"...and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat." -Galadriel to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings
I was prompted to write this post by an article I read (found here). As a fan of JRR Tolkien myself, I have often pondered the concept of "the long defeat" and its place in the Christian worldview. Tolkien himself made such a connection in one of his letters.
"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."
This concept of The Long Defeat is intricately intertwined with the idea of eucatastrophe. Tolkien claimed that just as we have the word "catastrophe" in English we should also have it's opposite, "eucatastrophe." As the first word means a sudden change from good to bad, the second one signifies a sudden change from bad to good. For Tolkien this was the essence of the Gospel. "The Incarnation is the eucatastrophe of human history, and the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe is of the Incarnation," he once stated.
This is crucial. The Incarnation is a eucatastrophe (sudden change for good) because God has been born into a history marred by sin and suffering. But in response humanity as a whole (and Israel in particular) rejected their Creator; as the Apostle John said, "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him."
This led to the catastrophe of the crucifixion. We humans took our Lord and nailed him on a cross because of our rebellious natures. This could have been the end. The Father could have said, "That's it. Your finished," and delivered to us the damnation that our sin deserved. Instead, Jesus said, "It is finished." God then turned the catastrophe of the Cross into the Eucatastrophe for us by raising him from the dead and thus signalling the Father's acceptance of Jesus' atonement for all those who believe. Both the catastrophe of the Cross and the victory of the Resurrection show us that God's grace triumphs over our worst; indeed, even our evil is made to serve his accomplishment of salvation. Eucatastrophe!
How does "the long defeat" factor into this? For Tolkien (and for all Christians) the final victory has been achieved, but not yet inaugurated. Jesus also ascended to heaven, and has yet to establish his earthly reign until the Eschaton (the Second Coming). Save for the present reign of Christ through his church, this world has been left free to "storing up wrath for [itself] on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." (Romans 2:5)
So as Christians pilgrims in this present age we are fighting a long defeat. There is no hope for history. Only when Christ invades history and takes his rightful place on David's throne with his enemies under his feet as a footstool will the final Eucatastrophe have taken place. Let us hope for the future as we look to the past. Let us rejoice in the "samples or glimpses of final victory." Let us look to the Resurrection and wait for the Eschaton with patient endurance in preaching the gospel of eucatastrophe to all tribes, languages, and peoples. Let us fight the long defeat.