This post continues the study of the long defeat of Tolkien by looking at the foundational work for the Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion. As noted in the previous post, the long defeat was Tolkien’s phrase for the idea that no matter how many times one defeated evil, it continued to (apparently effortlessly) return to full strength. The motif is connected with the elves primarily, who are immortal and experience the long defeat over the long millennia of their lives. Since we are talking about the long defeat, it is good to slow down and look at more history!
In a sense, the Silmarillion is the Old Testament of Tolkien’s work (and like the Old Testament, far fewer people read it than Lord of the Rings!). Tolkien believed that knowing the history of Middle-earth contained in the Silmarillion was essential to understanding the Lord of the Rings. He left his publisher for the Hobbit to go to another publisher because they refused to publish both the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, though they ended up being too slow to publish anything and he eventually returned to his original publisher with his hat in hand to publish only the Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion was finally published after his death when his son Christopher created a canonical version of the book from the many different versions Tolkien had written (many of the other versions can be found in the series The History of Middle-Earth). Being a perfectionist, Tolkien never felt the book was ever ready for publication. The Silmarillion contains five separate works, each of which are described below.
The idea of the long defeat already appears in the first two ages of Middle-earth (the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings happen in the third age). The first age begins with the creation of the world (recounted in Ainulindalë and Valaquenta), but the majority of the age (told in the Quenta Silmarillion) is taken up with the conflict between the elves and Melkor, the “Satan” of Middle-Earth. While the elves achieve many victories, a curse comes upon them because of their sinful actions, particularly their rebellion against the Valar (roughly equivalent to angels) and their slaying of each other, leading to Melkor often returning to power and influence. Finally, at the end of the First Age Melkor was defeated. However, the Quenta Silmarillion ends with these words, reminding us that evil is not gone:
Yet the lies of Melkor, the mighty and the accursed, Morgoth Bauglir, the Power of Terror and of Hate, sowed in the hearts of Elves and Men are a seed that does not die and cannot be destroyed; and ever and anon it sprouts anew, and will bear dark fruit even unto the latest days. (Silmarillion 255)
The second age (recounted briefly in the Akallabêth) deals with Sauron, a servant of Melkor. He was eventually defeated by the Last Alliance (seen in the prologue to the movie version of the Fellowship of the Ring), leading to the end of the second age. But even this defeat does not remove his power, which remains bound up in the Ring of Power, leading to the third age (some tales from early in the third age are recorded in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age) and the great events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.
Through all three ages of Middle-earth, evil continued and the long defeat must be endured. One who knows the history of Middle-earth, whether characters who lived through much of the history (like Elrond) or readers who have read the “Old Testament” of Middle Earth, can expect the long defeat to continue as it ever has. As a Jew returning from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem would also have wondered: would anything ever change?
The next post will address the Fourth Age (after the fall of Sauron) and an (unfinished) sequel to Lord of the Rings to see whether any hope can be found.