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Claudio A. Testi | Tolkien on War and Intelligence – Intelligence in the Middle-earth | Intelligence & Interview N.28 | Dr Giangiuseppe Pili

Claudio Testi Tolkien Intelligence
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“And now something completely different,” would have said Monty Phyton Flying Circus. Probably something completely unheard of by our intelligence readers. However, for those who follow Scuola Filosofica, Tolkien is not a new entry, as it’s not Claudio A. Testi. But as many of you know, I love anecdotes (and I’m just 34!). Everything started in 2013 when I was waiting to get a PhD candidacy. A frantic activity was undergoing. I filled tons of papers for the beloved Italian bureaucracy every day (something I would have recommended to Sauron or Saruman!). Meanwhile, to stay up and in good (mind) health, I read The Lord of the Rings for my second time. The first one was during those years in which Jackson’s movies were a revolution for the special effects and overall commitment to a grandiose project (I think he was one of the first, in recent times, who reconsidered movies for cinema theaters to be divided into several chapters). Then, my father bet with me that I was unable to read all the trilogy in one month. Actually, I read it in less time, and I won my prize. Anyway, during 2013 I had the chance to start systematically working on my war studies and philosophy of war (it is from there that intelligence came up, but that was two years later). As SF was already fully operative, I decided to write something I esteemed crazy to be beyond any imagination (and hopefully be extensively read), an “Analytic philosophy of The Lord of the Rings.” It turned to be an entire enquiring on the issue. It is sufficiently long to be a book. Where did I land with it? Anywhere, specifically. I mean, it is read but not as I imagined. Did I make any money out of it? It is completely free! However, life is always unpredictable and this doesn’t mean is bad. As many times in my life, I start with a project, and after it, I ask myself if other people can be interested in it. That’s how I met Claudio. Indeed, I found (with my personal awe) that many other people studied Tolkien philosophically. Now a PhD in philosophy, Claudio wasn’t just one among many. He was (and is) one of the leading scholars on Tolkien studies in Italy and even abroad. So, I sent him my text, and he quickly replied (something already astonishing in certain contexts and countries). From that moment on, we developed a warm intellectual friendship. Claudio Testi is a first-class scholar on Tolkien and Thomas Aquinas and formal logic. His books are very carefully written. At the same time, Claudio is also a relentless organizer of talks, conferences, and public discussions. I met him several times in Bologna and Modena, where I was kindly invited by him and Marco Prati (who I take the chance to greets) for presenting my research on the philosophy of war, which were very warmly received with a lengthy Q&A. I can only invite all the readers to discover Claudio’s work. Please feel free to look at the Tomistic Institute, centered in Modena but influential at a national level. Without further ados, it is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Claudio: thank you!

1# How would you present yourself to the readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

[I believe] one tries to improve the world he lives in both materially and culturally.

I am an entrepreneur and the director of a commercial company with 40 employees. I try to improve materially and socially the environment in which I operate through concrete responsible actions. Meanwhile, as an intellectual, I know that knowledge for knowledge’s sake is human beings’ greatest activity. As it is useless, it is really free. For this reason, along with other friends, I founded Philosophical Institute of Tomistic Studies (in 1988) [Istituto Filosofico di Studi Tomistici] and the Italian Association of Tolkien Studies (in 2014) [Associazione Italiana per gli Studi Tolkeniani], in which I hold executive positions.

2# How everything started? How did you arrive at J.R.R. Tolkien?

I graduated in philosophy, and I hold a PhD obtained from Pontifical Lateran University. As a philosopher, I have published articles and books concerning Thomas Aquinas’s thought and formal logic.

Since I was in secondary school, I have been reading Tolkien continuously. During my third grade (we are talking about 1986), I wrote an assessment paper. After the release of Peter Jackson’s first trilogy (2001-2005), I picked up Tolkien’s work, and I began to study his work more seriously. Then I started to have a better appreciation of its inexhaustible greatness. I ended up publishing numerous articles and volumes in this field: my book Santi Pagani nella Terra di Mezzo (ESD, Bologna) has been also translated into English (Pagan Saints in Middle-earth, Walking Tree Publishers, Zurich-Jena). Over time Tolkien from being merely a passion has thus become a fixed point in my cultural activity.

3# Tolkien was directly experienced by war. How did he see his own part on it?

Tolkien actively took part in the first world war. In 1916 he participated in the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in human history. During the war years, he lost his closest friend Geoffrey Bache Smith and Rob Gilson, who formed the “Tea Club and Borrovian Society” circle with Tolkien and Wiseman. WWI’s impact on Tolkien, as is well known, has been enormous, and critics have extensively and sharply explored it.

He did not participate in WWII. However, he eagerly followed its genesis, clearly seeing Hitler’s rise to power. Tolkien judged him a “ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will)” (Letters n. 46[1]). Two of his sons participated in WWII and fought for the Great Britain. Therefore, he lived those years anxiously, during which he largely wrote the Lord of the Rings. Could all this not affect his work? Absolutely not!

However, caution is required when looking for connections between biography and work. War is an essential biographical aspect to understand some aspects of Tolkien’s production, as his childhood was spent in England’s countryside. Also, it is important to consider his being a great philologist and a convinced Catholic. However, his work cannot be reduced to his biography. Texts live autonomously from authors’ life.

4# War is a major component of Tolkien’s masterpieces, the most known is The Lord of the Rings. What is your opinion on this? To stay with Hegel, is war an engine of Tolkien’s universe?

In Tolkien’s works, war is certainly a fundamental theme. It is present in the various fighting and battles and more hidden and subtle points. For instance, authoritative scholars have highlighted how Frodo [The Lord of the Ring‘s hobbit-protagonist] is in effect a war veteran. When he returns to the Shire, he is so wounded that he can finally “enjoy” his land, but he cannot readjust to normal life. Then obviously, the experience of the Somme somehow is transparent in the descriptions of the battles in Middle-earth. However, “military tactics”, obviously fought with totally different means,  is not the issue here, but in the general atmosphere. The anxiety of the population within Minas Tirith waiting for the enemy’s attack mirrors the trench’s experience. But even more so, when the decimated troops come back to the city at the end of the siege, it looks like the pyrrhic WWI victory.

However, I do not believe war is the fundamental theme in Tolkien’s work. It is perhaps good to point out a difference between the book The Lord of the Rings and its cinematographic adaptation. Indeed, critics have highlighted how the sheer time dedicated to the war in the novel is much lower than the movie’s correspondent minutes of battles.

In addition, Tolkien himself tells us, surprisingly, that the fundamental theme of his production is not power or war but the relationship between death and immortality.

5# Let’s stay with The Lord of the Rings. Especially after the first one hundred pages, Tolkien’s ethos looks close to the fighter’s values. How do you see it? Is fighting an honorable activity?

This is untrue. For Tolkien, honor is not “good” in itself, and it can even play as a negative factor. As a philologist, he dedicated a study to the Anglo-Saxon word “Ofermod,” which until his analysis was precisely understood as “pride” in a completely positive sense. Instead, he translates it as “overmastering pride.” He intended to point to a negative side of honor. Out of the desire for glory, the good of the community can be in jeopardy. This is exactly what happens at the Battle of Maldon (991): Count Byrhtnoth is waiting for the Vikings from a favorable position. For mere “ofermod”, he decides to face them on the same ground. Sensationally, he loses the battle.

The Lord of the Rings includes the same critique and limitations to honor. Gandalf [the good Wizard] had given up his favorable position for “desire of glory” and so he had passed the Balrog [a deadly enemy] over the Kazad Dum bridge. the story would have ended there. But Gandalf, unlike Byrhtnoth, does not feel to be bounded to “Ofermod.” Therefore, he stopped the Balrog and saved the Company to his own sacrifice.

However, to understand Tolkien’s “philosophy of war”, perhaps the true guiding figure is Faramir, a warrior who, unlike his brother Boromir, does not seek honor and fame, but explicitly says that he does not love the sword for honor sakes but what it enables to defend (“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend” LOTR, TT, IV.5. The Window on the West).

6# From these Faramir’s words, it looks like Tolkien totally embraces the idea of ​​just war, is that so?

Here too, it is necessary to read Tolkien’s text carefully, always disentangling them from the “real” historical situations. A war is defined as “just” when, roughly, six factors are present:

1. Just cause; 2. Proportion; 3. Right intention; 4-Last Resort; 5. Probable Success; 6. Legitimate Authority.

Let’s limit ourselves to the “war of the Ring”, where the free peoples wage war against Sauron. Arguably, the first three factors are present for sure. But what about the last resort? After all, the Elrond’s Council [the council in which the free peoples decide how to respond Sauron’s threats] does not even envisage the option of “dealing” with Sauron. Indeed, the strategy adopted consists of sending a hobbit [a half-man] to Mordor [Sauron’s country] to destroy the Ring of Power a few meters from Sauron, which he is craving it. This looks like “madness”. Moreover, the legitimate authority can be indeed discussed because many do not follow the established orders and rightly so during this war. Some examples can clarify this point [for who already know the texts]: Éomer [a Rohan’s captain] when he lets pass Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas; Faramir when he lets go of Frodo and Sam with the Ring of Power; Bergond when he kills men in the citadel to block Denethor who wanted to sacrifice himself with Faramir.

Once again, Tolkien is a complex narrator. He must be read with great care and does not lend itself to easy analysis or solutions.

7# So Tolkien was for civil disobedience in the light of higher divine laws?

This is also a simplification. Éomer lets foreigners through; he is right in doing so. However, he is not criticized too much in the book. Theoden [Rohan’s King] arrests him because he did not strictly apply the law. And in the beautiful chapter The Rider of Rohan, we should not search for a revival of Antigones’ theme, in my opinion (namely, the conflict between divine and human laws). I would rather argue for a “Thomistic” reading of it: for Aquinas in fact law is “only” a generic guide for good actions, which cannot be always applied literally but must be adapted by the subject to concrete situations. Indeed, in Tolkien’s text, different levels are involved: it indicates a positive law (do not allow foreigners to pass) and also the extremely generic reference to the ideas of “Good and Evil” invariant in space and time. Here the subject (Éomer) is invited by Aragorn to understand for himself what is the right thing to do here and now. This all happens within a very specific context. Aragorn is the foreigner and the Gondor’s crown heir, a fact unforeseeable by the legislator.

Bergond’s case is even more striking. In the end, Aragorn judges his gesture as a law violation, so much so that he places him as a guard of the Citadel and “punishes” him by appointing him as Faramir’s personal guard, whom he loved so much. In short, in the end, this is a real and just punishment, which coincides with a real gesture of mercy and love at the same time. These are just hinted at to make it clear how deep and complex the Tolkien text is.

In this sense, Tolkien cannot be simply read in a “pacifist” fashion, which seems to reveal itself at the end of the book. The very prudent Frodo’s behavior hints to this reading. Frodo tries to avoid the bloody battle to free the county from Saurman-Sharkey. However, if the text is read closely and carefully, they never get any gain for the hobbits’ actual warfare against the country’s devastator.

#8 Naturally, Tolkien is a great novelist, so we cannot take him literally on anything. However, what is the vision of the enemy? Is it absolute evil? Did he change through time?

It is very clear. In Tolkien, there is no absolute evil. Tolkien is not Manichean [a pre-Christian faith in which good and evil were perfectly divided]. From his cosmogony portrayed in La The Music of the Ainur, evil emerges as not directly created as such. It is always a corruption of the good. In that place [where creation is out of music], evil arises as an “mistune”, which presupposes a polyphonic melody. But even in The Lord of the Rings explicitly in the beginning, not even Sauron was evil (“For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” LOTR, FR, II.2. The Council of Elrond).

In addition, there are moments of pure piety toward the enemies. Sam’s mood looking at a dead Haradrim [men allied with Sauron] is very touching, and it constitutes an elevated sentiment throughout the narration (“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from, and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace-all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.” TT.IV.4). Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit). The compassionate Gandalf’s words for Sauron’s slaves are purely humane (“Yet there are other men and other lives, and time still to be. And for me, I pity even his slaves.” RK.V.4. The Siege of Gondor).

All that said, to be honest, in Tolkien, the “problem” of orcs still remains open. These really seem irredeemable, and there are no unequivocal attestations of pity towards them, quite the opposite! Just think of the “contest” between Gimli and Legolas to see who kills more orcs. Tolkien has tried for years to “solve” this “aporia”, making various hypotheses about the origin of the orcs, but he has never found a convincing and definitive solution.

9# In our world, to win wars is a good idea to have good intelligence. Is this the case also in Tolkien? As far as I remember, there were moments in which Sauron sent scouts to find the ring. But also, some elves and humans were sent in advance to discover enemies’ positions. What can you tell us about intelligence?

There is so much to say! First of all, some scholars have associated The Ring with Bentham’s Panopticon. Indeed, the Ring allows seeing without being seen. And those who do not have it always believe they are observed even when they aren’t. Are we not today in a Panoptic society, since we always have the idea that someone spies on us when we use PCs, smartphones, or just go around the street?

But the desire to see, to have everything under control, can be seen not only in Sauron’s activity, which you rightly recall, but also in the Palantir’s use, these mysterious stones that allow seeing almost everywhere. Saruman and Denethor use them, see Sauron’s army, and mistakenly lose hope. Sauron himself uses it, sees the face of a hobbit (Pippin), and mistakenly believes that the Ring is going to Minas Tirith, towards which he concentrates the greatest war effort, and so on.

In a similar fashion, Frodo and Sam look in Galdriel’s Mirror. They see things past, present, future, or only possible, but they cannot distinguish what is true from what is false. When Sam sees the devastated Shire (as indeed it will be), he is on the verge of turning back; then luckily, he changes his mind. If he would have acted according to that vision, who would accompany Frodo to Mount Doom?

10# So is there a radical condemnation of intelligence in Tolkien?

That’s not the point either. After all, all Gandalf’s research to understand whether Frodo’s is actually the Ring of Power is real intelligence gathering. Therefore, intelligence and the search for information to fight the enemy are welcome.

Then, what is the message of all this? Many critics rightly identify it in the idea that only one can really see everything, and this is Eru [God in Tolkien’s mythology]. Human beings do not have this power because it brings harm to them…

I would like to add something more. In my opinion, The Lord of the Rings warns of the danger of transforming intelligence from a means to an end in itself. Today, with big data, this risk looks real. But, throughout his work, Tolkien tells us that when power is too great, it becomes too dangerous. Therefore, it must be destroyed. That’s why the Ring cannot be managed or “used” for a good purpose. It must only be destroyed. And today, in our age, what is the equivalent of the Ring? Whatever it is (technology, intelligence, big data, other?), Tolkien tells us that the maximum power cannot be governed, but it governs us himself, so it must be destroyed without hesitation as far as there is time left.

11# Throughout all his production, what is the relationship between intelligence, freedom and leadership?

The true leader is not the one who has the most information (see above) but the one who is most aware of the dangers of power. In Tolkien, any power, even that of creating myths, is dangerous, and there is a direct proportion between greater power and greater danger. Gandalf, from this point of view, is emblematic. Just think of the words he uses when he refuses to take the Ring that Frodo offers him at the beginning. (“Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!” LOTR.FR.I.2. The Shadow of the past).

Knowledge is power. Precisely for this reason, we must not want to know too much because it would mean wanting too much power, which then governs us and makes us lose our freedom. Not surprisingly, at the origin of the Ring of Power, there is also the desire of the Elves to know. For this reason, they ask Sauron to help them make magical rings, while he secretly shapes the One Ring to dominate them all (“many eyes were turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship with Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared them. For in that time, he was not yet evil to behold” LOTR. FR.II.2. The Council of Elrond, italics added).

And here the theme of the Ring comes back. It is the supreme power, and it offers the maximum knowledge and intelligence (who has the Ring can rule the Nazgul [man who became like shadows because of the use of the rings of power], see what they know and see what the other holders of magical rings are doing). However, this utmost intelligence completely destroys freedom. And here too, let’s pay attention to the Tolkien text. When Frodo at Mont Doom yields to the Ring he says “I do not choose now to do what I came to do” (LOTR.RK.VI.3 Mount Doom) and not “I choose now not to do what I came to do”. In other words, Frodo renounces to choose (“I do not choose”) and therefore renounces freedom, which is necessary to be able to “use” (but it would be better to say “to be used by”) the Ring.

From this point of view, the true leader is the one who does not want to know too much and who tries to stimulate his companions to exercise their freedom, without ever forcing them but always accompanying them, supporting them, and respecting their choices. Gandalf, Elrond, Aragorn, in fact, do just that, albeit in different contexts.

11# How can our readers follow you and the Istituto Tomistico (Tomistic Institute)?

We have a lively facebook page and a constantly updated website:

To read us on paper, we have promoted many publications over time, the latest (Ai confini della contraddizione: Tommaso, Florenskij e Severino) can be seen in SF or directly here.

12# Five keywords that define you?

Thomas, Tolkien, CSR (Corporate social responsibility) and uselessness – I keep the fifth secret!

[1] Abbreviations:

Letters = The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1999.

LOTR = The Lord of The Rings. 50th anniversary edition. London: Harper and Collins, 2004

FR = The Fellowship of the Ring

TT = The Two Towers

RK = The Return of the King


Letters n. 46 refers to letter number 46, contained in The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien.

LOTR.FR.I.2.The Shadow of the past, refers to chapter 2 in Book I (of six) in The Felloship of the Ring, First part of The Lord of the Rings.

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