"I hope you can hear me. Because I'm writing to you from the other side of the stars."
That's what I thought I heard on my walk back from Boars Hill three nights ago. It was past 4pm and darkness pushed into the dusky clouds mixing black with a haunted grey. The wind leapt from pine to oak in a whistling frenzy while stared hard at the fading path.
I like to pray out loud while I walk the footpaths; tonight it felt like God was talking back. A new year stretched out before me, loaded with uncertainty. Interesting how we often can see only to where the trail bends, but no further.
I know my task this year, plain enough: finish the degree. But what about all the rest? What about after the degree; so much unknown.
And yet, as I walked, a reminder fell into the ears of my spirit: "Go with Joy."
The Joyous Turn
As we all fire up our working lives after the long holiday season it's easy to face the new year with a bit of drudgery. Back to the madness, eh? But what if we faced it with Joy? What would that mean? What would it look like?
In 1942 J.R.R. Tolkien penned the essay, “On Faerie-stories.” Tolkien ends the essay by discussing the “consolations of the happy ending,” what he calls the eucatastrophe.
In storytelling, a euchatastrophe works as the opposite of a catastrophe. Whereas the catastrophe might be employed in tragedy as the down-turn of a story, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe works as the shift in the faerie story for the good. It’s “the sudden joyous turn.”
The eucatastrophe says that just when all hope appears to be lost, just when circumstances cannot get much bleaker, hope emerges.
Tolkien said eucatastrophe “denies 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.”
A Beautiful Hope
To many in western culture, universal final defeat is all we have to look forward to in this life. We work, toil, and live, but for what? Author and apologist Dr. Ravi Zacharias describes modern times as perhaps the most bleak in world history. If the history of humanity can be viewed as a narrative, then what kind of story do we find ourselves living?
The Norse mythology that so influenced Tolkien offered the same kind of hopelessness found in the cyclical Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse. Tolkien wanted to offer something more than this cycle of doom. He wanted “retain the feel or ‘flavour’ of Norse myth, while hinting at the happier ending of Christian myth behind it.”
But it wasn’t just Tolkien who used eucatastrophe in his storytelling. The thread of hope can also be found in the writings of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s long time friend. Lewis converted to the Christian faith soon after a very long midnight conversation with Tolkien in 1931.
As they strolled along Addison’s Walk on the grounds of Magdalen College until 3am, Tolkien convinced Lewis that the Christian story, even though it was similar to other myths, was a true myth. And even more distinguishing was the fact that unlike the Norse doom and gloom, the Christian tradition offered the consolation of the happy ending—the joyous turn.
We see the connecting thread in their shared eucatastrophic vision of Christianity in a letter Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher Tolkien, on January 30, 1945. He tells his son of the great essay his friend C.S. Lewis had written— “Myth Became Fact”—championing the story value of the Christian faith as mental nourishment; a story for “the fainthearted that loses faith, but clings at least to the ‘beauty of the story’ as having permanent value.”
For Lewis, eucatastrophe represented a way to extend the narrative of hope into a hopeless world, a means to smuggle Joy past the “watchful dragons,” an image Lewis liked as a reference to those inhibitions that keep religion at arms length for some people.
“The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history,” writes Tolkien. “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends with joy … such joy has the very taste of primary truth.” For Tolkien and Lewis, the primary truth was the Incarnate eucatastrophe—the joyous turn for all of humankind.
On my evening walk to Boars Hill, a kind of magic danced among those whistling treetops. It came through the voice telling me to “Go with Joy.” If, day in and day out, my perspective glimmers with eucatastrophic vision then I won’t simply trudge through this new year, I’ll jump, leap, and run, on.
Because I’ll see life through Life itself, through the beauty of the Incarnation, through the myth made fact, through the stomping genius of the joyous song; a song that sounds like this wind in the trees, this voice from heaven, this prayer in the woods.
I walk on, and into this new year, with a heart expectant because I know how this story began, how it ends, and Who writes it.
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Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.