The eucatastrophe at the center of the world


Historiated initial ‘R'(esurrexi) with the Resurrection, angels supporting heraldic arms to the left, in a Missal. Origin: Germany.  Public domain image from The British Library.

In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien explains why fairy tales are so deeply satisfying and, far from being escapist, are instead spiritually realistic. His language isn’t easy to follow, but it’s worth sticking with it. He starts out by defining a fairy-tale as a eucatastrophe, or a tale with a sudden favorable resolution:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy 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 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.

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in brief vision that the answer may be greater–it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt-making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving; ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  The story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-enimently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…The joy would have exactly the same qualiy, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives; such joy has the very taste of primary truth.  (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks…to the Great Eucatrastrophe.  The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.  But this story is supreme, and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.

The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all this bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

How very satisfying. Happy Easter!


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