On the Works of Long-forgotten Men

The Muster of Rohan


A Sketch of Roman Ruins by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Source)

One of Tolkien’s great accomplishments in The Lord of the Rings is the establishment of a sense of history within the world of Middle-earth. The marvels and sorrows of the Elves are well-established across the long years of the First and Second Ages, and within those tales appear on frequent occasion noble men of high hall and rich lineage. But then there are also the untold stories, the mysteries, the civilizations and peoples who songs and glories are lost to the midst of times. The lingering remnants of the Púkel-men – their worn statues, their arduously crafted cliff fortification, their standing stones – endure, but offer no answers. Are they related to the men of the Drúadan Forest? Are they connected to the men under Dwimorberg, the Dead who linger cursed? Was the prophesying old man at foot of the mountain gate the last of their people? The wisest of men and Elves cannot answer: in some sense, Tolkien himself may not have known.

These are the works of long-forgotten men: the fate of all mortal endeavors, the final stage of all human civilization. As Percy Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias quotes, “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Much of history has been relegated to this fate: a rare assortment of artifacts and hints, the endless source of theories and hypotheses, but unanswerable. How many great cities and great kings have been lost to the midst of time? How many languages can we no longer discern, how many songs have human ears not heard in countless generations, how many noble and virtuous and glorious deeds will never be on the hearts and minds of women and men again?

We are hubristic to think such times have passed, that our own times will ever be remembered, that our great feats of architecture, science, progress, art, politics, and innovation will not become the fading indicators of long-forgotten men. In the digital age, we are lured into a false sense of confidence: the Internet is far more fragile than we imagine, and the servers upon which we store the vast collection of human knowledge will not endure forever. The materials with which we build resist the elements of nature and time less capably than those even developed by our ancestors. The stuff we produce and consume and raise as monuments to our times are far more ephemeral and inscrutable than we might want to believe.

In far forward times, after many ages (we hope) have passed and explorers discover again the ancient seats of power along the once flowing Thames and the isle of Man-Hat-Tan, when out of the fog of history and the preservation of dirt is unearthed the Orange Bridge and the American obelisk, what then will they know about us? What if the obscure texts and miraculous materials saved from intentional and unrealized destruction write a much more simple narrative of the age of man’s glory: that they consumed until there was nothing left to consume, that they pushed the environment to its very limits and nature had her revenge, that even amidst their great technological progress they were an incredibly backwards and narrow-minded people as they slayed their own children, rejected the non-empirical, and “built tombs more splendid than the homes of the living?”

Nothing last forever, and all will be eventual lost until the end comes and all things are renewed and known. Yet, we act, and we sing songs, and we remember, because we must: we have no influence on the far future, when little remains of what we knew and loved. But the worn statues of the Púkel-men and the mysteries they keep offer streams for the flow of the mind’s reflection: on the passing of time and man’s futility, on what little endures and what stories it tells, on the works of long-forgotten men and the need to place hope in those things that will not fade and cannot be forgotten.

2015’s Reflection: “On the Red Arrow and the White Horse


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