The Duck of Minerva

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Teaching IR Theory Through LOTR

November 22, 2008

Picked up my copy of International Studies Perspectives yesterday to discover Abigail Ruane and Patrick James’ article “The International Relations of Middle Earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings leading the “Pedagogy and the Discipline” Section.

Just another example of why ISP is my favorite IR journal. I read the article with gusto. The piece “overviews how J.R.R. Tolkien’s acclaimed triology is relevant to learing about IR and then presents a number of ‘cuts’ into using LOTR to inform IR teaching of both problem solving and critical theory.” These include relating IR’s three “Great Debates” and what the authors describe as three “waves” of feminist theory to specific characters from Tolkien’s trilogy.

It was certainly the most fun I’ve had reading an academic journal in awhile. (Especially considering I just watched the film with my son for the first time, so orcs, wizards and second breakfast are on my brain.) Much of it was brilliant. Saruman represents Machiavellanism; Elrond Kantianism. Boromir is a defensive realist; Gimli and his absolute-gains-seeking dwarf kin are a bunch of neoliberal institutionalists. Hobbits, it turns out, are constructivists because they live peacefully in a near-anarchy; critical theory is expressed through Treebeard, the Ent spokesperson who is more concerned with the destruction of the marginalized trees by both sides in the militaristic confrontation between good and evil than for the outcome of the battle, and is thus “not altogether on anybody’s side.”

However, I didn’t agree with all the theoretical interpretations. I found the treatment of feminist IR vacuous (plus how could a serious gender analysis of LOTR omit reference to Arwen’s character?) And I wonder if the author’s interpretation of Gandalf as exhibiting “bounded rationality” is correct. Still, the argument is useful for serious students of IR theory, if only because it gets one asking these questions.

Mostly, though, I was left a bit baffled by the pedagogical relevance of the approach described. A pedagogical piece, after all, is not supposed to teach us IR theorists something about IR theory (though it does). Rather, it’s supposed to teach us something about teaching IR (presumably to undergraduates?). Frankly, I have a hard time imagining myself assigning all the LOTR novels in an IR class at whatever level. There would scarcely be time to read anything else; surely other texts matter too.

What if, instead, such a teaching method relied on the films? This seems more plausible, in the sense that I could see myself actually doing it. Yet the roadmap in the article seems heavily focused on the books themselves as texts, many of whose characters never appear in the films. I read the pieces yearning for guidance as to how in practical terms to integrate these ideas without my IR class turning into a class on “Science Fiction and Politics.” (Which don’t get me wrong, I’d love to teach. But which would be quite different than a class in IR per se.)

I wonder if the authors could propose the same or a similar class plan if relying solely on the film versions; or if they can suggest a realistic way to integrate the books into a reasonably conventional IR syllabus; if they could provide context as to what level of course they envision such a discussion in; or concrete examples as to how this worked or didn’t work inthe classroom.

Anyway, I put my ISP down smiling and engaged, yet yearning for some concrete guidance.


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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.