Of Bonds and Bands: Alliances, Military Doctrine and Warfare in The Lord of the Rings – Part I

September 17, 2014

Alliances are curious beasts, at once abstract and concrete, distant and immediate. They are means of maximizing power, managing allies, and deterring adversaries, but also expressions of communities who identify their own security with the security of others. In the latter case, alliances are based on solidarity, an abstract concept until it’s translated into “dying for Danzig,” which suddenly makes it very close to one’s skin. Recent developments in the Ukraine and the perceived threat to Eastern and Central Europe have forced NATO, the world’s most powerful and long-lasting alliance, to face up to these issues again and ask itself what solidarity means.  But as the Alliance emerges from the Wales summit, the question of facing up to a common threat—which some see as neither common nor a threat—remains unresolved.

The mixture of the abstract and the intensely personal that make up alliance relations is something that film might capture better than IR theory. And The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), with its anti-Sauron alliance, captures this better than any other film. The potential of the LOTR films to illustrate major issues in international relations has already been noticed: an entire book uses them to introduce and explain IR concepts. There is, however, still room for a few remarks on how alliances are formed; who pays for the common good; military shock and awe; and the significance of personalities and personal relationships in warfare. With all their occasional pomposity and the sweeping good-versus-evil script, which leaves little room for shades of gray, the LOTR films are still brilliant vehicles for thinking about things related to alliances.

This is the first of two posts. Here, I delve into the obstacles to alliances being formed and spurred into action; in the second post, I use LOTR to illustrate a couple of points about what makes them succeed. I should stress that both posts are based on the better-known cinematic version of the story—the three films encompassing Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—which differs in significant respects from the books. I am also assuming that the reader is familiar with the story and the main characters, and will not recount the plot or explain who Sauron is.

Alliances: who fights and who pays for the common good?

NATO, some say, is in disarray. Those who think this is new should remember one exasperated U.S. secretary of defense, who wondered whether the Alliance has ever been “in array.” Disagreements on what the threat is, how to counter it, and who should pay for it are nothing new, and indeed nothing new for alliances as such—including the ones in Middle Earth.

The peoples of Middle Earth, although they face a common threat, do not have an easy time coming together. Their focus is squarely on their own borders. “Keep your nose out of trouble, and no trouble will come to you,” runs the hobbit wisdom in Fellowship of the Ring. Dwarves, Elrond the elf lord complains bitterly, are only good for seeking their own riches. The elves themselves are about to leave Middle Earth. Men are also too preoccupied with their own borders to see the bigger picture: a Gondor captain relays to the Steward’s son Faramir the news of Mordor’s onslaught on Rohan, but then exhorts him to keep his attention on Gondor’s own troubles. The Ents, in response to the news of war, decide to stay away. In the words of Treebeard, “[We] have not troubled about the wars of men and wizards for a very long time.”

The ones who have a different perspective are outsiders, those somewhat removed from the immediate concerns and internal squabbles of Middle Earth. These include Gandalf the wizard, who feels at home everywhere and belongs nowhere in particular; Aragorn the northern Ranger, who has little power and little to lose (though, as it turns out, much to gain); and Merry the hobbit, who displays an understanding of enlightened self-interest not unlike that of Tony Blair in the Chicago speech on the international community: “Fires of Isengard will spread…and all that was once good and green in this world will be gone. There won’t be a Shire….” But they are in the minority. Even after Elrond’s council in Rivendell—which makes clear the danger the ring poses—the delegations do not find it easy to forge an alliance, hampered by three issues well known to IR theory: one, paying for the common good; two, fear of abandonment; and three, fear of entanglement.

The tragedy of the commons is a well-known concept: if all benefit from a non-exclusive good, who will be naive enough to pay for it? It’s behind the free rider problem in alliances; behind lack of action on global warming; and behind Middle Earth squabbles, where all see themselves as bearing a disproportionate burden. “By the blood of our people are your lands kept safe!,” snaps Gondor’s Boromir at the elves and the dwarves, demanding that the One Ring be given to his father. Fears of abandonment and entanglement add to the problem. Elrond the elf leader understands the grave danger the ring poses and knows it requires unity, but is desperate to stay above the fray. The elves, he says to Gandalf, are leaving Middle Earth and do not have the strength to fight on two fronts, against Sauron and Saruman. Thus, while he tells the Middle Earth council that “Middle Earth stands upon the brink of destruction. None can escape it,” he also announces, “[Y]ou will unite or you will fall.” “You” not “we” for Elrond’s first priority is to dispatch the ring as far away from Rivendell as possible and avoid getting entangled in a new war.

For others, abandonment is the problem. In Gondor, Steward Denethor feels pessimistic about alliances and refuses to light the beacons that could summon help. Rohan’s Theoden, wary of historical precedent, is equally skeptical. Told to call for reinforcements for the besieged Helm’s Deep, he snarls:

And who will come? Elves? Dwarves?…The old alliances are dead….Where was Gondor when the West Fold fell? When our enemies closed in around us? No, my lord Aragorn. We are alone.

But as the story progresses, there are also moments of solidarity. Prompted by Galadriel, Elrond sends reinforcements to the Rohan force at Helm’s Deep. Theoden, despite the history of mistrust and perceived abandonment, rides to the aid of Minas Tirith, even though his own lands had been made temporarily safe. In the end, the Ents also act, but less because of the abstract concept of solidarity and more because they discover they have a stake in the fight: they only move after some of their own are uprooted (literally) by Saruman and his orcs.

That the Middle Earth alliance finally comes into being is good news; that the previous alliance, which fought Sauron 3,000 years earlier, was forgotten and needed resuscitating is less good. Only existential threat, it seems, can bring together disparate cogs in the same machine; once that threat dissipates, so does unity. But NATO surviving the disappearance of its original adversary has at least one advantage: some of the habits and the history underlying it might be easier to summon if need be.


Karolina MacLachlan earned her PhD in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She currently works as Research and Policy Officer for Transparency International-UK Defence and Security Programme, but this article is published in her personal capacity and does not express the views of Ti-UK on NATO, alliances, orcs, or anything else discussed within.


Photo credit: Chuck Hagel