Thursday, March 12, 2020

The long defeat

"...together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat."

So says Galadriel, Queen of the elves of Lothlorien.  And she does mean 'through ages'.  Galadriel, for those not already in the know, was daughter of Finarfin, born in Valinor to the royal house of the Noldor.  When the Silmarils were stolen from Fëanor, she enthusiastically followed him and his sons into exile back into Middle Earth to make war on the thief Morgoth, the original Dark Lord.  She therefore participated in the long struggle of the returned Noldor and their allies against Morgoth - she saw his fortress Angband successfully besieged by the new-come elves, and she saw the siege itself destroyed and the kingdoms of the Noldor broken one by one.  As even the strong and hidden refuges of the Noldor - Nargothrond and Gondolin - were betrayed and overthrown, Galadriel lived on.  She saw the overthrow of Morgoth by the powers of Valinor, but she did not return there; she stayed in Middle Earth, and so she saw the new enemy, Sauron, arise.  She saw the might of Númenor and the  imprisonment of Sauron; she also saw his return in greater might when Númenor was destroyed.  She saw the Last Alliance, and the forces of Elendil and Gil-Galad ride against Mordor.  She saw the overthrow of Sauron, and she saw the failure of Isildur to finally destroy the ring of power which led inevitably to his return.  She was there as the elves and their allies retreated before the might of Sauron and the strength of the Númenorean successor realms failed, Arnor collapsing and Gondor becoming a mere shadow of its former self.  She fought the long defeat through all these ages of the world.

I'm aware that not everyone is interested in the history of Middle Earth, but bear with me, because really I just want to underline that one concept: the long defeat.

I've been struck in the last week that this phrase captures one aspect of what it means to be a Christian in the world.  We fight the long defeat.  There are victories along the way, but on the whole the picture is not of victory.  One week I look out at my little church and see something that looks a lot like the gospel, and I rejoice in victories won; the next week, I look out and see the effects of sin and a fallen world, and I realise that we're fighting the long defeat.  None of our victories are decisive.  None of our little triumphs are the triumph.

In Tolkien's world, the battle of the elves must necessarily be the long defeat, for two reasons.  Firstly, Morgoth was a foe entirely beyond them; he was a Vala, a sort of demi-god, and although fallen was still mighty.  The Noldor consistently imagined that they could make war on him successfully; Maedhros son of Fëanor, for example, planned an assault on his fortress of Angband.  But the war was doomed to failure.  At their strongest, the Noldor could restrict, but not overthrow, Morgoth.  It took 'divine intervention' for him to be overthrown, with the arrival of the armies of the Valar.  Sauron could not be defeated by the dwindling elves or their Dúnedain allies.  It took the divine providence which oversaw the latter history of the rings of power to bring him down.  (It would be interesting to develop the Old Testament/New Testament contrast here, by the way - victory by overwhelming divine force in the First Age, victory by self-denial and suffering in the Third).

The other reason the elves must be defeated is that the lies of Morgoth have a grip on them, and their allies.  Fëanor and his sons are affected by his lies, to the extent that they mistrust the Valar without reason, and rush into the Kinslaying at Alqualondë - which continues as a shadow over all their later doings, even the most heroic, preventing alliances which should have strengthened them.  Later,  Maedhros is betrayed in battle by the human sons of Ulfang, who have secretly given their allegiance to Morgoth.  The enemy is not merely arrayed against them, but his tendrils reach within.

This is the story of our real long defeat.  Sin and death and Satan are enemies beyond our strength; and moreover, we find so often that the tendrils of Satan's power extend not merely into the midst of our church communities but into our own hearts.  Every victory is temporary.  Every defeat is doubly bitter, because we are ourselves implicated.  Noble rearguard actions (think of the wind whistling in the fens of Serech) are often all we can manage as our enemy carries all before him.

We fight the long defeat, but not with the melancholy of Galadriel.  We fight the long defeat with the knowledge that at the end of it all there is final victory.  The pattern is cross and resurrection.  Jesus has passed through, and has secured our triumph.  Every defeat in this long defeat is a reminder of the cross.  But every reminder of the cross is a call to lift up our eyes beyond the parameters of our own personal and communal battles, and to remember that the war itself is won, and will be won.  We will stand on the field of Cormallen and celebrate total and final victory, one day.  Until then, with the certain knowledge that the day is coming, we fight the long defeat.


  1. I was able to follow most of that, Daniel, though not quite all of it. And I'm a Tolkien enthusiast!

    Thank you for this. For some months, I've felt a lot like Gandalf and Pippin standing on the walls of Minas Tirith, seeing the approach of Sauron's orcs, and knowing what state of decay my city is in. Thank you for the reminder that though we fight the long defeat, we look forward to the resurrection, after the cross.

    1. Right. And of course Gandalf and Pippin are, in the end, saved by something beyond them. Why does the darkness break over the Pelennor fields before Sauron is ready? Certainly not because of anything they have done! But their determination to stand "if only on one leg, or at least to be left still upon our knees" does matter; though Beregond envisages Minas Tirith falling and Gondor only living on in mountain fortresses, it matters that he decides to fight.

      The function of the sky in the Lord of the Rings is also worth exploring. Obviously the Mordor cloud, but think also of the despairing Sam looking up and glimpsing the stars which the Dark Lord can't defeat... Sursum corda!