Eucatastrophe

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From J. R. R. Tolkein’s essay, “On Fairy Stories,” on the sensation of “eucatastrophe” – a neologism from Greek ευ- “good” and καταστροφή “destruction”:

But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

From J. R. R. Tolkein’s letter (#89) to his son, Christopher Tolkien:

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. 

From Christopher Garbowski’s entry on “eucatastrophe” in  J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment:

Eucatastrophe is a concept that Tolkien introduced in his Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews, titled “On Fairy-stories,” describing the effect that he felt the “fairy story,” or fantasy, ideally has on the reader. According to Tolkien, fairy stories have the capacity to lead to the “imaginative satisfaction” of profound human desires, among others the “escape from death,” but he concludes that of much greater importance “is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.” He defines eucatastrophe as “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn'” and coined the term to mean the opposite of tragedy, “the true form of Drama.” The dénouement of tragedy is known as the catastrophe; consequently Tolkien adds a prefix to create a noun that literally means “a happy or fortunate ending.”

The concept has a good deal in common with comedy as it was understood in the Middle Ages, where, as Francesca Murphy puts it: “The hero ascends towards a community of love. He uses prudence and discernment to reach it. He suffers as much as the tragic hero; he struggles against evil forces. But the swing of the comic plot hauls him up.” Suffering on the part of the hero, the possible experience of both “sorrow and failure,” is accepted by Tolkien and termed “dyscatastrophe,” but eucatastrophe likewise involves achieving what the author calls “recovery” and “restoration”: a sense of defamiliarization of the known world to better appreciate its qualities.

Since the concept is affective, there is no formula for achieving eucatastrophe: of primary significance is attaining the desired emotional effect in the reader. Tolkien claims that in the best fantasy the improbable nature of the story events or plot turns is of secondary importance as long as “the ‘turn’ comes.” The concept is thus fairly open-ended as far as narrative form is concerned. Moreover, since it relies on a relationship with the reader, this likewise hearkens back to the medieval esthetics, where beauty was understood as that which gives a purer form of delight.

In the lecture of 1939, Tolkien hints at a religious dimension of eucatastrophe through the employment of the telling expression evangelium in association with joy. He clarified the idea in the “epilogue” of the printed version of his essay in 1947, wherein he claims that in it there may occur “a far off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” He explains that the Gospel story of the Incarnation, the life of Christ on Earth, “begins and ends in joy” and is the true eucatastrophe of which those occurring in stories are a matter of premonition. At any rate, with this point the concept becomes closely associated with his concept of “subcreation,” which is introduced in the same essay. In subcreation, by telling stories or inventing worlds the artist effectively imitates the “Primary Creator.”

This idea is further clarified in a letter of 1944 to his son Christopher in which Tolkien suggests a theology of narrative in relation to eucatastrophe, wherein he claims, “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” Consequently, since the Primary Creator ultimately intends humans to be happy, the artist that evokes eucatastrophe is creating in consonance with God. Moreover, if the deepest sense of story is consonant with revelation, the concept approaches natural theology with a Christian humanist perspective.

* * *

Eucatastrophe is closely connected with hope in both the religious and humanistic senses. Hope has been defined as the unique human capacity for generating positive expectations concerning the future regardless of present circumstances. Eucatastrophe is most simply understood as a forceful expression of the esthetic fulfillment of hope.

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