Understanding International Relations Theories with Lord of the Rings

If you’re like me, then most situations in your life can be compared with the quest to destroy The One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkein’s series, The Lord of the Rings. Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating a little bit. Regardless, this is the perfect environment in which to explain theories in international relations. No, that one isn’t a joke.

In the Battle for Middle Earth, our characters and their respective nations are faced with a conflict that has escalated toward the point of war. In the present-day conflict, there are three states directly involved: Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. Rohan is a monarchy of humans with a primarily agricultural economy and a small, largely dispersed, population. Gondor is also a monarchy of humans, and while it seems to be a much more centralized, is likely still based upon an agricultural economy with scattered villages and towns and few great cities. Mordor is a totalitarian society of beings created to serve the ruler-centric ideology of the state. Its population is basically concentrated to facilitate control and its economy is directed by the goals of the ruler (which happens to be industrial manufacturing). In the battle for Middle Earth, Gondor and Rohan allied themselves against Mordor, who continues to aggressively pursue a nationalistic campaign for a full conquest of Middle Earth.

Now, how do we get from Tolkein’s Middle Earth to international relations theory? Theories in international relations seek to explain state behavior. Why do states make the choice to ally, to remain neutral, or to go to war? Each theory offers different explanations of the same situation based upon different understandings of the international system and the assumptions that follow.

Realism, the first theory under examination, understands the international system as an anarchic (no rules) environment. Due to the unstable and insecure nature of this environment, states’ (primary and only actor) actions are motivated by the will to survive and to sustain one’s self. This means that one state’s self-motivated intentions are in conflict with other states’ needs to do the same.

A realist looking at this situation would understand the situation in this way. The state of Mordor is motivated by its desire for survival to invade neighboring states (and eventually all of Middle Earth) to gain land and resources while eliminating threats to its national security. Gondor and Rohan are physically threatened by such a policy, and required to respond to protect their own states’ survivals, but lack the power to repel the forces of Mordor on their own. They therefore make an alliance out of their own self-interest to protect their personal survival.

Liberalism, our second theory of the post, which emerged from the Enlightenment, continues to understand the international system as anarchic, but goes further to assert that individuals, communities, and groups, in addition to states, also have the ability to affect international relations.

A Liberal understanding would focus upon the agency of individuals in shaping international events. Aragorn (uncrowned king of Gondor) and Theoden (king of Rohan) develop a mutual friendship and trust that dramatically impacts international events at the Battle of Minas Tirith, when Rohan comes to Gondor’s aid and together they defeat the forces of Mordor. Mordor’s actions, in turn, are controlled completely by its leader Sauron. All of these individual leaders shape the actions of states and the outcome of the Battle.

Alternatively, a Neo-Liberal, stating that similar regimes are less likely to go to war, would argue that Gondor and Rohan are natural allies, due to the similarities in their regime type and subsequent interests. Mordor is, in turn, a totalitarian despotism whose founding principles are of world domination, not the well-being of its people or land.

Constructivism, a recent addition to the club of dominant IR theories, places the emphasis of analysis on the understanding of identities. The world is essentially divided between the ‘self’ and those who are similar to you, and the ‘other,’ which is threatening to your identity. Constructivists assert that this distinction is causal in international relations.

Under this theory, the identity, belief system, culture, physical appearance, and expression of the orcs of Mordor is very different from the people of Gondor and Rohan, who happen to be very similar under these criteria. Therefore just as the orcs label the people of Gondor and Rohan as the ‘other,’ so too do people of Gondor and people of Rohan understand the orcs of Mordor as the ‘other.’ The people of Rohan and Gondor feel so threatened by the ‘other’ that they put aside their previous separations and ally to preserve their identities. The ‘other’ is seen as emotionally, culturally, and physically threatening to the ‘self,’ which leads the two groups into conflict.

The role of the international relations scholar is to use these theories to explain a given phenomenon. If I were to assert the theory I believed to be most accurate in explaining the motives and predicting events in this context, I would start with a constructivist approach. The cultural and ideological divide between the nations of orcs and humans seem unable to be bridged. Further, each side perceives the other’s very existence as a threat to not only their identity, but to their physical lives, and this mindset makes conflict unavoidable. Yet while constructivism predicts and explains the causes of conflict well, I do not feel I can fully explain important events with this one theory. I would feel compelled to include the importance to the individual, taken from a liberal interpretation, in explaining the coming together of the nations of Rohan and Gondor. The leadership of the central characters proved to be pivotal in the shaping of the war against Mordor, and I find that too causal to the conflict and outcome to dismiss.

I hope that this helps to explain how international relations theory is used and their basic understandings and assumptions in a fun, helpful, and also epic way.

by Sedona Chinn

Come to a different conclusion about which theory you think best explains the Battle of the Ring? Leave your conclusions in the comments section!



  1. Patrick James · · Reply

    Very interesting! Abigail Ruane and I just published an entire book on this subject, i.e., The International Relations of Middle-earth. It came out with the University of Michigan Press a couple of months ago. The link is as follows:


    We also had an article a few years earlier. in International Studies Perspectives.

    1. Sedona Chinn · · Reply

      That is awesome! I find that as silly as it can be, applying somewhat expansive and abstract theories to popular culture (like foreign policy’s post conflict harry potter) helps us students to understand more easily. Perhaps because we know the events and intricacies of these stories more than, say, the Vietnam War going into our first IR class. Anyway, I’m glad that book is out!

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