Tolkien and the Long Defeat

“He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

The night is silent and the forest dark; the kind of darkness only found away from the world of street lamps and meals that stretch into the late hours. The trees have been stripped bare, and the space between them is starkly empty; emptiness made more devastating by the hint of past glory.

jrr-tolkien-colourInto this scene steps a regal figure, one of authority and accustomed to praise. With only a glance, we can see her connection to this place. For she too seems only a remnant of past majesty and life. We wait to see if she will be joined by another, for certainly royalty and elegance of this kind should be attended to, even in such a diminished state.

Yet it soon becomes clear: her spiritual isolation is mirrored by her physical reality.

This is one of the final stories from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. After all the wars and dragons and feats of heroism, it comes to this: an elven queen, Arwen, widowed by her kingly husband, heading into the fading heart of the elven country to die alone. This place, once so full of life and sustained by the Lady of Light, Galadriel (played in the films by the matchless Cate Blanchett), has become a glorious ruin. For Galadriel, like the rest of her kin, has left the world to the rule of man; the elves, in all their splendor, have reached their end.

Years ago, when this forest was filled with vitality and effervescence, Galadriel had uttered these words, found with little pomp in J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), yet running like lightning throughout the pages of his seminal work:

“. . . together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.


It has been said that J. R. R. Tolkien did not create Middle-earth but discovered it. Certainly for those of us to whom Tolkien has extended an invitation, who have feasted in the Shire and climbed the Misty Mountains and slept under the golden leaves of Lothlorien, our memories have the echo of truth. And in every folded corner and smeared ink spot, we find the long defeat being fought: elven maids fall in love with humans at the cost of their immortality, hobbits spare their tormentors out of a simple sense of mercy, and men march into war as a sacrificial decoy. Time and time again, our heroes come face-to-face with what Tolkien calls “hope without guarantees.”

Even if we believe that the lights go out when our heart stops, it is hard not to be attracted to this strange morality that leaves Boromir fighting off hordes of orcs in order to protect two lowly hobbits (without success, as it turns out) or King Theoden leading a seemingly hopeless charge into final glorious battle. Tolkien has made his stand against the utilitarian spirit of the age, not through self-righteous diatribes, but through story after grand story of characters living in testimony to inherent goodness. Characters consistently make potentially catastrophic decisions simply because they believe it is the right thing to do. Tolkien, for example, describes the mercy that the hobbits show to Gollum, their conflicted tormentor, as “a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.”

A piece of folly, maybe. But certainly one that defines the goodness of the hobbits and dictates the climax of Frodo’s journey to destroy the One Ring.


The phrase itself, “we have fought the long defeat,” can seem fatalistic or pessimistic, more akin to a Libertarian bumper sticker than a life-guiding principle. Certainly Tolkien, who was orphaned as a child and lost many of his good friends in World War I, had some pessimistic tendencies and meant this phrase on the largest possible scale. The farther one heads down the Middle-earth timeline, the less happy it becomes. Middle-earth is a world in decline.

Whether or not we think our world is in decline is up to each one of us. But in application, we see this life principle guarded against pessimism by love and hope. Fighting the long defeat is not meant to protect our hearts from suffering or lead to resignation. I am reminded of a wise counselor’s words to me when I complained that, after all this counseling, I seemed to cry more frequently than before: “What made you think counseling would cause you to cry less?” Fighting the long defeat is meant to push us towards full, unapologetic engagement before a Judge standing outside of time.

If anything, we find that most of the characters in LOTR cast their whole hearts into their endeavors. What they love is on the line: their friends and family, their gardens, a mug of ale in the company of friends. They hope and long for these things to be protected and offer themselves as sacrifices to make it so.

In other words, if fighting the long defeat does not lead us to risk our reputations to love the outcasts, to stay with the chronically ill in love, to support ministry to those with Alzheimer’s disease, or to prepare week in and week out for a one-person Bible study, we have misunderstood it. This is what we have to offer to the world, is it not? A love unrestrained by success or timetables or ambitions?


Our lonely elven queen, Arwen, does die in that forest, alone. As an elven maiden, she had the right to an immortal existence. But her mortality was the sacrifice she laid down for a life of love with the man in whom she delighted. She lived a beautiful life, raised a family, and reigned as queen for many years.

Arwen faces the long defeat that we all, as fallen humans, will inevitably face: our death. But there is one final truth that balances our application of this idea, and it comes from Tolkien himself. “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” he writes in one of his letters, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Despite the years of faithful work, J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien have their names on two tombstones, side by side. But one can’t help but wonder that the moments they shared together in life, their wedding day and their first child, their mercy to others, or maybe simply the daily comfort of tea, were glimpses of that final victory. That when Jesus comes to usher in the next age and New Jerusalem descends to earth, we will find them both there, together, faithful to the last, experiencing the fruit of the one hope that was always guaranteed: God’s reign on earth.

We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father’s delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success.”

We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.

  • Eowyn Stoddard

    Thank you for this beautiful post. How can I NOT like it with a name like Eowyn? Both Tolkien and Lewis help me understand, through story, what a longing for heaven means, that the battle against evil is far greater than one person’s, even one generation’s. It is a cosmic battle! But we are part of the grand Story and are, ultimately, on the winning side.

  • ForeBarcaLBJEEP

    Maranatha and amen.

  • Ciarán Kelleher

    I think I’ll have to read this a couple of times but just on my initial reactions, this is the best article I have read on this site and that is a real comment. It’s like the precious pearl in the royal collection of jewels.

    Thank you so much Andrew.

    • Ciarán Kelleher

      Sorry meant to read *real compliment

    • Andrew Barber

      Very flattered – thanks so much!

  • Steve West

    A beautiful meditation on what matetrs in life. Thank you.

  • Adam

    Hey Andrew,

    Nice article. By the way, what book is that first quote from?

    • Andrew Barber

      Hey Adam! You can find it in The Fellowship of the Ring; I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think it is in the chapter “The Mirror of Galadriel”

      • Adam

        Hey thanks. Yet again. Good article illustrating Christian truth and bringing out a good line or two from Tolkien.

  • Nick

    Thank you Andrew! This was the most fun I have had reading all week. I will be picking these books up again soon.

  • Garry Lay

    Indeed, we are most certainly NOT the authorities over “success”. Our responsibility is the fight, not the outcome. See Micah 6:8, 2 Samuel 10:12, I Chronicles 19:13 and Esther 4:16.

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  • Hannah

    Well written, Andrew!

  • Jared

    Um… [almost] all I can say is “wow.” For the most part I despise blogs, but I love this post. LOTR is my favorite trilogy, period.

    Thank you for this.

  • Respectabiggle

    Beautifully done.

  • Todd F.

    Love Tolkien, but Eru Illuvatar ain’t God and Manwe sure as heck ain’t Jesus.

    • pizza

      Oops. This is what I meant to reply to.

      Who said that they (Illuvatar, Manwe, God and Jesus) were the same?

  • Simul Iustus et Peccator

    Well done. Keep writing.

    You captured the heart of Tolkien’s melancholy and realism, more post-exilic prophet than Norse mythology.

    In each difficult stage of the quest the commitment to duty that opposes the latest form of evil is bracketed in LOTR with joyful, sabbath-like rest in simple pleasures. These foretastes reflect the created order and anticipate the great feast of the coming King.

    • Andrew Barber

      Couldn’t have said it better. “[More] post-exilic prophet than Norse mythology” – fantastic point.

  • Nathan

    I think I have to agree with the previous comment that this may be the best article I have read on TGC. Thank you!

  • Another Andrew Barber

    Beautiful stuff, man. Makes me want to pick up Tolkein (yet) again.

    Also, we apparently share a first and last name. Now that you’re writing for TGC, I wonder how long it takes until the first time somebody compliments me for your work…

  • Caleb

    I have read a lot of articles on gospel coalition, and only endeavored to comment on one other one, I must say that this article was amazing. You captured Tolkien’s writing so incredibly well, thank you for this truly delightful read.

  • Kevin Richter

    I concur with many other comments Andrew, I think this is a fantastic article. Although, I do have a question I have wondered about for a while. Do you believe Tolkien was saved even though he was a devout Roman Catholic?

  • Marty Schoenleber, Jr

    Thank you for a post with depth. It strikes me that Tolkien’s work is in someways a long lament that never loses sight of ultimate victory. Pain and hope exist in the same space but the former never vanquishes the latter. Looking forward to my next rereading the LOTR. Thanks.

  • Charles B.

    In agreement with the other commentators, your post, Andrew, was enlightening, refreshing, and made my heart leap with anticipation of the final victory. “We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father’s delight.”

    I work with the church around the world, and find many who sacrifice much for little immediate gain – their eyes are on eternity. Your posting reminded me of this verse from Hebrews 11:13. “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

    I shared your post with a FB page I keep, as well as on my personal page – a two-fer, if you will. Thank you for the excellent writing.

  • Roger

    Yea wow great work. I wish TGC would post more articles like this!

  • Brian Smith

    Aragorn’s version of fighting the long defeat was at the Black Gate when he said, “There will come a day when the hearts of men will fail, BUT IT WILL NOT BE THIS DAY!”

  • Kelly Beutler

    This article is ART!!

  • Dave

    I find it rather disturbing that the **Gospel** Coalition publish an article in which Tolkien is quoted as asserting, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” and the author of the article goes on to assume that the redeemed will meet Tolkien in the new heavens and new earth.

    If he was saved, then it could only be because he was a bad Catholic, in other words one who did not actually believe what Rome teaches, because Rome denies the gospel.

    More proofs of this could be offered than space here allows, but to offer just one: para 2027 of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts this: “…we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life…”

    Does that sound consistent with the Gospel to you???

    I’ve read LOTR many times and enjoy Tolkien’s work, but when people say, “He was a Christian, a Roman Catholic,” then we have a duty to explain to them that Roman Catholicism is NOT Christian.

    This article, on the Gospel Coalition’s website, misleads and deceives people as to the content of the gospel and should never have been published in its present form.

    Anyone who assumes that Roman Catholics are Christians either doesn’t understand what Rome teaches, or doesn’t understand the Gospel, or both.

    So which is it?

    • Mark Vig

      This comment is disappointing to me on a number of levels.

    • Kathleen

      I feel bad that such bigotry and ignorance still exist in this world. I am a Roman Catholic and a Christian. God considers me so. It is a consolation to know this.

      • Marty Schoenleber Jr.

        Not all Catholics consider protestants brothers and sisters as i have painfully experienced in my own family. The reality is that some protestants are Christians and some aren’t. Some Catholics are Christian and some aren’t. And for some protestants an some Catholics they are or are not Christians independent of what their particular church hierarchy espouses as truth.

    • SG

      I find it so interesting that without fail EVERY single time TGC posts something that could possibly suggest that a Catholic could be a brother/sister in Christ someone has to post something like this… cherry picking the catechism and preaching about how Catholics couldn’t possibly be “saved”. It is very disappointing. Catholics consider Protestants as brothers and sisters … why can’t we do the same?

    • Joel

      Thanks Dave, for cutting through the sentimentality. The issue of Roman Catholicism is an old one, and a lot of blood has been shed and spilled as a result.

      You’ve raised a serious issue, and it should be treated as such. For my part, scriptural doctrine must be protected and promoted at all times. After all, if we don’t have doctrine, we don’t have much of anything. Individual Roman Catholics may indeed be Christians, but that is not the issue. The issue is, “What does the Roman Church actually teach”.

      A fair question, that deserves an accurate answer.

      • Philippa

        “Thanks Dave, for cutting through the sentimentality. The issue of Roman Catholicism is an old one, and a lot of blood has been shed and spilled as a result.”

        And not just by Catholics, it needs to be said …

        “A fair question, that deserves an accurate answer.”

        And a question which is also off-topic for this thread. Tolkien’s beliefs are not under fire here. It is the profundity and beauty of his work that is being discussed.

        There is nothing sentimental about Tolkien. (OK, a bit of sentimentality on his part towards his beloved hobbits!) But his literary vision is grave, splendid and deeply profound. It was through the Catholic Tolkien that I realised the biblical truth that Satan is not a creator, that he is not an equal and opposing force to God. Both Morgoth – the main villain in The Silmarillion – and his lesser lieutenant Sauron – the main villain of LotR – are mighty fallen angels who have become demonic. But neither have the power to create: they can only twist and corrupt the original good creation.

        It was J.R.R. Tolkien who was instrumental in C.S. Lewis turning from atheism to Christianity, back in the early 1930s when they were both Oxford dons. (And Lewis whom we have to thank for urging Tolkien to hurry up already and finish LotR!)

        No other writer – outside the Bible – has influenced my thinking on heaven as much as CS Lewis has. I adore Narnia and much else that Lewis wrote. But Tolkien’s imaginative fiction is my favourite ever.

        My thanks to Andrew Barber for a thoughtful and beautiful article.

        • Joel Saint

          ‘”Thanks Dave, for cutting through the sentimentality. The issue of Roman Catholicism is an old one, and a lot of blood has been shed and spilled as a result.”

          And not just by Catholics, it needs to be said …’

          Well, now, let’s see. During the reign of the English King Edward the VI, there are no records of any Roman catholics being deprived of life due to their Roman Catholic beliefs.

          However, right after Edward comes the Roman Catholic Queen Mary. She managed to oversee the execution of over 300 protestants.

          Final score-Mary: 300+; Edward: 0

          And yes, salvation through the merits of Christ alone, well, that’s always a relevant topic.

    • Frank

      Dave, let’s post the whole paragraph instead of the biased cherry picking you’ve included.

      “No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.” CCC 2027

      This paragraph directly contradicts your conclusion, but it is also from the summary of a larger section on merit, forgiveness and justification. Here are some more paragraphs which are completely in line with the Gospel.

      CCC 2007
      “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.”

      CCC 2010
      “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.”

      I hope this helps you understand Roman Catholics and what it is we believe a little better. God bless you!

      In Christ,

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  • Jeff Bourque

    Teared up at the end. Thank you for a great piece, Andrew.

    On the side, I found it a little humorous that you did not mention the actors for the other characters you mentioned in the article. Perhaps not quite as matchless?

    • Andrew Barber

      Haha my wife pointed that out as well – yeah she’s definitely one of the best actresses in the business right now.

  • Michael Carlson

    Thank you for a Heartfelt, touching, well written story. God Bless you.

  • Kathleen

    Thank you for a beautiful article.

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  • Soren Kornegay

    Just wanted to post again how proud I am of you brother. I share this article with my students all the time. You are a credit to your family, RUF, your seminary, and your King.

  • Christie

    This is without a doubt one of the best articles I have read in a long long time. All at once it was a comfort, encouragement, and yet joined in the lament all believers have in the brokenness of ourselves and the world we live in.

    We stand for truth, not because we will win, but because it is truth. We love others not because we will be loved back, but because it is what our Father asks us to do.

  • Tom King

    One of the finest essays on Tolkien I’ve ever read. Brilliantly done. I look forward to what you will write when you get out of seminary and join the rest of us in fighting the long defeat.

    Tom King
    Standing in the breach
    Puyallup, Washington

  • Tom King

    And the pitched battles between Christian sects here in the comments section misses the whole point. I take that back. It illustrates the point and further illustrates why Tolkien considered it a long defeat. He illustrated it in the Ring trilogy showing the infighting among those allied against Mordor. It’s only when the factions put away their petty grievances against one another and turned to fighting the real enemy that the forces of good made any headway. Remember folks, at the end Christ’s coming is not an invasion and conquest. It’s a rescue mission. The Earth is lost and destroyed by evil. It is a new Earth that we inherit; built upon the ashes of the old one scoured clean.

    • Marty Schoenleber Jr.

      Amen Tom.

  • Melilot

    Great article and many great comments. I feel I have nothing to add, but, being a Tolkien purist, I can’t help but comment that Ronald and Edith share a tombstone. They’re not side-by-side. Totally not the point, but, you know. ;)

    • Andrew Barber

      You are absolutely right Melilot; let’s just pretend its metaphorical language :)

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  • Patti Barber

    I have the incredible honor of being the mother of this talented writer. This article did bring me to tears as the words filled me with hope. Hope that can only come from God’s grace, having a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior, and knowing that in our future eternal life is waiting for us.

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  • Pam Mark Hall

    You are gifted in your ability to distill and present the essence of Tolkien’s intent.
    Thank you,
    Pam Mark Hall