12 May 2013

Guest Post: 'DEATH, DEFEAT AND HIGH BEAUTY'

David Rowe (@TolkienProverbs) has been kind enough to submit another guest post. Please be sure to follow him on Twitter – and keep an eye out for his upcoming book, 'The Proverbs of Middle-earth'!

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DEATH, DEFEAT, AND HIGH BEAUTY
by David Rowe

By my bedside, there are presently twelve books, of which six are by, or relating to, JRR Tolkien. Having been reading Tolkien for about 25 years, I tend not to discover 'new' things an awful lot, but the other day I was struck afresh by something and it got me thinking. Here's the quote (from #195 in The Letters Of JRR Tolkien):

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 some samples or glimpses of final victory.

The Long Defeat

Now, this may be me exposing my ignorance, but I don't think I've ever before been told that this is a (or the) standard Catholic worldview.* Having grown up in a society that tends to prize the new (or the young) above the old, perhaps I had assumed that an attitude of 'everything's getting better and better' should be standard for Christians too, who, after all, believe that God is 'making all things new'. It seems Tolkien would disagree. For him, what beauty there is in the world is primarily inherited and fading, however much we fight to preserve it.

The Good Old Days

All of us instinctively recognise something about the past which makes it good in contrast to the present - our fond reminiscences are happy places to be - but we're told that we are silly to think like that. The time is now. Seize the day.

Contrast that with the Elves of Middle-earth. They had lived in paradise - the High Elves had anyway - and seen perfection. They remembered it. But they weren't a forward-thinking people - all their songs and ideals came from millenia before, and it was all they could hope for to 'preserve all things unstained,' as Elrond said. Elrond, of course, bore one of the three Elven Rings, which were specifically endowed with the power of preservation. [letter #144]

The idea of 'the long defeat' - the phrase is, in fact, Galadriel's - is not what we expect in a 'battle between good and evil' like the War of the Ring. The Rohirrim ride 'for ruin and the world's ending', not for a present victory; that is only a fool's hope (says Gandalf). The Council of Elrond determines to attempt the Quest, though, if successful, it will mean 'the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade.' There is no victorious happy ending in sight.

And so it is with us. Everything in creation is decomposing. We live in a world where humans are constantly trying to make legacies for themselves, whilst concurrently destroying or staining the only things that actually do last.

It's pretty depressing - I can see where Nihilists are coming from, frankly. And I have no doubt that the changes that Tolkien saw in his lifetime - from the destruction of rural Warwickshire to the advent of Atom bomb, not to mention the empty massacres of the First World War and the totalitarianism and genocide of the Second - gave him very little enthusiasm for progress. However, Tolkien's slightly-fatalistic brand of Catholicism also recognises a way out: Death.

Death And Glory

Death is not an Enemy! ...The Elves call 'death' the Gift of God [letter #208]

It is no surprise that Tolkien, on later reflection, found that as much as The Lord of the Rings has a theme, that theme is 'death and immortality'. [letter #246] It seems to me that JRR Tolkien had a highly pessimistic view of life, and yet a profoundly hopeful perspective on death. Maybe he could not bring back the destroyed Warwickshire countryside of his youth, and did not hope that any kind of Earthly paradise was round the corner, but this pessimism did not cripple him into apathy or inaction: he worked, he created, he laughed, he inspired. He fought the long defeat.

And why? Well, when Sam needed to, he saw a star through the smogs of Mordor and 'the beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.'

This passage ends beautifully: 'Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's ceased to trouble him... putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep. They woke together, hand in hand.'


*I'm not a Catholic, by the way.

4 comments:

  1. I like that point of view. I always felt that death and wisdom (elves, wizards) was not based on pesimism or hope entirely but the feeling that despite all their power they knew that was not their time. They knew men (humans) were to inherit middle-earth, for different reasons, some not even fully explained. But in all their power they knew their place and what needed to be done in order to fulfil that task.

    Obviously that wasn't the case with the other (darker) side of power, who as always (and like in real life) like to perpetuate their reign no matter what.

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  2. It all depends on the interpretation. I am a Roman Catholic and the "long defeat" is what we all are fighting and indeed what Tolkien himself fought against in his writing and in the academic world at large. CS Lewis was fighting a similar long defeat. In fact, I think being a Christian IS knowing that you are invevitably fighting a long defeat. Great article, really looking forward to the book.

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  3. Hi David. I think Tom Shippey is very strong on this and understands why JRRT was so set on the idea of the Long Defeat. Your example of Sam seeing the star is a good one - and shows Sam at his most elvish, because the Long Defeat is an elvish thought.

    It's Galadriel who coins the phrase, but all the Eldar are essentially fighting the same battle - Elrond's speech at the Council bears this out. I think the older Tolkien was very elvish in his outlook - a thought prompted by Shippey's writing. All the glory seemed to fade to memory and shadow.

    I actually think this is a departure from the Christian origin of the Long Defeat (which is maybe what you are hinting at here?). Christian theology has always accepted the inevitability of defeat in this life, but maintained that that is not the end of the story. In this respect Aragorn is perhaps more "Christian" than the elves, because he at least knows that beyond the circles of the world there is more than memory. I like to think JRRT remembered this at the end, when he wrote "Beren" and "Luthien" on his grave.

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  4. I think the idea of an individual viewing the world, its history and future as belonging to us is necessary for us to hold the perspective of life as the "Long Defeat". We see one of the main reasons the High Elves left Valinor was because Fëanor became possessive of The Silmarils (Chapter 9 Fëanor states "there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest")It also requires the individual to desire to preserve the world with it imperfections. The High Elves develop a similar view of Middle Earth they love the things in it that are theirs and of their own making. And thus they are reluctant to part with it and return to Valinor where they are subject to the rule of the Valor.
    As Christians we are called to be in the world but not of the world. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15) “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
    We are called to look forward to the great victory and the creation of a new earth. Are relationship with the world should be something like the relationship of an engineer with his clients old car. He diligently repairs and improves it as best he can but rejoices when the client replace with a new model in perfect condition and far better made than the original.
    We should look to live life in the light of future victory not in the shadow of the Long Defeat. Because we are not of the world and its content does not ultimately belong to us. We must try and avoid becoming like Fëanor who forgot the light of the Silmarils was not of his making and only captured by him. The thing we create on this earth are not really ours and will pass in time only to be replaced by something greater.

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