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The End of Tragedy
Fairy Tales and Our Hope in Christ
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s most famous lecture—“On Fairy-Stories”—he introduces a new word created to express what he calls the “highest function” of a fairy tale. The word is Eucatastrophe, and Tolkien uses it to describe “the Consolation of the Happy Ending,” declaring that “all complete fairy-stories must have it.”
The term Eucatastrophe gives a name to the fairy-tale ending, and ties this ending to the gospel. The word itself is a portmanteau of Eucharist—the traditional name for the Catholic version of our sacrament—and catastrophe—a word for disaster from the Greek for overturning. But these words hold deeper meanings than their listed dictionary definitions. The Eucharist and the sacrament are both powerful metaphors for Christ’s sacrifice, evoking blood, death, and living water. Connecting the word Eucharist to the word catastrophe adds a new dimension to the metaphor because in the study of literature a catastrophe signals the ending of a tragedy. When Romeo and Juliet end their lives, that is a catastrophe that leads to the ending of their story. A Eucatastrophe, then, is a literary mirror, both signaling the happy ending of a fairy story and linking it to the happy ending of all tragedy promised by Christ.
Tolkien offers several definitions of Eucatastrophe beyond those suggested by its components. Each of these definitions adds new dimensions to the word and new insights to the Atonement.
The first and simplest definition of Eucatastrophe is the aforementioned “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” By this definition, any story can be eucatastrophic that consoles its readers with happiness. Other writers and scholars have also looked at the ways that fairy tales inspire hope and optimism in those who read (or view) them. Italo Calvino calls these stories “consolatory fables.” Marina Warner argues that it is “the chief defining characteristic of fairy tales that they should end happily,” and claims that one of the things that draws all people to fairy tales is that they “lift the spirits, and spark a ray of hope for the future.”
But most of these other scholars did not share Tolkien’s claim that part of fairy tales’ consoling power comes from the promise of Christ, that these stories console us because they remind us that we have hope in our Savior. If, as Tolkien implies, fairy-tale endings serve as a metaphor for the promises of the Eucharist, then studying these metaphors could lead us to new insights about the Atonement. Whole new analogies open up to us. True love’s kiss, a sudden change of heart, a magic spell, a magic ring, or a surprising verdict—these all point to Christ and remind us “that all things work together for good to them that love God.”1
Tolkien, Grace, and MacDonald’s The Light Princess
Tolkien believed that Christ could make grace spring forth from human catastrophe. And Tolkien himself was no stranger to tragedy: he lost both his parents by the age of eleven, served as a soldier in WWI, and as a codebreaker in WWII. In his letters, he describes history as nothing more than a slow march toward oblivion. "I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat,'” he writes, “though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory." Here, Tolkien shows his very human tendency toward pessimism. But Eucatastrophe is his consolation and his gift to us. More than just a happy ending, it is a happy ending that defies the expected. It is a turn of events from destined doom toward grace and joy.
Another definition of Eucatastrophe Tolkien offers in his lectures is that it is “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” He explains that Eucatastrophe “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure.” We might say that the presence of both joy and sorrow creates opposition in all things, that joy needs sorrow to be meaningful. But, he asserts, Eucatastrophe does deny, “universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
If Eucatastrophe does not promise an absence of sorrow, in some ways then, it is less than a happily ever after, because future sorrows and failures remain ever possible. But it could also be seen as greater than a happily ever after, as it denies a “universal, final defeat.” If bad things happen on our way to ever after, we are reminded that they will not become our final destination. There is always hope in a destination greater than any earthly happiness.
Taking these additional definitions into account, it seems that the stories that really capture the essence of Eucatastrophe are those where destiny is defied, tragedy escaped, and miraculous solutions overcome impossible dilemmas.
The Light Princess is an example of such a tale. Written by George MacDonald, the Scottish author and minister who was named as a major influence by Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis, the story was originally published in 1964 as part of a larger collection.
It tells of a young prince who offers his life to save the life of the princess he loves. He is moved by love to give his life for another. She is cursed to live both without literal gravity and without a sense of seriousness. She is “light” in weight and in spirit.
In the story, when the prince sacrifices his life for hers, the princess stays with him, floating on a boat beside him as water slowly rises up to drown him. When she finally realizes that he is dying, she races to save him, but “it was of no use, for he was past breathing.” If the story ended there, it would be a catastrophe, but instead it is a Eucatastrophe. The prince is carried into the castle, and the next day, “At last, when they had all but given it up, just as the sun rose, the prince opened his eyes.” Hope is restored.
This is a wonderfully happy ending, consoling us with resurrection and miracle. But the journey of the princess—through curse, sorrow, loss, and growth—is more interesting than just a surface miracle of the prince saving her life and then receiving his own back. She is more complicated than a simple floating princess because her cursed lightness also makes her a sociopath. She can’t cry, she laughs at the pain of others, and she refuses to take any issue seriously. MacDonald writes that “she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing. . . . She never smiled.” Even when the prince volunteers to die for her, she shows no empathy or sign of emotion.
But the prince’s sacrifice changes her; it doesn’t only save her physical life, but something else happens as she floats next to him in the lake. At first, she sits with the prince, talks with him, feeds him, listens to him sing, and even kisses him, but feels nothing.
Then she sat down again, and looked at him. The water rose and rose. It touched his chin. It touched his lower lip. It touched between his lips. He shut them hard to keep it out. The princess began to feel strange. It touched his upper lip. He breathed through his nostrils. The princess looked wild. It covered his nostrils. Her eyes looked scared, and shone strange in the moonlight. His head fell back; the water closed over it, and the bubbles of his last breath bubbled up through the water. The princess gave a shriek, and sprang into the lake.
The princess spends time with her savior and she is altered. She is afraid for the first time. She feels loss, and she helps another person. Later, when the prince opens his eyes in the castle, alive and well, another miracle happens. “The princess burst into a passion of tears, and fell on the floor.” She finds her gravity. Her curse is lifted. It is not lifted by the avoidance of sadness but by the experience of it, by the ending of it, by the fact that the princess becomes attuned to the tragedy of his death, and to the aliveness of a world where loss, but also redemption, are real.
Here we see Eucatastrophe on full display. The prince sets out to save a life, and succeeds, but also gets to keep his own, and brings about the end of the princess’s lifelong curse. The princess experiences great sorrow on her road, but ultimately finds the joy at the end of her tale worth the pain she has felt. And in the end, the effects of the prince’s sacrifice and princess’s change extend to the entire kingdom, the happy ending surprising the reader in its completeness, in its glory.
Whether I read fairy tales to discover new insights about our Savior or merely to enjoy the consolation of a happy ending, Eucatastrophe is always there. And in my darkest moments of existential dread, I know I can find bright moments of hope in these stories. They remind me of the reality of the Atonement. Yes, Lazarus died, but now he lives again. He will die again eventually, but right now for one moment, he is alive and well. Yes, I will be hungry tomorrow, but for this moment, here is food, miraculously brought forth from far too few loaves and fishes. Yes, Sauron lives, but right now on the third morning at dawn, Gandalf will arrive with an army of men to save Helm’s Deep. Yes, the little mermaid will be left by the only man she loves, but she will join with the spirits of the sky and strive to earn herself an immortal soul. Everybody dies, and the earth will pass away, but not before I get to see glimpses of something greater: powerful joy and consolation that foretell a better end.
Chanel Earl is a writer—mostly of fiction—who currently teaches writing at Brigham Young University.
Art by Dorothy P. Lathrop