Galadriel says of herself and Celeborn:
“For the Lord of the Galadhrim 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 the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” (Fellowship of the Ring, 1965 Houghton Mifflin paperback edition, pg. 421)
Indeed, Galadriel tells Frodo that if he fails in his quest to destroy the Ring, all the good of the Elves will be laid bare to Sauron, but if he succeeds all the good of the Elves will diminish and be swept away by the tides of Time. (ibid., pg. 431). It is an intriguing phrase, “…together we have fought the long defeat.” For what it seems to mean is that as the story of the world advances toward the end predetermined by the divinely-inspired Song of the Ainur, the wise should expect to see a continual downward-aiming series of events. History in Middle Earth will not be a story of progress in the sense of forward, upward motion – of advance toward better and better things – but of eschatological decline of all that in the created world seems to be most fair and good. It is a haunting notion, for as the Silmarillion puts it:
But of bliss and glad life there is little to be said, before it ends; as works fair and wonderful, while still they endure for eyes to see, are their own record, and only when they are in peril or broken for ever do they pass into song. (paperback second edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, pg. 105)
Christians today are divided on eschatology between pessimistic and optimistic schools. Tolkien showed that he was on the side of the pessimists when he wrote,
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.” (Letter 195).
This may sound bad, but as an Ent might say, “Don’t be hasty.” Tolkien’s pessimistic view of history focused on the long, progressive defeat not of good in and of itself but only of the physical (perhaps even the cultural?) power of the forces of good. As a Christian, he knew that God’s power is frequently made manifest through weakness and foolishness destroying what worldly wisdom thinks to be strong. It may be argued that the Lord of the Rings is precisely the story of the weak and the seemingly outwardly foolish – Bilbo, Sam and Frodo, and Gollum – doing what no Elven Warrior King, no Dunedain at the height of Numenorean power, no Balrog-fighting wizard, and no army of noble Northmen ever could – utterly destroying the powerful.
Of course, in the process of this defeat of evil many good things are lost, never to be seen again. The Two Trees, incomparable lights of Valinor, are dead and beyond recall by any power save Iluvatar’s own. The Silmarils, most beautiful and fair of all jewels ever made, are lost until the breaking and remaking of the world. Luthien, fairest of all the children of Iluvatar, has passed beyond the Circles of the World, a casualty, with her mortal husband, Beren, of the long war against Morgoth. Numenor in its noontide glory, Imladris, “the last homely house,” Lothlorien, fairest of all Elven dwellings, the Shire, closest thing to mortal paradise on earth – all are gone and nevermore to be seen in this Age. The element of pessimism regarding historical “progress” in Tolkien’s works seems to saying that although good wins, the price it has to be is terrible, very terrible – so much so that its victory has to be described as a “long defeat.” Is this all Tolkien has to teach us about God’s defeat of evil in this world? Is God’s defeat of evil the ultimate Pyrrhic victory?
Recently re-reading the Silmarillion several passages in “Of the Flight of the Noldor” struck me as perhaps harboring a different interpretation of “we have fought the long defeat.” Not an interpretation that denies Tolkien’s clear affirmations of historical pessimism, but one that augments it by playing ironically with the very term “long defeat.” I don’t suppose I am the first to ever think of this way of understanding Tolkien’s philosophy, and I only record it here as a goad to further thought. Let’s follow the thread:
Having learned that Melkor has killed his father, Finwe, and stolen the Silmarils, Feanor has successfully marshaled numerous Elves to leave Valinor and return to Middle Earth, there to wage incessant war upon Melkor and anyone else of whatever race or kind who may try to keep a Silmaril from its rightful owners. The Valar, grieved that the Elves have chosen to believe the lies of Melkor, stand aside and allow the mass exodus. However, at the border of the Blessed Realm, a messenger from Manwe arrests the Elves’ attention:
Against the folly of Feanor shall be set my counsel only. Go not forth! For the hour is evil, and your road leads to sorrow that ye do not yet foresee. No aid will the Valar lend you in this quest; but neither will they hinder you; for this ye shall know: as ye came hither freely, freely shall ye depart. But thou Feanor Finwe’s son, by thine oath art exiled. The lies of Melkor thou shalt unlearn in bitterness. Vala he is, thou saist. Then thou hast sworn in vain, for none of the Valar canst thou overcome now or ever within the halls of Ea, not though Eru whom thou namest had made thee thrice greater than thou art. (paperback second edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, pg. 92, emphasis mine)
Hold that thought for a moment. After the Kin-slaying at Alqualonde, someone described only as “a dark figure standing high upon a rock that looked down upon the shore” speaking in a “loud voice, solemn and terrible,” warns the Elves:
Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Feanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.
Here we see encapsulations of the theme “the long defeat” that will characterize at least Elven history in Middle Earth. “To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well” applies not only to Feanor and his seven sons, who swear the oath that ought not to be sworn, calling down in God’s Own Name the eternal darkness on themselves if they fail in their self-appointed task to endlessly fight all who attempt to keep what is theirs, but also upon all who follow them. This latter phrase encompasses also the second band of Elves who left Valinor, led by Fingolfin, who, despite his misgivings about Feanor’s exalted rhetoric, yet follows in his steps away from the direct rule and protection of the Valar. Through Feanor and Fingolfin, the entire sub-division of the Elves known as the Noldor (this is the great majority of all Elves encountered in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings) are caught up in the ruinous quest for recovery of the Silmarils, which continues to have dire repercussions through the Ages even after the deaths of all the principals and the irretrievable loss of the jewels themselves.
What this means is that Galadriel’s words, “we have fought the long defeat” most obviously means that she and Celeborn have steadfastly resisted an irresistible destiny of decline and defeat. They have spent ages of the world attempting to stave off the power of the Valar, who, as subcreators under Iluvatar, have determined to authorize and make real in the history of Middle Earth the bitter consequences of Feanor’s oath of Elvish autonomy. And, as the messenger of Manwe makes clear to Feanor in the quote above, it is impossible for Feanor (and one logically assumes any other Elf) ever to overcome the Valar. No matter how hard he and his sons and followers strive, no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears they expend for how ever many thousands upon thousands of years, in the end “To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well…The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.” Nothing but a long defeat awaits the Elves returning to Middle Earth from the Blessed Realm. Nothing else can await them.
There are some intriguing questions of metaphysics here, especially as regards the relationship of free wills to the Song of the Ainur and to Iluvatar’s own will. For in the opening pages of the Silmarillion, Iluvatar declares to Melkor that no creature may alter the Music against Iluvatar’s will, but instead will learn that all attempts to do so amount to merely playing an unwitting role in Iluvatar’s own design. Indeed, Iluvatar’s own Third Theme, introduced to quell the ongoing turbulence of Melkor in the Song, is itself “filled with immeasurable sorrow from which its beauty chiefly comes.” Iluvatar Himself has decreed unalterably that the history of the world that flows from the Song of the Ainur will be and can only be one of “fighting the long defeat.” Again this prompts the question whether the best God Himself sees fit to do in Tolkien’s mythology is an ultimate version of the Pyrrhic victory.
I don’t think so, for there is a secondary sense in which Galadriel’s words may be taken. I do not claim that Tolkien consciously meant this, and I do not know of any passage where he himself states it, but I do think it is a legitimate inference from what he has said and from the general tenor of Christian theology. I believe we can take Galadriel’s words to mean not just what Tolkien explicitly said – that the Elves are doomed by their own character flaws to a pessimistic fate within the Circles of the World – but also to mean that evil itself is doomed to be relentlessly fought by its victims until it itself is defeated. Galadriel’s words may be taken as a double-entendre: “Together we have fought the long defeat” means not only that she and Celeborn (and presumably most other Elves, too) have, in the old Northern sense of heroism that Tolkien loved, futilely resisted an irresistible doom, but also that through their futile resistance itself the seemingly overmastering power of evil itself has experienced a progressive degradation in its presence and influence. The Elves have fought the long defeat not only of themselves but also of evil – and all in accordance with the will of Iluvatar subcreated into real existence through the Song of the Ainur.
Consider the “progress” of evil in the Silmarillion. Viewed from one perspective, that of emotional despair over how evil seems always to be taking new forms, seems always to be destroying greater good things which are then replaced by lesser good things, it would be easy to be a fatalist. “Does Iluvatar really see? Is His arm really powerful to save? Yet the course of evil in the Three Ages chronicled in the mythology is actually a severe decline: Morgoth the Valar, undefeatable by any foe lower than the Valar themselves, is disposed of relatively quickly: the First Age only lasts 600 or so Years of the Sun before the War of Wrath ends the Black Foe’s dominion with Manwe thrusting him through the Doors of the Night, never again to trouble anyone. The Second Age is about five times as long as the First, and features a great deal of evil done by Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron, but he is met at every turn by the indomitable resistance of Elves and Men. (And nothing Sauron ever did was as hateful or destructive as his Master’s deeds!) At the last Sauron’s seemingly overmastering force, having destroyed the most powerful of both his foes (Gil-galad and Elendil) is broken by a broken sword wielded by a desperate, grieving son. Much of the Third Age that follows is fairly peaceful, troubled only by periodic outbreaks of Orcs, the brief reign of the Witch-King of Angmar, a war between Orcs and Dwarves, and a dragon or two – all pitiful foes by comparison to Morgoth and Sauron. The final onslaught of Sauron, so long in the making and feared by all to be so devastating, lasts a mere matter of months and comes to an end not with a bang but with a whimper of a depraved, pathetic little lust-driven creature, Gollum, quite unintentionally dropping Sauron’s Ring into the fires of Mount Doom from which it came.
All of this, comprising so much suffering and pain and death (just read the Silmarillion, if you have not), consumes the better part of seven thousand years. “We have fought the long defeat,” indeed. And to cap it all off, we have to remember that Tolkien states that after Sauron, evil will never again be able to take a physical form. The Elves, doomed to be the Dispossessed forever, have gone over the sea to Aman, leaving Middle Earth in many ways much poorer – but because they fought the long defeat in both senses, there are no more physically incarnate Dark Lords, no more preternaturally horrific spider-creatures, no more Orcs, no more trolls, no more dragons, no more Balrogs. The Dominion of Men, beginning in the Fourth Age and continuing through a Fifth and Sixth (and who knows how far beyond) has, we know from recorded history, been characterized by a great deal of evil. But none of our evil has been anything like that of Morgoth and Sauron.
As Tolkien writes somewhere in his Letters, all evil since the end of the War of the Ring is moral evil – a different species than found in the Silmarillion, the Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings. Evil itself has quite unsuccessfully “fought the long defeat.” Having spent millennia using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, Iluvatar’s power has shown itself made perfect in weakness. We have a reason for our eschatological hope.