J. R. R. Tolkien produced a masterpiece of fiction with his Lord of the Rings, one of the best-selling novels of all time. This post will begin a series of reflections based on Tolkien’s work, not only surrounding the 600,000 word Lord of the Rings but the entire world of Middle Earth (as recounted to us in great depth in the Silmarillion and other posthumously published work by Tolkien) and Tolkien’s thoughts about what he was trying to achieve through his world (largely recorded in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien).
The first reflection looks at Tolkien’s theme of a “long defeat.” I began thinking about the theme when introduced to it by George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary, who is at Biola this semester as part of the Center for Christian Thought. The phrase appears in Galadriel’s speech about Celeborn to the company when they are passing through Lorien (in “The Mirror of Galadriel”) as she describes how the elves, who are immortal unless they are killed in Middle-Earth, have lived thousands of years and see how evil continues to return every time it is defeated.
“For the Lord of the Galadhrim [Celeborn] is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted, for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” (As recounted in the Silmarillion the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin happened at the hands of Melkor in the First Age, about 2500 years before the events of the Lord of the Rings; Sauron was a servant of Melkor.)
The theme is echoed in Elrond’s quotation earlier in the book (in “The Council of Elrond”): “I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.” The stories recounted in The Silmarillion emphasize this truth: no matter how spectacular the victory, in Middle Earth evil would continue to rise again. The forces of good must continue to fight and be vigilant.
Tolkien thought that this truth was part of his Christianity. From a letter to Amy Ronald dated December 15, 1956 (recorded as Letter 195 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien) he said the following about the theme: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
I agree with him that this truth is profoundly biblical. Like the history of Middle Earth, the story of God’s people throughout the Old Testament, New Testament, and church history has been a series of victories accompanied by the stubborn and incessant return of evil. Evil is so thoroughly entrenched among humanity that we cannot expect to remove it entirely from the world and so must always remain vigilant. The idea of a long defeat prevents us from becoming triumphalistic and is a helpful reminder for those (especially the young who have not yet tasted the long defeat) who set out to change the world.
Naturally, the theme of the long defeat is only part of the story, and focus upon it can become debilitating (Denethor is an example of this from Middle Earth), but that discussion is for another post!