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Tolkien and the Eucatastrophe

Eucatastrophe is a made-up word (I know, all words are made-up words) used by J.R.R. Tolkien at the very end of his 18,000-word mega-essay On Fairy-Stories, which we will be referencing a lot in this series. It attaches the Greek prefix eu, which means ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’ to katastrophe; meaning ‘disaster’ or ‘destruction’.

Originally a much shorter lecture delivered in 1938, On Fairy-Stories has become Tolkien’s most famous and important piece of writing outside of his famous legendarium. Of all his famous stories, only The Hobbit had been published when Tolkien gave the original lecture at the University of St. Andrews. Nevertheless, it forms a manifesto for Tolkien’s views on the role of imagination in literature as well as providing the philosophical underpinning for work like The Lord of the Rings and the posthumously published Silmarillion, which J.R.R. had already started work on some 20 years earlier in the trenches of Northern France.

In the essay, Tolkien takes issue with the existing definitions of ‘fairy-tale’. He was frustrated that these kinds of stories had become something foisted exclusively on children, and that the fairies themselves had become domesticated and physically much smaller in size than what elves had represented in ancient mythology.

Fairy-stories didn’t even need fairies in them, said Tolkien. And they certainly shared little with traditional ‘beast fables’ or travellers’ tales that were popular in the Victorian period. The true fairy-story was one that involved not a specific people, but a place – an enchanted realm that Tolkien named ‘Faërie’.

It is easy to forget that fantasy and the entire genre of speculative fiction, was at this time in its infancy. Science-fiction writing pioneered by the likes of H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley had come close to resembling what Tolkien was working on, as perhaps did the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, but neither achieved what Tolkien did—stories set nominally within the history of our own world, but with their own constructed mythology created by the writer.

On Fairy-Stories covers much of the creative heavy-lifting required by Tolkien to begin this journey. This includes a philosophy of sub-creation, the construction of a ‘secondary world’ imbued with a sense of reality present in the ‘primary’ one. All of this is achieved through mythopeia—the secondary world’s language, mythic history, material culture and the customs of its people. But its crowning glory and vitality is found in the eucatastrophe.

The unexpected turn

There’s a lot of debate as to how the eucatastrophe differs from a ‘happy ending’. Tolkien argued that true fairy-stories have no ending. The eucatastrophe is the ‘sudden, joyous turn,’ located at the point when all is at its bleakest. It is unexpected, uncalled for, in a sense miraculous; in the words of Tolkien ‘never to be counted on to recur’.

This will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings, because the ultimate climax of that entire epic story is founded upon an archetypal eucatastrophe. The treacherous Gollum in his moment of triumph slips, falls into the Cracks of Doom and the quest is saved. But it is not the only eucatastrophic moment; smaller examples spring up throughout the entire narrative. Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from Old Man Willow; the arrival of Gandalf and Erkenbrand at the Hornburg; the unfurling of Aragorn’s banner before the Corsair fleet; the coming of the Rohirrim upon the Pelennor at dawn.

When the eucatastrophe’s sudden turn isn’t executed well, it is conspicuously unsatisfying, and can feel like ‘deus ex machina’; the all-too convenient solution of an impossible problem. But delivered properly, the eucatastrophe causes the heart to skip a beat and produces joy; joy Tolkien says ‘poignant as grief, joy beyond the walls of the world’. And, he adds, it is something that affects adults and children alike. Tolkien’s eucatastrophe at the end of The Lord of the Rings (or towards the end, anyway) does all of this. It is sublime. 

Delivered properly, the eucatastrophe causes the heart to skip a beat and produces joy.

Frodo, who it must be said was never very likely to succeed in his task in the first place, finally succumbs to the ring’s malice and claims it as his own, having resisted its power for much of the narrative until this point. At this very moment, Gollum—the wretched creature who has accompanied the hobbits on their journey into Mordor, much against the better judgement of Sam Gamgee—bites the ring from Frodo’s finger and dances in victory on the very edge of the Cracks of Doom.

And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell.

Multiple characters have the opportunity to kill Gollum, in situations when such a decision would have been more than justified. Bilbo has the opportunity when he first discovers the ring in Gollum’s cave way back in The Hobbit, but is stayed by pity for the creature. In the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Gandalf reflect on this decision. Frodo, realising Gollum’s treachery, expresses regret that Bilbo hadn’t killed Gollum when he had the chance. But Gandalf rebukes this sentiment, suspecting in his heart that ‘Gollum still has some part to play… for good or evil, before this is over.’

In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien states that one of the marks of the eucatastrophe’s ‘joyous turn’ is that it ‘reflects a glory backwards,’ and it is this quality that sets it apart from deus ex machina. Yes, the conclusion is unexpected and even unlikely, but it does not emerge out of nothing. The glory of the quest’s consolation is reflected onto each moment a character, through the exercising of their free will, chooses in mercy to spare Gollum’s life. In doing so, they each—Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, Frodo, Sam, even the Dark Lord himself in releasing Gollum from the dungeons of Barad-dûr—unknowingly contribute to the destruction of evil.

That said, none of them could have predicted that their pity would have such monumental consequences for the entire world. In most instances, their decisions to spare Gollum’s life make little utilitarian sense, reflecting another of Tolkien’s favourite narrative themes; that the supposedly foolish things of the world should shame the wise.

In each of these apparently unrelated and insignificant decisions dwells chance, or luck—Tolkien’s stand-in for divine providence at work in his subcreated world —the unseen hand of Eru Ilúvatar. Often a character will not even know why they are sparing Gollum, but for the voice deep within that compels them to do so.

The eucatastrophe hangs on this thread. It is in Tolkien’s words ‘a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.’ Many have noted that Frodo cannot possibly have been expected to have thrown the Ring into the fire—in The Fellowship of the Ring he is unable even to cast it into the small fireplace in his living-room at Bag End. But Frodo is obedient to the wisdom Gandalf gives to those living in dark times, at the very start of the story, before he has even left the Shire; that the times we live in are not ours to decide. ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Frodo is faithful in delivering the Ring to such a place where chance, or fate, or whatever name we give it intervenes.