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A Call to Engagement: Louise Imogen Guiney’s “The Kings,” and JRR. Tolkein and the Long Defeat
Take a position that is out of fashion today on one of any number of issues and one is quite certain not to be refuted, but to be ignored, ridiculed, and perhaps sternly warned that one is on the “wrong side of history.” President Barack Obama was fond of the expression, while he has hardly been alone since. The implication, of course, is that one’s views are not so much wrong or logically mistaken, as they are old, outdated, or unfashionable. The bus of progress is coming and one had better get aboard, lest one be ground underfoot.
So stated, of course, the idea of being on the “wrong side of history” is entirely absurd. Are we to guess what will happen in the future and then make it happen more quickly? And how far in the future? Are we to believe that history is some inevitable march that moves on with or without our actions and choices? Not only, however, is the claim absurd, but cowardly, a cheap bit of bandwagoning. As G.K. Chesterton once held, “There is no such thing as fighting on the winning side; one fights to find out which is the winning side.”
While this is the common error of the current progressive, who in his desperate flight from the past, looks to a future he hopes to remake in his own image, there is an error for the conservative in the other direction. The progressive urges men to fight on the winning side, but there is a certain class of conservative, who urges men not to fight at all. This call to disengagement seems to be growing on the right out of disillusionment with the ills of the world. On Twitter, Fr. Brendon LaRoche recently noted a growing tendency to justify this disengagement by appealing to JRR Tolkein’s concept of the “long defeat.”
In the Lord of the Rings, Galadrial tells Frodo that with her husband Celebron, age though age, they have “fought the long defeat.” Elsewhere Tolkein held that: 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.” Tolkein, of course, was right; the prince of this world is the devil. To be a Christian is to be in rebellion against the powers of the world.
Fr. LaRoche noted a concern:many Christians were misinterpreting Tolkein and using his concept of the long defeat to justify disengagement or retreat. This is wrong. “[The long defeat]”, he said, “is not an attitude of defeatism, but one of encouragement, of demanding from one’s comrades an increase in devotion, in fidelity, in effort… The long defeat is not a call to retreat. It is a call to fight all the harder because the odds are longer.”
The right attitude is found in a magnificent poem by the Catholic writer, Louise Imogen Guiney, “The Kings.” A man fears he is fighting a losing battle and turns to his guardian angel, asking for a means of escape: “I cannot carry this battle / O brother, where might I go?” In response, his angel tells him sternly, to get “back to the ranks,” and that it little matters whether he “win or lose the whole.”
“Thy will,” his angel tells him, “is the sovereign measure / And only event of things: / The puniest heart, defying, / Were stronger than all these Kings.” So what that the man be surrounded by terrible foes he cannot defeat? He is not to disengage or break ranks, but remain at his post til the end. The poem ends in a stirring manner:
"While Kings of eternal evil
Yet darken the hills about,
Thy part is with broken sabre
To rise on the last redoubt;
"To fear not sensible failure,
Nor covet the game at all,
But fighting, fighting, fighting,
Die, driven against the wall."
Facing defeat is not an excuse to withdraw or leave the field, but a call to fight harder still and, if necessary, die, “driven against the wall.” The call to withdraw because we are on the losing side is just as wrong as the progressive call to fight only on the winning side. Our engagement may take different forms, driven by our particular duties, station in life, prudence, and situations in which we are placed. But engagement is mandatory nonetheless, even as we are called, with broken sabre, “to rise in the last redoubt.”
And when we do, we find one more thing, of the greatest importance of all. We only appear, in this fallen world, to be on the losing side, but we are not, so long as we remain on God’s side. God Himself once seemed on the losing side, when He hung on the cross of Calvary. But if evil seemed, briefly, victorious, The Resurrection quickly made His victory clear. So too with us today. We cannot forget that God has already won the victory and He gives us the privilege of joining Him in that battle, to fight in the ranks, to pass through our own Calvaries, and someday to rise again with Him, for, If we have died with Him, we also shall live with Him, (2 Tim 2:11). Happy fighting.