When you develop an entire world – complete with millennia of history and whole new languages – coining a word doesn’t seem like a very big deal.
But one word that J.R.R. Tolkien created is crucial for stories, especially those developed by Christians.
In one of his letters, Tolkien describes a particularly moving illustration in a sermon. The story seemed destined for a tragic ending, when an unhoped for positive resolution came. He calls this a “eucatastrophe,” which he goes on to explain.
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.”
The Incarnation, and specifically the Resurrection, are the ultimate examples of the eucatastrophe. They are the literary archetype come to the real world.
We had no hope of ever saving our selves – then God comes down in the form of a man.
Jesus had been wrongly executed and laid in the tomb – then He rises from the grave in victory.
The idea that the Gospel is the “true myth” is what allowed C.S. Lewis to transition from theist to Christian. Similar to the way the Old Testament sacrificial system pointed forward to the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ, all the mythology of the dying god returned to life was a faint shadow of the truth that was realized and explained in Jesus.
In his essay on fairy tales, Tolkien delves deeper into the idea of eucastastrophic story.
But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly 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 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.
Even for those who are not part of crafting and developing stories to have a eucastastrophic element, we all can make these connections and use them as a jumping off point to their real world archetype. Movies, television shows, books – any story can have these moments where victory is snatched from the jaws of death.
There is where the Gospel is injected. Joy has been awakened. Use the eucatastrophe in our everyday stories is to point people to the Eucatastrophe in the Story.