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Galadriel and the Long Defeat} ?>
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
Those are Galadriel’s words at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. I recently re-watched it and, as with every re-watching, something new struck me. First, how awesome it is that the first voice in a movie dominated by men is a woman’s. And, second, that it is actually incredibly fitting for Galadriel to be the narrator, to fill the audience in on all the events that have contributed to the Ring’s birth and rule.
A Brief Portrait
Not much of Galadriel’s story is told in The Lord of the Rings. For that, readers have to dig into The Silmarillion, several volumes of The History of Middle-earth, and a few of Tolkien’s letters (there’s also a good summary of her life here. Some of the main details:
- Galadriel was born in Valinor (Tolkien’s word was “awoke”). Her father was Finarfin, youngest of the three sons of High King Finwë.
- She defended her mother’s people of Alqualondë against Fëanor and his sons during the First Kinslaying.
- She made the incredibly difficult journey over the Helcaraxë (the Grinding Ice) into Middle-earth.
- She settled in Doriath, where she met Celeborn and learned the mystical arts from Queen Melian.
- She survived the fall of every Elven kingdom in the First Age.
- During the Second Age, she and Celeborn lived in in Lindon, then Eregion (where the Rings were forged) and then Lindórinand, which became Lothlórien. She is the keeper of one of the Three Rings, Nenya.
There are two reasons why I mention these details. One, it is important to know just how old Galadriel is; she is one of the oldest beings in Middle-earth by the time of The Lord of the Rings, at least 8,000 years old (there’s no way of knowing how old she was when she first came to Middle-earth). Two, her life was marked by hardship and war.
These reasons are important because Tolkien uses Galadriel to introduce a crucial theme in The Lord of the Rings: the long defeat.
The Consequence of Immortality
When the Fellowship comes to Lothlórien, Galadriel says to Frodo:
“For the Lord of the Galadrim [Celeborn] is accounted the wisest of the Elves of 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.”
Most simply put, the long defeat is the idea that evil will always come back, no matter how many times it has been defeated. In Middle-earth terms, the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, fell at the end of the First Age, and then a couple thousand years later his lieutenant, Sauron, rose to power. Sauron was defeated for a time, only to reappear because his life was tied to the Ring.
One evil falls and another rises.
The consequence of Galadriel’s immortality is that she has a long view of history. Humans and Hobbits are mortal and, therefore, can only focus on the events affecting them now. Elves, on the other hand, experience every joy and sorrow of the earth first-hand.
Think about the history of our world. H.G Wells called the First World War “the war to end war,” and yet we had a Second World War, and many others after it. Some of us are fighting in one right now.
And, on top of wars far away, we have examples of evil closer to home: mass shootings, rape, cultural genocide, the ideologies of racism and misogyny. The Lord of the Rings is about one war for the fate of the world, and deals with a very simple good vs. evil binary, but these are things we face every day. Some go off to defend their countries in physical wars, but the evils of oppression and injustice are still very much alive as well.
When All Other Lights Go Out
If evil is a continual cycle, how does one keep fighting? Why does Galadriel press on for good? How is she able to resist the power of the Ring when Frodo offers it to her? I think Sam sums it up well during he and Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom.
“Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened?” he says. “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass… Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”
“What are we holding on to, Sam?” asks Frodo.
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
I think Galadriel drew hope from the knowledge that wars would end, at some point, and that, if she and others had beaten back evil once, they could do it again. Hope without guarantees, yes, but hope nonetheless.
Some might also say, a fool’s hope. But, as a Christian, I have hope that a final victory will come someday. I may not believe in a final battle, but I do believe that one day Christ will return to make all things new. I have no guarantees for social change in my lifetime, no guarantees that battles will end or justice will be served, but I hope for it, and I, like Galadriel, will continue fighting for it.