USC Professor Uses ‘The Lord of the Rings’ To Teach About International Relations and the Iraq War
J.R.R. Tolkien’s world can teach students about the root causes of war.
A Hobbit’s traditional place is in English class. But for USC international relations professor Patrick James, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien is more than escapist fantasy.
James has co-authored a new textbook, The International Relations of Middle Earth: Learning From The Lord of the Rings, which analyzes the causes of war through the characters and factions in The Lord of the Rings. The book, co-authored by Abigail Ruane of City University of New York, is based largely on a 101-level course James designed and started teaching at USC in 2007.
The 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 the LOTR movies and then students draw connections between specific “scenes” and international relations theories. World War I and the recent Iraq War are ideal examples. Both are rigorously studied in international relations, but are very different conflicts; the first involved numerous countries and an unstable balance of world power, while the second was a regional conflict, primarily driven by the U.S. and less dominant states that joined on to their cause.
James and Ruane’s book walks students through the War of the Ring, highlighting its defining qualities. Then it does the same for the other two wars. LOTR is similar to World War I in the sense that there were numerous established kingdoms whose power is being challenged by the armies of Mordor, a rising power; James uses this to expound on power-cycle theory.
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 post-colonialism, post-modernism 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 Lord of the Rings‘ visual, dramatic nature 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.”
Contact: Andrew Good at 213-740-8606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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