Main Image Credit Grisly horde: use of the ‘orc’ label to describe Russian forces has become increasingly ubiquitous in Ukraine. Image: warpaintcobra / Adobe Stock
Fiction-based wartime narratives can have a powerful impact at the tactical level, as evidenced by Ukraine’s embrace of Tolkienian themes.
A year on from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the fighting continues with no signs of abating. Against this bleak setting, Ukraine’s reimagination of the conflict in Tolkienian terms – a heroic struggle against the Russian orc horde – is evocative, fuelled in part by the unrelenting way in which Russia has prosecuted the war thus far. Reports of Russian war crimes have only served to reinforce this unflattering association with one of the archetypal symbols of evil from Tolkien lore.
The use of narratives in war is not new. During the First World War, Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘For All We Have and Are’ was unabashed in its labelling of the German foe as ‘Huns’, instantly invoking parallels with the rampaging hordes of Attila the Hun, a notorious fifth-century warlord who had been the scourge of the Roman world. If anything, the importance of narratives in war is even greater today, particularly given how central information warfare is to emerging forms of conflict such as those waged within the grey zone.
Focus on the wartime narrative has, however, largely centred on its strategic impact. Indeed, a successful strategic narrative can galvanise a war effort, building legitimacy for military action while swaying popular opinion, both domestic and international. Most recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches to current and potential partners across various forums have helped to keep the war relevant and to build buy-in for the Ukrainian cause, which in turn has yielded tangible benefits, whether in terms of sanctions against Russia or varying degrees of material aid.
The use of the ‘orc’ label began as soon as hostilities started and over time has become increasingly ubiquitous in the wartime discourse, particularly on social media channels. What is interesting about this narrative, though, is its purely fictional roots. Drawing inspiration from J R R Tolkien’s high-fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, the orc narrative taps into its broad literary themes to paint a perhaps overly-simplified, but easily understood, interpretation of the conflict – one of good versus evil, of courage and perseverance, of unflinching heroism. Yet, despite its strategic value, it is at the tactical level that the narrative shines.
One could easily picture the Ukrainian defenders as the Riders of Rohan just as they are about to charge recklessly across the Pelennor Fields
The military historian Sir Michael Howard argued that regimental histories often selectively incorporated records of a regiment’s more glorious achievements to construct a tactical narrative whose primary purpose was to sustain the soldier’s morale when thrown into the crucible of battle. The orc narrative has the same galvanising effect, but on a grander scale. Tolkien’s epic is a highly influential literary masterpiece, and while the original books were already popular, the cinematic adaptation released between 2001 and 2003 reintroduced the classic to a whole new generation of audiences worldwide, cementing its place in mainstream popular culture. It is worth noting that many Ukrainians who were in their youth when the movies came out would be of fighting age today.
The power of the fiction-based tactical narrative is threefold. First, it is more accessible than historical narratives, especially when disseminated through the cinematic medium, marrying impactful narrative themes with powerful imagery. This was a method that was infamously utilised by Nazi propagandists, a prime example being the film Triumph of the Will directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Such narratives also have a wider popular appeal, extending beyond the national context.
Second, such narratives espouse a level of heroic action that transcends the boundaries of the mundane, encouraging the individual to push beyond their limitations, overcome their fears and perform deeds of extraordinary valour. Not unlike heroic literature of the past, Tolkien’s epic inspires a grim and stoic resolve – a heroic fatalism even – in the face of extreme adversity. One could easily picture the Ukrainian defenders as the Riders of Rohan just as they are about to charge recklessly across the Pelennor Fields, the final rallying cry of their king and the chants of death ringing in their ears.
Finally, the fiction-based tactical narrative promises a type of hope that is only possible in the escapism offered by fiction, unfettered by the harsh realities of this world. This is especially valuable when faced with an adversary that for all practical purposes possesses a preponderance of military power. In what is an asymmetrical struggle, every possible way to narrow the gap must be embraced, even if the methods are unorthodox.
For states with no significant martial tradition, fiction may be the only possible option around which narrative construction can begin
There is therefore much potential in the integration of fiction into wartime narrative construction. The right setting can produce a simple but effective narrative. For states with no significant martial tradition, fiction may be the only possible option around which narrative construction can begin. In Ukraine, The Lord of the Rings has served well, but it may be the rallying cry from another fictional setting – Hajime Isayama’s epic manga series Attack on Titan – that resonates most greatly:
'We die trusting the living who follow to find meaning in our lives!
That is the sole method in which we can rebel against this cruel world!
My soldiers, rage! My soldiers, scream! My soldiers, fight!'
Ukraine is currently fighting for its survival and must utilise any available tool, even if it is drawn from the pages of fiction.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.