Because Eucatastrophe Happens: Tolkien’s Principles of Fantasy #2

This is not about whether all fairy tales should end happily ever after.

(Partly because, as J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out, “there is no true end to any fairy tale” (“On Faerie Stories”).)

This is about a distinct, unforgettable, massively powerful human emotion that Tolkien revered so much he invented a new word to adequately describe it. Be you the world’s most jaded cynic, be you Scrooge and the Grinch rolled into one, be you the darkest writer of Grimm tales since Sophocles, you can’t tell me you’ve never experienced it.

It’s what we felt when Susan Boyle dreamed her dream and it shattered reality. It’s what we felt when Michael Phelps conquered alcoholism to win five more Olympic gold medals (and a silver). It’s what we felt when the Cubs won the World Series.

Eucatastrophe is the tragedy we all expected… surprisingly and implausibly reversed: “a sudden joyous ‘turn’” (“On Faerie Stories”), a catastrophe with the rug jerked out from beneath it. It doesn’t matter whether we believe ‘life is like that’ or not. Sometimes it happens. And when it does, we weep.

Tolkien coined the word “eucatastrophe” while writing his definitive essay, “On Faerie Stories.” He believes that fantasy has a special knack for producing this powerful emotion, which he tries to describe several times in the essay:

“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or 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.” (“On Faerie Stories”)

“In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” (ibid.)

Shortly after writing this essay, Tolkien was deeply struck by a story told during a sermon, which he later recounted in a letter to his son Christopher, dated October 28, 1944: A boy dying of tuberculosis had been taken to the miraculous grotto at Lourdes, France, hoping for a cure—to no avail. His brokenhearted parents brought him away on the train, Tolkien explains, but on the same train was a girl who had been healed. “And [the boy] got up and walked there and played with the little girl; and then he came back, and he said ‘I’m hungry now’. And they gave him cake and two bowls of chocolate and enormous potted meat sandwiches, and he ate them! … So plain and matter of fact: for so miracles are.”

When he heard this story, Tolkien relates, “I was deeply moved and had that peculiar emotion we all have—though not often. It is quite unlike any other sensation. And all of a sudden I realized what it was: the very thing that I have been trying to write about and explain—in that fairy-story essay that I so much wish you had read that I think I shall send it to you. For it 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.” (Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 28 October 1944)

Though Tolkien is clearly writing from a Christian worldview, shaped by a firm belief in the Resurrection and thwarting of final death, his words can be summed up more generally in this way: humans are hardwired to hope. We can’t help it. Sometimes our hearts just skyrocket—we can choose to follow them or not.

I have a premonition, given the murky moodiness with which 2017 has oozed onto the scene, that many fantasy/sci-fi writers are feeling tempted to brew apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, dystopian visions of unprecedented bleakness. Those who hoped most desperately for a eucatastrophe at the end of 2016 may now be those most disillusioned by the apparent victory of Mordor. We may feel that happy endings—or even sudden, unexpected, joyful turns of events within otherwise sobering narratives—were for other creatures, living at brighter blips on the timeline of Planet Earth. As for us, we will write about the unchecked triumph of tyranny, the calamitous downfall of common sense, and the world being blown up with greater efficacy than ever before.

Meanwhile, in the shabby old primary reality which we inhabit, little eucatastrophes will still happen. That nerdy kid who everybody loves will be elected homecoming king. People will beat cancer. Lost dogs will be found in the last kennel of the shelter. It has always been this way, and it has made us cry harder the less we expected it.

I know that for me, this feeling of eucatastrophe—the possibility of creating it in others, of sending a bright flare of hope into the night sky—has been, and still is, one of the reasons I have always wanted to write fantasy. Because eucatastrophe happens, and art can train us to detect it.

Did I mention that I’m a Chronic Optimist? It might be correlative with being a Highly Creative Escapist.

I’ll leave you with a thought from Tolkien, who wrote this from another dark blip on the timeline of Planet Earth (Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 28 October 1944, emphasis and ellipsis in original):

“I knew I had written a story of worth in ‘The Hobbit’ when reading it (after it was old enough to be detached from me) I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the ‘eucatastrophic’ emotion at Bilbo’s exclamation: ‘The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!’ .... And in the last chapter of The Ring that I have yet written I hope you’ll note, when you receive it (it’ll soon be on its way) that Frodo’s face goes livid and convinces Sam that he’s dead, just when Sam gives up hope.

This is the second in a series of posts on the principles of fantasy articulated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories”. In the first post of this series, we discussed Tolkien’s concept of ‘Escapism’ in fantasy literature. Read “In Defense of Escapism” here.