What is the Long Defeat? It is a philosophy, a perspective on the meaning of existence, suffering, and joy in a fallen yet redeemed world that has haunted me since I first read of Celeborn and Galadriel and how “together through ages of the world we have found the long defeat.” It is an optic on life that is tinged with sorrow yet not despair, woven with somber threads into a garment of radiant joy. It is a reflection on the continued existence of sin and death even in the aftermath of the Passion and Resurrection.
For truly, even still, all things fade. The good, the true, and the beautiful of this world continue to pass away. Even though God has become Man, still do men sin, and the city of the world continues to wage war upon the city of God: “the evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been.” We cannot stop the passage of time, nor preserve fully the things we love: like Men we still taste death, and like Elves we still experience the fruitless victories. No matter how hard we labor for good and how diligently we resist evil, yet in our society and in our hearts the darkness abides.
This is the titular yet deep truth of the Long Defeat: that ultimately we cannot win this war, no matter how hard we strive and how virtuously we live. Whether by law or politics or culture or community, whether with Orwellian power or Huxleyan subtlety, whether today, tomorrow, or years from now, we shall lose the battle for morality, for faith, for the soul of humanity, for good. Men have sold themselves, but not for greatness whether good or evil, but for Wales. The power of the Three Rings dwindles, and “many fair things will fade and be forgotten.” We feel the sadness as Théoden did that “however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass forever out of Middle-earth?”
Yet the Long Defeat is not a philosophy of despair or an excuse for retreating from the world. Still we seek to live righteously and labor for the good, for we march out as Treebeard did, considering that it is “likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents. But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.” Though sin and peril are pervasive and many places of the world dark, yet there remain some fair things that are worthy of defending. We shall be defeated in our work because:
“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
The human condition is not to seek good in order to rebalance the cosmic scales: for our good cannot outmatch the darkness. Instead, it is to be like a Dúnedain of the North, preserving what good we can by our small and secret acts of valor. For our hope lies not in ourselves, but in something beyond us.
Tolkien himself described it best: “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.” As men and women we live the Long Defeat: but such a defeat is not the end, for the Long Defeat denies the universal final defeat. We shall be defeated, but God shall not: even in our loss, God has already won. In our living to preserve what is good, true, and beautiful in the face of its passing, we add our voices to the foundational cosmic song: that all things shall, at length, be defeated, so as to be made new by Christ.