Tolkien and the Long Defeat
- Andrew Barber
- 2013 12 Dec
"He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat."
The night is silent and the forest dark; the kind of darkness only found away from the world of street lamps and meals that stretch into the late hours. The trees have been stripped bare, and the space between them is starkly empty; emptiness made more devastating by the hint of past glory.
Into this scene steps a regal figure, one of authority and accustomed to praise. With only a glance, we can see her connection to this place. For she too seems only a remnant of past majesty and life. We wait to see if she will be joined by another, for certainly royalty and elegance of this kind should be attended to, even in such a diminished state.
Yet it soon becomes clear: her spiritual isolation is mirrored by her physical reality.
This is one of the final stories from J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. After all the wars and dragons and feats of heroism, it comes to this: an elven queen, Arwen, widowed by her kingly husband, heading into the fading heart of the elven country to die alone. This place, once so full of life and sustained by the Lady of Light, Galadriel (played in the films by the matchless Cate Blanchett), has become a glorious ruin. For Galadriel, like the rest of her kin, has left the world to the rule of man; the elves, in all their splendor, have reached their end.
Years ago, when this forest was filled with vitality and effervescence, Galadriel had uttered these words, found with little pomp in J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), yet running like lightning throughout the pages of his seminal work:
". . . together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat."
It has been said that J. R. R. Tolkien did not create Middle-earth but discovered it. Certainly for those of us to whom Tolkien has extended an invitation, who have feasted in the Shire and climbed the Misty Mountains and slept under the golden leaves of Lothlorien, our memories have the echo of truth. And in every folded corner and smeared ink spot, we find the long defeat being fought: elven maids fall in love with humans at the cost of their immortality, hobbits spare their tormentors out of a simple sense of mercy, and men march into war as a sacrificial decoy. Time and time again, our heroes come face-to-face with what Tolkien calls "hope without guarantees."
Even if we believe that the lights go out when our heart stops, it is hard not to be attracted to this strange morality that leaves Boromir fighting off hordes of orcs in order to protect two lowly hobbits (without success, as it turns out) or King Theoden leading a seemingly hopeless charge into final glorious battle. Tolkien has made his stand against the utilitarian spirit of the age, not through self-righteous diatribes, but through story after grand story of characters living in testimony to inherent goodness. Characters consistently make potentially catastrophic decisions simply because they believe it is the right thing to do. Tolkien, for example, describes the mercy that the hobbits show to Gollum, their conflicted tormentor, as "a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time."
A piece of folly, maybe. But certainly one that defines the goodness of the hobbits and dictates the climax of Frodo's journey to destroy the One Ring.
The phrase itself, "we have fought the long defeat," can seem fatalistic or pessimistic, more akin to a Libertarian bumper sticker than a life-guiding principle. Certainly Tolkien, who was orphaned as a child and lost many of his good friends in World War I, had some pessimistic tendencies and meant this phrase on the largest possible scale. The farther one heads down the Middle-earth timeline, the less happy it becomes. Middle-earth is a world in decline.
Whether or not we think our world is in decline is up to each one of us. But in application, we see this life principle guarded against pessimism by love and hope. Fighting the long defeat is not meant to protect our hearts from suffering or lead to resignation. I am reminded of a wise counselor's words to me when I complained that, after all this counseling, I seemed to cry more frequently than before: "What made you think counseling would cause you to cry less?" Fighting the long defeat is meant to push us towards full, unapologetic engagement before a Judge standing outside of time.
If anything, we find that most of the characters in LOTR cast their whole hearts into their endeavors. What they love is on the line: their friends and family, their gardens, a mug of ale in the company of friends. They hope and long for these things to be protected and offer themselves as sacrifices to make it so.
In other words, if fighting the long defeat does not lead us to risk our reputations to love the outcasts, to stay with the chronically ill in love, to support ministry to those with Alzheimer's disease, or to prepare week in and week out for a one-person Bible study, we have misunderstood it. This is what we have to offer to the world, is it not? A love unrestrained by success or timetables or ambitions?
Our lonely elven queen, Arwen, does die in that forest, alone. As an elven maiden, she had the right to an immortal existence. But her mortality was the sacrifice she laid down for a life of love with the man in whom she delighted. She lived a beautiful life, raised a family, and reigned as queen for many years.
Arwen faces the long defeat that we all, as fallen humans, will inevitably face: our death. But there is one final truth that balances our application of this idea, and it comes from Tolkien himself. "I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic," he writes in one of his letters, "so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat'—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory."
Despite the years of faithful work, J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien have their names on two tombstones, side by side. But one can't help but wonder that the moments they shared together in life, their wedding day and their first child, their mercy to others, or maybe simply the daily comfort of tea, were glimpses of that final victory. That when Jesus comes to usher in the next age and New Jerusalem descends to earth, we will find them both there, together, faithful to the last, experiencing the fruit of the one hope that was always guaranteed: God's reign on earth.
We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father's delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over "success."
We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.