Advent and the Long Defeat
While we all hate spoilers, some books carry the spoiler on the cover. Christopher Tolkien has just published the last of his father’s tales about Middle Earth, The Fall of Gondolin. From the beginning, we know the ending: Gondolin, a city of unspeakable beauty and goodness, will be overrun by evil and destroyed.
The Fall of Gondolin is one of several books detailing the history of Middle Earth prior to the days of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And while the back story is interesting, many readers want to know what happened next. What became of Middle Earth after the defeat of evil in Mordor and the new golden age beginning with the reign of Aragorn?
Quick Satiety With Good
Tolkien actually began a sequel. He called it The New Shadow, but he didn’t get very far. He didn’t want to. Tolkien wrote:
I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Mordor], but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good.
The idea that a feature of human nature is “their quick satiety with good” leading to inevitable moral decay is hardly unique to Tolkien. It is a reflection of what Tolkien said in a letter about The Lord of the Rings, that it was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
The Law of Entropy
As a Christian writer, Tolkien took evil seriously, took sin seriously, and took fallen human nature seriously. And so while there are high points in his long history of Middle Earth — the beauty and goodness of Gondolin, the rustic charm of the Shire, the humility and magnanimity of Aragon the King — the law of entropy not only applies to the physical universe; it applies to the moral universe as well.
His history of Middle Earth simply mirrors the history of the real world. Human history attests only too graphically to our “quick satiety with good.” And once sated with good, our eyes and hearts rove to where we can feast on evil.
The Long Defeat
The journey described in The Lord of the Rings led through the forest of Lothlorien, an island of tranquility and peace in an increasingly dangerous and frightening Middle Earth. There Galadriel ruled with her husband, “and together through ages of the world,” she says, “we have fought the long defeat.”
Tolkien wrote, “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.”
Note the particularly Christian paradox: history as the “long defeat” culminating in “final victory.”
Our Lord’s life on earth was a long defeat from the annunciation to his death on the cross “though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.” The history of the Church is a long defeat as well though it too contains “samples or glimpses of final victory.” Kingdoms, empires, and nations rise and flourish only to decay and vanish. And, of course, our human lives are a long defeat. Healthy lifestyle or not, death takes us all.
It is only once we come to terms with fighting the long defeat that the other side of the paradox can begin to grip us. Final victory — Christ’s, not ours — is assured and he will share that victory with the faithful warriors of the long defeat.
Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor A.W. Tozer expressed the paradox in That Incredible Christian. “The cross-carrying Christian, furthermore, is both a confirmed pessimist and an optimist the like of which is to be found nowhere else on earth,” he wrote.
When he looks at the cross he is a pessimist, for he knows that the same judgment that fell on the Lord of glory condemns in that one act all nature and all the world of men. He rejects every human hope out of Christ because he knows that man’s noblest effort is only dust building on dust. Yet he is calmly, restfully optimistic. If the cross condemns the world, the resurrection of Christ guarantees the ultimate triumph of good throughout the universe. Through Christ all will be well at last and the Christian waits the consummation.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of the season many Christians call Advent, the season of waiting for the Lord. During Advent, we remember both Christ’s coming in humility as the babe of Bethlehem and His coming again as the triumphant King of Glory. And as we wait, we cheerfully fight the long defeat, seeing each sample or glimpse of the final victory as confirmation of the final victory He has already won and will share with us.