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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Elves, Orcs, Hobbits And The One Ring: Echoes Of Tolkien In The Ukraine War

Literary scholar and fiction writer Mykhailo Nazarenko discusses the would-be cast of characters of fantasy writer JRR Tolkien in Ukraine’s war against the Russian invaders.

Elves, Orcs, Hobbits And The One Ring: Echoes Of Tolkien In The Ukraine War

Surprising parallels between Tolkien and the war in Ukraine have emerged.

Mykhailo Kriegel

KYIV — On the surface, JRR Tolkien’s meticulously crafted world and stories, typically associated with fantasy, may seem entirely disconnected from the very real and bitter reality of the war in Ukraine. But surprising parallels between Tolkien and the war have emerged.

On Aug. 24, 2015, former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko likened the concept of “Novorossiya” or “New Russia,” a territory the Kremlin seeks to carve out in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, to Mordor, the realm inhabited by Sauron, the main antagonist of the Lord of the Rings. Additionally, Ukrainians often refer to Russian soldiers as orcs, the creatures who fight in the armies of Mordor.

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But Ukrainians do not solely resort to Tolkien's vocabulary to describe the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. In an interview with the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, literary scholar and fiction writer Mykhailo Nazarenko, discusses how Tolkien's stories resonate in the war in Ukraine, and how people turn to mythology to comprehend extraordinary events. Furthermore, Nazarenko explains how Tolkien can uplift the Ukrainians' morale during the war.

About hope

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a wave of war myths and legends started circulating: a Kyiv-based grandmother taking down a Russian spy drone with a jar of pickles, Ukrainian Roma stealing a Russian tank, and a pilot known as the Ghost of Kyiv taking down Russian warplanes.

According to Mykhailo Nazarenko, in exceptional times, people resort to stories and myths to bolster their morale and make sense of the chaos.

“In times of great challenge, people perceive what is happening on a cosmic scale,” Mykhailo Nazarenko tells Ukrainska Pravda. “The war is simultaneously about our past, the present and the future. It is only natural for people to mythologize such events.

"Tolkien’s work is about hope — that, despite everything, we will eventually win."

One significant source of inspiration for this myth-making phenomenon is Tolkien's literature. Nazarenko recalls a short video from 2013 titled “Mordor Shall Not Pass," which starts with the words, “Dedicated to all the hobbits of Ukraine." The video overlays scenes from the country's Maidan protest movement with footage from Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings.

“At that time, we associated ourselves not with elves, but with hobbits. We thought: these are our holes, we dwell in them, and we want everyone to leave us alone,” Nazarenko says. “But now we are hard-pressed, so we must take the ring and go to Mordor.”

In the Lord of the Rings, a hobbit, Frodo, must take the evil ring to Mordor and destroy it there.

“The association with Tolkien does not only work because of the popularity of the books and their film adaptations, but because Tolkien’s work is about hope — that, despite everything, we will eventually win,” Nazarenko says.

Russia playing along

The literary critic adds the association with Tolkien also gained traction as Russia seemingly started to play along.

He recalls that in late Dec. 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered eight rings to his guests as part of the meeting of the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of former Soviet Republics, and reserved the ninth for himself. The act drew a parallel to Sauron giving out the “Rings of Power” and keeping the “One-ring-to-rule-them-all” for himself.

In a sense, they have adopted "orc" as a self-identity.

“Since the 1990s, texts have appeared in Russia portraying orcs as good and elves as bad. One of the participants of the Russian rock festival "Invasion," which in recent years has been taken under the wing of the Russian Ministry of Defense, is the band "Mordor," Nazarenko says. “In a sense, they have adopted "orc" as a self-identity.”

Ukrainian flags in a funeral procession of a soldier killed on the Ukrainian war front.

Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA

Tolkien’s imagery also includes a wide array of adversaries that the heroes have to face, extending beyond the forces of Sauron.

“There is the mayor of Lake Town in The Hobbit, who initially assures everyone that everything will be fine, but ultimately fails miserably,” Nazarenko explains. “Then there is Lotho Sackville-Baggins, a hobbit who attempts to seize control through deception because he fails to grasp the true nature of events unfolding in Middle-earth.”

Another character exemplifying the dynamic is the governor of Gondor, Denethor, who, after being shown the overwhelming power of Mordor by Sauron, refuses to fight, believing it would be futile to resist.

“In extraordinary circumstances, even ordinary people or hobbits become extraordinary,” Nazarenko says. “Conversely, those who continue to live by the old rules and think only about their own existence and well-being turn out to be traitors.”

Symbolic victories

Mykhailo Nazarenko further talks about the importance of symbolic victories, like the downing of the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, “Moskva," in April 2022, or the destruction of the Kerch bridge, linking Crimea to Russia, could have mythological significance.

“In mythology, every object exists in the singular. There are no trees — there is the One Tree. There are no birds — there is the One Bird. And it's the same here: in a symbolic sense, the downing of the cruiser is a victory over the entire Black Sea Fleet,” Nazarenko says.

“This is typical of wars in general: any victory can be perceived as a turning point in the war,” he continues. “An enemy that has not yet been defeated is an invincible horde, an exaggerated universal evil. But as soon as it turns out that this Achilles has a vulnerable heel, everything changes. You realize that if he is not invincible, he can be defeated.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shaking hands with Ukraine Marines commander in Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.

Ukrainian Presidentia/ZUMA

During the interview, a comparison was drawn between the West and the elves, who are willing to help, but not willing to fight.

“The situation gained traction in memes in the early days of the invasion,” Nazarenko says.

“One of the memes was inspired by a scene from The Lord of the Rings," he explains. "Only this time instead of saying 'My sword is with you,' 'My bow is with you,' 'My ax is with you,' the elf, the man and the dwarf say, 'My concerns are with you,' 'My best wishes are with you," 'My temporary Facebook profile picture is with you.' And the hobbit looks back at them with big eyes.”

A recurring theme in stories is that of a hero receiving powerful objects that will aid him on his quest, if he deserves them.

“Unlike in fairy tales, we don't automatically deserve anything; we must first prove ourselves,” he says. “In early 2022, the West was not going to give us anything beyond several thousand helmets and British Javelin missiles. But they realized they can count on us once we have proven ourselves.”

Find their place

In the finale of Tolkien’s work, a new era is emerging, but Frodo, who bore the ring to Mordor and experienced its corrupting influence, is compelled to journey alongside the elves to a new land.

“Everyone's first thought when they read Tolkien in 1955 was that Frodo had PTSD, and he could only heal from it on the other side of existence,” Nazarenko says.

It will be a challenge for our society to help integrate those who have helped us exist.

He ponders about those fighting since 2014 or 2022.

“It will be a challenge for our society to help integrate those who have helped us exist. To ensure they find a worthy place in the new world,” he says. “I hope that if not Frodo, then his companions — Sam, Merry, and Pippin — will find such a place. In Tolkien's story, three out of the four hobbit friends were able to find their place in the new life and became an important part of its reconstruction.”

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