“[T]he old wisdom and beauty brought out of the West remained long in the realm of the sons of Elendil the Fair, and they linger there still. Yet even so it was Gondor that brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed.”
Faramir recounts the history of the fall of Gondor to Frodo and Sam in Book IV, Chapter 5. Faramir’s words remind us of the constant sense throughout the novel that the world of Middle-earth is changing. Nearly all the characters the hobbits encounter on their wanderings remark that they cannot afford to be as hospitable to strangers as they used to be—they are living in “dark times,” as Éomer puts it. The world is a more confusing place than it was before, and visitors are not always who they seem. The old ways and traditions do not apply as they used to, for a new world order is emerging. This change is not always for the better, as the history of Gondor illustrates. The ancient Lords of Gondor were once proud and free, but the entire realm now lives in fear of Sauron. Gondor was once a blossoming land of orchards and gardens, but is now barren and deteriorating. The reality of decay is symbolized in the headless and graffiti-covered statue of an early king of Gondor that Frodo and Sam come upon in their travels.
The causes for these changes in the world of Middle-earth are not concerns of economics or politics, which we never hear about in the course of the novel. We do not see or hear of merchants’ disputes or groups clamoring for recognition by states or governments. Indeed, economics and politics are almost entirely absent from Tolkien’s worldview. The main motivating force behind world history in The Lord of the Rings is morality and the strength that supports it. The “wisdom and beauty” of which Faramir speaks here are really shorthand terms for moral good and strength of character. The fall of Gondor was caused by rulers who took the morality of their kingdom for granted, forgetting that it needed to be defended against evil, as the Fellowship is now trying to do. The clash between good and evil keeps history moving, and keeps the world in constant flux as the balance between the two opposing forces changes over time.