What is it we feel when the eagles swoop in during the final moments of the battle of the five armies in The Hobbit? Do our emotions reveal the true depth of the fantasy genre that has captured the hearts of pop-culture?
Peter Jackson's filmic interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's brilliant fantasy saga finally ends with this third installment. It's no secret Tolkien drew heavily from Norse mythology; Gandalf and the names of the dwarves come right out of The Prose Edda. But it's less well known that he flipped the Norse worldview around by creating a new word: eucatastrophe.
In 1942 J.R.R. Tolkien penned the essay, “On Faerie-stories.” The essay became the touchstone work of fantasy fiction, illuminating the genre. Tolkien ends the essay by discussing the “consolations of the happy ending,” what he calls the eucatastrophe.
A euchatastrophe is the opposite of a catastrophe. Whereas the catastrophe might be employed in tragedy, and is regarded as the down-turn of a story, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is the shift in the faerie story for the good. It’s “the sudden joyous turn.”[i] The eucatastrophe says that just when all hope appears to be lost, just when circumstances cannot get much bleaker, hope emerges.
Tolkien said eucatastrophe does not deny a sudden failure by the protagonist (dyscatastrophe). Rather, “it 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.”[ii] Tolkien uses the Latin evangelium, meaning “good news” or in Old English “godspel,” fully aware of the Christian undertone.
Universal final defeat was exactly what Norse mythology offered. What’s more, it was compounded by endless repetition. Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse was cyclical: the giants destroy the gods and all humankind in a final battle only for the earth to rise again out of primordial waters, the gods to be reborn along with humans, and the cycle to begin afresh. Medievalist scholar and Tolkien expert Tom Shippey suggests Tolkien wanted to offer something more than this cycle of doom and was attempting to “retain the feel or ‘flavour’ of Norse myth, while hinting at the happier ending of Christian myth behind it.”[iii]
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.
C.S. 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.
It was this conversation that influenced Lewis to write the essay “Myth Became Fact” thirteen years later in the autumn of 1944. 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. Tolkien laments the aesthetic drubbing of the Genesis myth (i.e., story) by the “self-styled scientists.” As a result, embarrassed Christians had forgotten “the beauty of the matter even ‘as a story.’”
But then 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; as a means by which “the fainthearted that loses faith, but clings at least to the ‘beauty of the story’ as having permanent value.”[iv] Lewis’s point was that even the beauty of the story, that aspect of the joyous turn, can still afford readers of the Genesis myth some consolation of hope and truth.
For C.S. Lewis, eucatastrophe represented more than just hopeful storytelling. It was a way to extend the narrative of hope into a hopeless world, a means to smuggle Joy past the “watchful dragons,”[v] an image Lewis liked as a reference to those inhibitions that keep religion at arms length for some people. Like Tolkien, Lewis was profoundly influenced by Norse mythology. In fact, early on, Lewis was a member of Tolkien’s Icelandic Club at Oxford called the Kolbítars, or “Coal Biters” (1929), in which he translated Old Norse writings into English.
In his essay “William Morris” Lewis pays tribute to Morris’s love and mastery of “Northernness,” which is another way to refer to Morris’s infatuation with the atmosphere and ideology of Norse myth. Lewis also admits to being a lover of Northernness, but Lewis’s version differs from Morris’s.
Whereas Morris adopted the worldview of the Norse apocalypse, Ragnarök’s cycle of doom, Lewis imbued his Northernness with eucatastrophe. To say it another way, Lewis infused his storytelling with beautiful elements of Norse mythology in the way of literary atmosphere, but instead of following the doom and hopelessness inherent in the Norse worldview Lewis offered hope in the way of new beginnings.
In The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), for example, John the protagonist finds a new beginning when he dives into a large pool and emerges on the other side forever changed and seeing the world with new eyes. In The Last Battle (1956) after Aslan makes an end to the old Narnia the children find themselves running “further up and further in” to a new Narnia.
We still find the beautiful elements of romantic storytelling in Lewis, and in Tolkien. But we are not left with a soul full of desire for something more, something to give the beauty meaning. Rather, we are, through literary imagery, pointed to something beyond.
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?
If it is a tragedy, as some would have us believe, then the only thing we have to look forward to is an endless cycle of meaninglessness—our own Ragnarök. Others describe this life as one long journey in which the destination holds no importance; what matters is to travel hopefully. Lewis replies to that notion by saying, “If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for?”[vi]
When the eagles swoop into battle in the final scenes of The Hobbit; when Aslan bounds into battle just as the White Witch seems to be gaining the upper hand in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, our hearts leap up. In that moment we discover that joy Tolkien described as a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”[vii]
The historical Christmas holiday began to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; even Wikipedia agrees. In the Christian tradition this holiday also celebrates the Incarnation of God among humankind. Most of us are familiar with the “Jesus in the manger” narrative. But there’s another version of this story that feels more like a Tolkien or Lewis fantasy.
In Revelation 12 we find an almost mythical rendering of what transpired in the heavens just before Mary gave birth to Jesus. It’s Christmas, but from the angel’s perspective. Writer Philip Yancey says it’s what Christmas must of looked like from somewhere beyond Andromeda. The great red dragon storms the gates of heaven intent to devour the Child-redeemer. But the archangel Michael and his angel army war against the dragon and throw him to the earth, victorious.
Tolkien described the truth of eucatastrophe in terms of the Christian story. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history,” he writes. “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.”[viii] For Tolkien and Lewis, the primary truth was the Christmas eucatastrophe—the joyous turn for all of humankind.
The magic Tolkien and Lewis wield in their stories keeps us reading their books and watching the films their devotees create. But perhaps the greatest magic they weave comes to us through the very winsomeness of their myth making ability. Writer and poet G.K. Chesterton said the mythologies of the ages “sought God through imagination; or sought truth by means of beauty.”[ix] If that’s true then Tolkien and Lewis have guided us past the dragons, and that much closer to hope of our collective story.
[i] J. R. R. Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger, and Douglas A. Anderson, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, Expanded edition with commentary and notes (London: HarperCollinsPubl., 2014), 75.
[iii] Tom Shippey, “Tolkien and the Appeal of the Pagan” in Jane Chance, Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 152.
[iv] J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien, and Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1 edition (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000), “To Christopher Tolkien,” 30 January 1945.
[v] C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper, 1st Edition (London: Geoffery Bles, 1966), 37.
[vi] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 1st Touchstone ed (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 44.
[vii] “On Fairy-stories,” 77.
[viii] Ibid., 78.
[ix] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2010), 105.