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