We'll say right now that Tolkien's relationship to war is incredibly complicated. After all, this whole series is about a giant war against evil, and at no point in the novels does that war seem unjustified. So how can it be an anti-war book?
As it turns out, Tolkien is not an end-justifies-the-means kind of guy. Like, at all. Wars may sometimes have justifiable goals, but if you start slipping over into hurting civilians or doing a lot of physical damage to the land, you've lost Tolkien's vote. We know, we know: if the Good Side doesn't take a stand, won't Sauron's evil prevail on Middle-earth? That's a question that needs answering, so let's take a look at some of the subtle ways in which The Lord of the Rings deals with Tolkien's philosophy of warfare.
Tolkien published The Two Towers in 1954. That is just nine years after the end of World War II. With the horrors of World War II still in mind, it seems totally reasonable to read the action of The Lord of the Rings series as an allegory (which means that the fictional plot and characters of this novel stand for specific things in real life).
If we do read The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of World War II, then the "hobbits" would be English soldiers joining with their European allies to go southeast to defeat Adolf Hitler in Germany. That's less of a leap than you might guess.
Think about it: The Lord of the Rings is the story of a group of people from the Shire, a place that Tolkien himself has compared to rural England: "But of course, if we drop the 'fiction' of long ago, 'The Shire' is based on rural England and not any other country in the world" (source, pg. 250). And these hobbits are part of an international coalition to go southeast to the land of Mordor to fight a Dark Lord. This Dark Lord is a tyrant who enjoys invading other neighboring countries. He wants to dominate the whole world, and he has to be stopped. All of this sounds horribly similar to the actual set-up of the Second World War.
Still, we have to admit that Tolkien has been definite about saying that The Lord of the Rings series is not specifically about World War II. He has pointed out that he started writing the series right after The Hobbit, before war with Hitler seemed inevitable. In his "Foreword" to the new edition of The Lord of the Rings series in 1965, Tolkien wrote:
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If [World War II] had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied [...] In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
In other words, if The Lord of the Rings were a direct allegory for World War II, it would have ended a lot less righteously and a lot more bitterly than the novels actually did end. If the War of the Ring were real-life World War II, Tolkien states, the Allies—the Good Guys, including Britain and the U.S.—would have used the Ring. That sounds like a pretty harsh thing for Tolkien to say (and it reminds us a bit of Boromir, doesn't it?).
So, if it's not about World War II, then what is Tolkien talking about here?
The thing is, Tolkien knew a thing or two about war. He served in the trenches in France during World War I (a hellish place to be). And during World War II, two of his sons, Christopher and Michael, also served in the British military (source, pg. 217). Christopher Tolkien was stationed in South Africa with the Royal Air Force, where his father wrote to him:
But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain. And nothing can really amend my grief that you, my best beloved, have any connexion with it. My sentiments are more or less those that Frodo would have had if he discovered some Hobbits learning to ride Nazgûl birds, "for the liberation of the Shire." (Source, pg. 115.)
Tolkien hated the idea of flying death machines (we're looking at you, winged Ringwraiths) dropping bombs on defenseless civilians. And the Allied troops used these weapons just as much as Hitler's troops did. Clearly, Tolkien felt that these bombings were an example of the Good Guys using the weapons of the Enemy, and potentially losing their morality as a result.
Obviously, Tolkien despised Hitler, whom he called a "ruddy little ignoramus" (source, pg. 218).
But while Tolkien hated Hitler, that doesn't mean he approved of the Allies firebombing ordinary Germans over the course of the war. (For an account of the awfulness of firebombing, check out our learning guide on Kurt Vonnegut's famous WWII novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.)
As Tolkien's greatest work, The Lord of the Rings preaches mercy and the possibility of redemption even for the worst of sinners (see our "Character Analyses" of Frodo in the modules for all three books in the trilogy for more on this theme). So it makes sense that Tolkien would strongly disapprove of the wholesale and impersonal destruction caused by modern warfare. He saw it firsthand.
That's why we say that The Lord of the Rings is an anti-war book, even if it's all about a justifiable conflict. All of the heroes in these novels have the opportunity for clean battle on a small enough scale that they can make good, moral decisions. And that's not something that Tolkien sees room for in current, real-life wars. In the quote from his Foreword that we included above, Tolkien points out that, "both sides [of the conflict in World War Two] would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt." Clearly, he is criticizing the widespread, greedy violence, not only of the Germans, but also of Britain and its Allies. According to Tolkien, war these days leaves no room for morality, and that's the very reason it's wrong.
It's personal, too. Tolkien had a terrible time during World War I, writing in the "Foreword" of The Fellowship of the Ring, "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." This trauma left him horrified with the cost of modern, total war. So while Tolkien's novels support the importance of resisting evil, even if it means fighting, they also absolutely do not approve of becoming evil yourself to counter the tactics of your enemy, which is a definite consequence of modern warfare.
After all, isn't that the lesson of the wizard Saruman's fall in The Two Towers? He begins as a wise wizard and a great leader of the Council of the Wise. But he studies the mind of Sauron with too much arrogance about his own ability to resist the Dark Side. In trying to battle evil, Saruman becomes evil himself, a traitor to everything he once believed.
And what's the point of fighting evil if you are going to sacrifice your own goodness to do so? It is these broad moral questions that Tolkien brings to his subtle portrayal of the "glories" of battle.