everyone reading this will find something in it for them.”