Monday, June 19, 2017

There are no final victories

W.H. Auden at the conclusion of his essay, "The Quest Hero" (1962):
"And so they lived happily ever after" is a conventional formula for concluding a fairy tale. Alas, it is false and we know it, for it suggests that, once Good has triumphed over Evil, man is translated out of his historical existence into eternity. Tolkien is much too honest to end with such a pious fiction. Good has triumphed over Evil so far as the Third Age of Middle-earth is concerned, but there is no certainty that this triumph is final. There was Morgoth before Sauron and, before the Fourth Age ends, who can be sure that no successor to Sauron will appear? Victory does not mean the restoration of the Earthly Paradise or the advent of the New Jerusalem. In our historical existence even the best solution involves loss as well as gain. With the destruction of the Ruling Ring, the three Elven Rings lose their power, as Galadriel foresaw.
'Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footsteps of Doom? For if you fail, we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.'
Even Frodo, the Quest Hero, has to pay for his success.
'But,' said Sam, and tears started from his eyes, 'I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire...for years and years, after all you have done.'

'So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.'
If there is any Quest Tale which, while primarily concerned with the subjective life of the individual person as all such stories must be, manages to do more justice to our experience of social-historical realities than The Lord of the Rings, I should be glad to hear of it.
W.H. Auden, "The Quest Hero" was reprinted in Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, Tolkien and the Critics, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, where I first found it.