When Professor Patrick James was 13, he picked up The Lord of the Rings. It took him less than three days to finish reading the trilogy.
Years passed and James entered academia. Although his discipline is international relations, he wanted to bring the books that captured his attention to the classroom. In 2007, James began incorporating lessons from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth epic into his introductory international relations summer courses at USC. This year he co-authored a book with Abigail Ruane (from the City University of New York), titled The International Relations of Middle Earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings, released by University of Michigan Press.
Thanks to Peter Jackson's film trilogy based on Tolkien's books, James says, The Lord of the Rings is a pop culture cornerstone for this generation of students. "Everyone knows who Frodo is, even if they are't a Lord of the Rings junkie," he explains. With the new film installment The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey set for release this Friday, Dec. 14, the series is, perhaps more relevant now. But, this is only part of the reason that LOTR is resonating in his classroom.
"There is, of course, a completeness to this fantasy world," says James. Tolkien's visions of Middle Earth and its sagas were grand, beginning with The Hobbit, following through to The Lord of the Rings, the posthumously published The Silmarillion and other related works. The variety of languages created by Tolkien, the intricate history of this fictional world, all that lends itself to situations that can be applied to situations in our world, past and present.
James talks about the similarities between the the struggles that faced the lands of Gondor and Rohan, and World War I. "One of the reasons why World War I ensues are these crumbling empires that are horribly and incompetently run," he explains. "If you look at Gondor and Rohan, they're dynasties. They're not merit systems...You don't have the highly competent, virtuous characters on the top of the heap. Instead, you have a pyramid with people sitting at the top who you just wouldn't want there."
But the comparisons go beyond World War I. James can draw links between the War of the Ring to the more recent Iraq War in terms of "flawed leadership." He even uses Tolkien's world to explain the current Syrian Civil War.
"The narrative of Middle Earth is about resisting tyrants," James explains. "It's about opposing them."
Up next: LOTR and the Lockerbie bombing
Ultimately, real world history is thematically similar to Middle Earth history, with people rising against powers seemingly far greater than them time and again. James offers an anecdote about the protests following Iran's 2009 elections. As controversies regarding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection unfolded, a Lord of the Rings movie marathon played on television. The public's response to the movies was well-documented, Time Magazine ran a story about it and it appears in James' book. "Amazingly enough, the public reacted to the movies as essentially subversive," James notes. "We're going to fight against illegitimate authority. We're going to resist the adversary, Ahmadinejad in the real world."
He continues, "The loser of the election was often compared to Boromir," referencing a complex LOTR character who attempted to gain hold of the Ring. "The books and the movies are creeping into the real world."
James claims that, so far, no one has "stumped" him when asking for a Middle Earth analogy. While his classrooms aren't always filled with LOTR fans, James believes that using the Tolkien tomes has a benefit for all his students. "What they do see, even if they aren't fans of Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth, is that you can use fantasy to, if you will, think outside of the box," he says.
A collaborative effort between James and co-author Ruane, The International Relations of Middle Earth takes two different approaches to the Tolkienverse/real world correlations. James describes his own studies as "observational" and says that most of the book takes that approach of stepping back from the situation and explaining what happened. However, Ruane's studies, also incorporated into the book, place an emphasis on discerning "what is just or unjust."
James mentions a section that discusses the release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Using LOTR examples, like the character Gollum, the authors ask whether or not Scotland's decision to release al-Megrahi was just. "We're reasoning about what is the right or wrong thing to do," says James.
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The International Relations of Middle Earth is making its way into classrooms outside of USC. Pepperdine has picked up on it as well. And you don't have to be a student to read up on James and Ruane's work. The book is also available for non-students through Amazon.