Tolkien's Eucatastrophe and the Resurrection

As many of my close friends know, J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favorite authors.  I fell in love with his books back in the 90's as I prepared to head off to college.  The way he was able to "subcreate", as he would call it, a whole world as he does with Middle Earth is almost unparalleled.  My love for his writing grew deeper as I read through The Silmarillion several times and realized the deeper connection Tolkien's writings have with Christian theology.




Now as I write that, it is worth pointing out that Tolkien never intended to write Christian allegory with his Middle Earth books, nor do I think he did so.  In fact, he often chided his good friend C.S. Lewis for having done so with the Chronicles of Narnia novels.  Nevertheless, Tolkien does have a strong Christian theology interspersed throughout Middle Earth.

Tolkien even coined a new word to describe an element of his novels that ties well into Christian theology.  The term is eucatastrophe.  It is a term used to describe a sudden turn of events at the end of the story in which an inevitable, terrible doom is avoided by the hero of the story.  Several examples of this can be found within Tolkien's Middle Earth as I will point out later.  Tolkien himself also draws connections between his word eucatastrophe and Christian theology.

The word eucatastrophe itself is a combination of Greek root words. It is formed by the combination of Greek  ευ- "good"  and  καταστροφή  "destruction".  I could attempt to explain it more but would be better served allowing Tolkien himself to expound upon it.  He writes in Letter 89 found in The Letters of J.R.R. 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."
That happy turn we all love in a story is the eucatastrophe.  Or as Tolkien puts it, "a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back"; just what I was going to say.  The eucatastrophe isn't just any happy ending though.  Its the one that all involved in the story would have never perceived as possible.  This is why such emotion is attached here, and not just simple smiles and cheers emotion, but pure "joy which produces tears" emotion as Tolkien puts it.  I find it fascinating he points out, too, that this emotion of pure joy comes from the very same source as sorrow, two emotions that, it seems, can consume our whole person as we express them.


In The Two Towers book, there is a scene in the Stairs of Cirith Ungol chapter where Samwise and Frodo have a conversation about the great stories.  It is one that seems to foreshadow the coming eucatastrophes in their story.  The book version of this conversation is a bit lengthy, however, it is captured in short in The Two Towers film by Peter Jackson.  Rightfully, Jackson realized the emotion at play in that conversation and turned it into one of the classic scenes in the entire trilogy.  Here is an excerpt of what Sam and Frodo say:
Sam: "Its like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered, full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end, because how could the end be happy.  How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end its only a passing thing, a shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something,even if you were too small too understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories, had lots of chances to turn back, only they didn't. They kept going.  Because they were holding on to something
Frodo: What are we holding on to Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in this world Mr. Frodo. And its worth fightin' for.
For Frodo and Sam, it seemed already that all hope was lost. In the film they were in the ruined city of Osgiliath under attack by a ringwraith and orcs. They were still prisoners of Faramir as well. Their quest to destroy the ring was all but lost and they hadn't even entered Mordor.  In Sam's words, you can detect a hint of the eucatastrophe idea.  "Sometimes you didn't want to know the end, because how could the end be happy" Sam says.  How many stories, our own included, have we come to this feeling?  All hope is lost and no good ending can be seen.  As Frodo and Sam's stories progressed into The Return of the King this feeling wouldn't change. When they peer into the depths of Mordor and the immensity of Mt. Doom there seems no chance they could ever reach it.  In fact, it would seem at every turn in the story fate was against them: Frodo taken by Shelob and then by the orcs;  Frodo finally consumed by the evil power of the ring in the Sammath Naur and his refusal to destroy the ring; Gollum's reemergence and theft of the ring, to name a few.

<SPOILER ALERT> Yet, the eucatastrophe happens.  Though Gollum steals the ring, he falls into the fires of Mt. Doom and the ring is destroyed.  The impossible, happy ending has nevertheless happened.  Emotions well up and pure, unspeakable joy comes with tears.  What makes this happy turn a truly emotional, eucatastrophe moment is that the turn of events is still consistent with the established framework of the rest of the story.  Though it was unlikely, and all odds against it, it was still possible.  It does not feel completely out of place.  Gollum had tracked the hobbits all the way to Mt. Doom as he too was consumed by the allure of the ring. Also, Frodo was unable to destroy the ring by his own will as it proves no one would be able to do. So it came to Gollum stealing the ring for himself, and then, it a fortunate turn of events, falling into the fires of the mountain as he and Frodo fight for the ring.

Another classic example of eucatastrophe  in Tolkien's Middle Earth is the story of Beren and Luthien.  This is a story, not coincidentally, that Frodo and Sam actually reference in the above mentioned conversation from The Two Towers novel.  Samwise says:
Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it
To retrieve the lost silmaril Beren enters the one place nobody thought possible, the stronghold of Thangorodrim, the home of Morgoth, the dark lord. And not only that, but to retrieve the Silmaril he would have had to pry it from the very iron crown upon Morgoth's head.  Impossible?  Perhaps. Yet Beren does just that. 

But enough Middle Earth history and Tolkien lore. There is an element to all of this that I've been wishing to arrive at all along.  In the earlier quote of Tolkien from Letter 89 there is a comment not to be missed: "And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story."  Never thought of it that way.  And yet, it does appear to be true.  Plus there's more.  In his essay "On Fairy Stories" Tolkien calls the incarnation the eucatastrophe of "human history" and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.

It makes sense.  If you look at human history building up to the incarnation, that is, Jesus' birth, the most unlikely thing possible in this history would be for God himself to be born into human flesh (that is unless you recall the countless promises God made through his prophets in the Old Testament that this would happen).  From our perspective in hindsight we can see how this had to happen.  From the perspective of those landed within the story, those in human history before Christ, this was indeed a eucatastrophe. Mankind was not drawing closer to God.  Mankind was not going to produce a savior to redeem them from the pits of slavery.  The devil had the champagne on ice just waiting for the right moment to pop the corks.  

Then Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.  The all but impossible had become possible, God now dwelt in human flesh.  A savior to us is born. You can see the joy in the shepherds praises as they see the angelic choirs in the heavens and we also see the joy of this arrival spreading to the magi who travelled from afar just for this very event. 

And, of course, there's more. Jesus would go through the normal rigors of human life and then enter into his 3 year ministry ultimately headed for Jerusalem. Once more the story seemed to be headed in the wrong direction.  The Jewish leaders plotted his death, they paid off a disciple to betray him, they got him on trial with several false witnesses in the middle of the night to accuse him, and then had him condemned to the cross in front of Pilate. Once more, the devil was there ready to celebrate.  Jesus would die on the cross several hours later and all hope seemed lost.  His body sealed in a tomb and Friday night rolled into Saturday and Saturday rolled into Sunday morning.

Then the women found the tomb empty.  Again, the all but impossible had become possible, Jesus had conquered death. The greatest eucatastrophe of all, He lives! Our Savior lives!  No amount of joy could express the joy felt in that moment.  I've always been jealous of Mary Magadalene, and every Easter morning I like to attempt to envision what she must have felt in those moments that John 20 records for us:
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” (John 20:11-16a)
What did Mary feel when Jesus said her name for that very first time as her risen savior.  I don't suppose I've known joy quite like that yet in my life, but I know one thing, that was the feeling of knowing eucatastrophe.

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