This contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Peace by Other Means” rereads the works of J. R. R. Tolkien as a study of pyrrhic victory. It argues that the origin of Tolkien's cycle of tales is inseparable from his experience of World War I, which ended in anomie and widespread fear of the coercive power of modern society. The price of the victory over evil, in these tales, is disenchantment. Tolkien is the first author to imagine disenchantment on a near-global scale, using literal disenchantment as a metaphor for a kind he could expect his readers to know firsthand. Like disenchantment, this-worldly evil, centralized in a single figure such as Mordor, is a twentieth-century idea, an emanation of totalitarianism: the transformation of Elves into orcs is a horror that only our knowledge of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulag has equipped us to imagine. If disenchantment is the price of victory over absolute evil, few would doubt that it was worth paying—within the framework of the tales. For the far future of Middle-Earth, however, the implications are less benign. The Elves accept their fate and either dwindle or depart. But the orcs, personifying disenchantment in its most radical and terrifying form, are routed but not all killed, and they do not depart.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.