I've been re-watching Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. One of the aspects of the story that Jackson underlines so clearly is it's setting during the decline of Middle Earth. The films are littered with telling images - the elves in procession to the Grey Havens, the ruins of Moriah, the Fellowship looking in awe in the giant statues of the sons of Elendil.
The first movie begins with the tale of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, where Isildur cuts the ring finger from Sauron's hand and appropriates the ring for himself. Elves and men together face their foe in open battle and win. In the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, such a battle is impossible. Men and elves are too weak for anything but a skirmish. Nor is Sauron what he used to be. Perhaps literally disembodied, he sits in Barad Dur directing his fractious minions from afar, unaware of the hobbits carrying the ring right through his own country. Our heroes may be victorious, the power of Sauron overthrown, but this only hastens the end of the great days - Gandalf no longer works his magic, the last of the elves depart, even the men of Numenor continue their decline after their last flowering in the person of Aragorn. This pervasive sadness is part of the emotional power of the story. There can be no easy victory, no magical restoration of what evil has destroyed. The story has no "get out of jail free" card.
In creating Middle Earth Tolkein was inspired by mythology from around the world, so it can hardly be a surpise that this theme arises repeatedly in mythology. The Greeks had their heroic age, when gods and humans lived together and intermarried. The Britons had their own heroic age, appropriated by the Anglo-Saxons, in which Arthur and his company of knights kept order and spread the values of chivalry. Australian Aboriginal myths (of which Tolkein probably knew nothing) feature powerful ancestor figures who shape the earth and create different species of animal, bird and fish. This theme is echoed in much 20th century fantasy - in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books, in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain, and in a host of lesser imitators.
Even the Book of Genesis has its powerful ancestor figures. Humans start out in paradise, living in innocence, and then falling, but their power doesn't disappear all at once after the fall, it wanes slowly. The first list of ancestors, found in Chapter 5, includes men who lived for over 900 years. The second list, the ancestors of Abram found in Chapter 11, starts with a man who lived for 500 years and finshes with Abram's father Terah living to the age of 205. The patriarchs themselves are attributed slightly shorter lives - Abraham lived to be over 170, while Isaac lived to 180. When Jacob appeared before Pharoah he was asked how old he was, and replied, "The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult..."!
In our scientific age, what is striking is the contrast between these tales, and what we know about the lifespans of our ancestors from the archeological record. Analysis of remains shows us that our ancestors had much shorter lifespans than we do. They had less protection from disease and famine. As a result, infant mortality and death in childbirth were frequent, plagues killed large numbers, and even healthy adults could easily be struck down in their prime. They lived hard lives of manual labour and illness and as a result were probably weaker than we are.
How do we square these two visions of the past? Were the writers of myths simply wrong, deluded by their ignorance? This is how the modernists of the 19th century would have seen it. Unfortunately we don't have the luxury of such a black and white world view. The creators and tellers of the myths were not trying to create scientific history, they were trying to say something about the way they lived. No doubt plenty of people know more about it than me but I like to look at it this way.
We live in a world of sorrow and failure. We are surrounded by death, suffering and evil. Our deaths are not glorious, they are sordid and painful. Our lives are not glorious either, they are hum-drum, steeped in suffering and frustration. Yet we have a sense that this is not how it should be, that life holds the possibility of greater things.
We can project this desire onto the future - we hope for heaven, for Christ's return, for the millennium. But we can also project it onto the past. Our ancestors were great, lived long lives, did heroic deeds and died glorious deaths - or like the elves or Enoch, lived forever. The current state of the world is a corruption of what it should be, brought about by evil, by our own failings or the failings of our forebears.
Implicit in this world view is the possibility that it could be like that again. Perhaps, like Tolkein, we do not believe that is possible for us. Evil has done its work too well. But perhaps, just perhaps, there can be a late flowering, an Aragorn can arise, a hobbit can join the ranks of the great. And perhaps there is a future age, or another place, where all these glories can live again. In the meantime, the stories, the magic, the power, leave behind a residue which we can still use - a set of possibilities for us to aspire to in this life, a guiding light to help us rise above our squalid present.