Speaking of Catholicism and Tolkien, I had one of those "AHA!" moments after chancing upon this post titled "Tolkien and the Long Defeat." I read Lord of the Rings several times over the years, but I never really considered the weight behind the following words by Galadriel in Fellowship of the Ring:
“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves in Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”The author of this post quoting this passage of Lord of the Rings was pretty spot on with some of the observations made regarding the portion of the passage that I have in bold....but I had a few other thoughts regarding the long defeat means with regards to Galadriel and how it could relate to a schmuck like me (and fine gentlefolk such as you). My apologies to OCD Tolkien fans for paraphrasing the very rich history of Galadriel, the creation of Middle Earth, Iluvatar, the Valar, etc. I am no Tolkien expert and hope I don't come across as pretending to be one...but I do LOVE Tolkien's works as well as his approach to Catholicism. I also feel that this passage may be a great one to apply to a few very important lessons we are to learn when it comes to accepting death and moving on to eternal life.
|Galadriel from the Hildebrandt brothers calendar (1978)|
because I just can't stand Jackson's LOTR version anymore
Galadriel was a pretty central figure in the events of Middle Earth preceding the Lord of the Rings. She's one of the most powerful and influential female characters in fantasy literature and she is definitely not someone who you would imagine ever being defeated. Yet, defeat is there and it is the same defeat we experience during our time here on earth. Somehow the profound nature of Galadriel's words eluded me when I last read the Fellowship and when I listened to the books on tape version. The theological significance also eluded me. Yet, as I read the aforementioned post, it hit me. Perhaps it was because this post came after reading Bradley Birzer's J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth and listening to Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.
It seems a bit strange to hear Galadriel talking about fighting a long defeat. She is one of the most powerful women in all of Middle Earth's history, has a realm of her own, owns a ring of power, and has rubbed elbows with elf, man, and wizard alike for millennia. Her kingdom is, for the most part, perfection. Her people have excelled in all manner of things...art, music, war, you name it. She does not age. She has a pretty awesome husband and she comes from a family that is full of warriors and rulers of great reknown. She has great power of her own. Her very own grand-daughter, Arwen, is compared to one of the greatest ancestors of the elven folk, Luthien Tinuviel. Her people are prosperous. She lives in a relatively comfortable setting. Sure the threat of war is never completely missing in a world where evil is real and always seeking complete dominion, but Galadriel pretty much has it made.
In spite of all of this, there is one very important fact that seems to cloud Galadriel's otherwise awesome life.... She does not belong in Middle Earth.
Galadriel is, in a sense, living in exile and is only able to make it back to the undying lands after she passes a test. What is the test? Accepting her defeat and accepting that she is not meant to be the power she would have been had she accepted the Ring. The One Ring could have given her the power necessary to continue her existence in Middle Earth even though she did not belong there and with it, she could have wielded the power to subjugate those that were meant to rule Middle Earth...the race of Men. Yet, this would not be the existence she was meant for. She is not a ruler of Middle Earth. She is not even a citizen of Middle Earth. She is a high elf that was made for and belongs in the Undying Lands...the lands where the Valar dwell. The Valar are the subcreators of the universe who were created by Iluvatar (the God of Tolkien's universe). Unlike Middle Earth, which is to be governed by men and where elves have enjoyed a long stay, elves are not the "wisest and fairest of all beings" in the Undying Lands. That position is given to the Valar.
Galadriel's choice is one that requires a lot of humility. It requires her to go from being queen in a land where she does not belong to being simply a member of the world she was made for. To all those who have read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, the following may make sense right away. To everyone else, my apologies, but you do not belong in this world. You belong in heaven and that, perhaps, is why you sometimes feel a restlessness that will not disappear no matter what you achieve, what you earn, and what goals you've accomplished. I've gotten degrees, I've gotten married, I've paid off my student debts, and I've seen so much of the world already...and still I yearn for something else. Something you cannot always pinpoint. Something that seems to be out of reach and beyond this world.
In the Great Divorce (a C.S.Lewis favorite), one of the souls who makes it to the foothills of heaven, decides to go back to purgatory/hell because they cannot become a part of a world where their talent will not stand apart from the talent of the rest. Everyone in heaven has talent, much to the bother of this soul who wants to continue standing out for their talent. What this soul does not understand is that everyone in heaven becomes a part of something that is so much greater than themselves. In turn, they become greater than they could ever imagine to be on their own. I think this is something Galadriel may understand, which makes her refusal of the Ring a very significant victory in the long defeat.
I give a lot of credit to Galadriel when she finally gave up her power and all her accomplishments in Middle Earth by rejecting the One Ring. She could have grasped at the Ring for a chance to wield the power necessary to continue her rule in Middle Earth. Another thing to note here is the absolute humility Galadriel shows in not only foregoing this chance at great power...but in accepting the forgiveness of the Valar. Can you imagine how much humility she must have had to be willing to set foot on the lands she had once forsaken? She must have remembered the reason for her exile as she was offered the Ring.* She must have remembered her mistakes and those that she had wronged. Can you imagine the humility she must have possessed at that point to seek forgiveness and accept the faults of her past...having spent so many years being venerated as a queen to such a great race? Like Galadriel, we too will one day need the humility to accept salvation on God's terms, regardless of who we are and what we become during our time on earth.
Before we can ever make it to heaven, we will have to admit that all we did have was given to us by the grace of God...so our talents and our skills will need to be left behind along with any pride we had in our accomplishments. We will have to accept heaven as God created it and accept those that God has forgiven. This path to salvation will require a love that is far more unconditional than we are accustomed to expressing. This love is only attained through humility, the kind of humility that forces us to confront our imperfections and rely on the mercy and forgiveness of someone who is much greater than we are. Until then, we continue our attempt to fight this long defeat with the hopes that we will win the victories that are important...the victories that will lead to our salvation.
*To make a long story short, Galadriel took part in the rebellion of the elves against the Valar (at least in the Silmarillion version of her story) and had remained in Middle Earth as an exile.