Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe

J.R.R. Tolkien, the justly famous British scholar and fantasy author, invented the term eucatastrophe to refer to the redemption present in the greatest stories of humanity as well as the Gospel.  A eucatastrophe is a happy ending that honestly faces and overcomes the sort of tragedy and sadness and sorrow that fills the lives of fallen human beings.  Instead of ignoring the suffering and pretending that everything is okay and that life is fair, a eucatastrophe turns the mourning and sorrow and suffering into beauty, showing the good that comes out of the bad through the miraculous workings of divine providence.

If all of this sounds vaguely religious, then it ought to be no surprise, given the fact that Tolkien was a very seriously religious deep-thinking Catholic.  It is the purpose today for me to explore briefly Eucatastrophe in three different writings:  The Bible, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Jane Austen’s romance novels.  That three such wildly different classics draw their power from the presence of eucatastrophe ought to impress upon the reader that the word which Tolkien invented was truly an important concept to remember.  If we see Eucatastrophe in our literature, we might be tempted to look for it as well in our own lives and experiences.

Eucatastrophe In The Bible

Though the word Eucatastrophe never once appears within the Bible, the concept of eucatastrophe is itself very notable, especially in some of the most powerful passages of scripture that deal with the triumph of life and righteousness over death and evil that is promised to occur.  This sort of happy ending is presented notably in scripture with the full understanding that the happiness does not obliterate the sadness and suffering, but rather transcends it, bringing it into light.  Let us examine some of the most prominent passages in the Bible that deal with eucatastrophe, in the realization that there are many more which could be discussed.

It is difficult to pare down the concept of eucatastrophe to only a few passages, given its central importance to scripture (Tolkien focused mainly on its presence in the Gospels, which is the ultimate “happy ending,” allowing humanity to overcome the catastrophe of Adam’s original sin through the second Adam, Jesus Christ.  I will let that extremely large topic for another time, or another pen, and consider less massive examples.  The concept of eucatastrophe is present in one of the oddest and most difficult commands in all of scripture, found in James 1:2-4:  “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.  But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”  We count it joy not because it is joyful, but because our trials build in us the complete and mature character we need to become like God, which is our responsibility on this earth (Matthew 5:48).  We are happy for the result, and so look forward to the happy ending.

Another classic passage about the eucatastrophe is in Romans 8:28-30:  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover, whom He predestined, these He also called, whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”  Again, as our goal is to develop the character of Christ within us, who has shown us the way from death to eternal life, the trials and sorrows of our life are for the purpose for good–there is a happy ending for those of us who are called by God, and who will eventually be glorified with eternal life in His family with our elder brother Jesus Christ.

A profound eucatastrophe yet to come, the granting of eternal life previously mentioned, is described precisely in the terms of Tolkien’s terminology in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58:  “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.  Behold, I tell you a mystery:  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed–in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written:  “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  “O Death, where is your sting?  O Hades, where is your victory? [Quoting Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14]”  The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not vain in the Lord.”  Again, this verse is a eucatastrophe, as the sorrow and loss of death is not overlooked, but is transcended and overcome into victory.

The ultimate happy ending of the Bible occurs at the end of Revelation, and it is, as could be expected, a eucatastrophe of cosmic proportions, in Revelation 21:1-5:  “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.  And also there was no more sea.  Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heared a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people.  God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.  There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”  Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.””  Again, this ultimate eucatastrophe is the end of all death or sorrow within the entire universe, a happy ending to end all happy endings, a new beginning to a glorious eternity unimaginable to mere mortals limited as we are by time and space.

Eucatastrophe in Lord of the Rings

I would now like to turn from the Bible to the most notable and substantial finished work of J.R.R. Tolkien, which exhibits are particularly profound set of eucatastrophes, though less so (obviously) than the Bible.  Given that J.R.R. Tolkien coined the word, it is little surprise that Lord of the Rings gives several examples of the phenomenon.  Let us examine briefly just a few of the examples.  If you have a copy of the book handy (and, regretfully, I do not, or else I would provide page citations), I recommend taking a look at the last chapters of Lord of the Rings to find a few of the eucatastrophes in that most excellent work.

One of the more bittersweet examples of Eucatastrophe at the end of Lord of the Rings comes when Frodo and Sam are in the heart of Mount Doom and Frodo is unable to destroy the ring.  His failure is redeemed because his kindness to Gollum throughout their journey, in keeping him alive and treating him with kindness allows Gollum’s greed for the ring to deliver Frodo from destruction, at the cost of a finger.  Frodo’s good character allowed him to be providentially delivered from a monumental error and allowed the “one ring” to be destroyed.

Eowyn, the daughter of King Theodin of Rohan and Faramir, eldest son of the last steward of Gondor, both ended up in the Houses of Healing in the third section of Lord of the Rings as a result of what might have appeared like a catastrophe.  Faramir, after nearly dying during a sortie from Gondor, was nearly burned to death by his father, and had a difficult recovery.  Likewise, Eowyn, after disguising herself as a man, nearly died (along with her faithful hobbit page Merry) while killing the Lord of the Nazgul, her attitude warped by her obsessive love for Aragorn.  Nonetheless, providentially both found love in each other as they were healing, leading to a healing of both heart and body for both noble characters.

An additional eucatastrophe, already alluded to, was the fact that the last steward of Gondor, Denethor, rejected the return of his king and sought to destroy himself (as well as his unloved elder son) in a funeral pyre in the manner of the heathen kings of old.  Though unfortunate, his death was a eucatastrophe in that it removed an unworthy steward who mistakenly thought he was a lord from being able to threaten the rightful rule of Gondor’s returned king, Aragorn.  A foolish death prevented a civil war, and therefore it was a eucatastrophe that allowed Aragorn to rule peacefully after the defeat of Sauron’s army in the siege of Gondor.

Now, while none of the last few paragraphs will have made any sense at all if one has not read the Lord of the Rings or watched the Return of the King, but if one changes the names, one will find that similar events would be seen as divine providence, and that is often meant in the same way as Tolkien intended for eucatastrophe.  God’s mysterious working out of good from bad is precisely the happy ending (often bittersweet or deeper than a pat ending due to its brush with tragedy) that Tolkin intended.

Jane Austen and Eucatastrophe

Though one might not be used to finding something as profound as eucatastrophe in romance novels, but only because one underestimates the depth of profound understanding in the ferociously witty pen of the spinster parson’s daughter who left us six marvelous studies of human nature in her novels of the courtship escapades of the Regency era gentry.  It is the brushes with tragedy that are particularly notable, and I would like to examine some of the notable brushes with tragedy that lead to eucatastrophe in three of Jane Austen’s novels:  Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey.

Pride & Prejudice is probably the most popular of all of Jane Austen’s novels, with the most spunky heroine (Elizabeth Bennet) and the most cryptic of heroes (Fitzwilliam Darcy).  Nonetheless, despite its wit it has some serious brushes with tragedy.  Let us examine how.  The Bennets have an irresponsible father, a crazy gold-digging mother, and live on an estate that is entailed to a fawning, obsequious parson (Mr. Collins) who is married to the one sensible woman desperate enough to avoid spinsterhood to marry him (Charlotte Lucas).  Meanwhile, in the desperate fight among gentry women for eligible men in early 19th century England (with the Napoleonic Wars going on and all that), the lack of wealth of the Bennets puts them at a disadvantage, further compounded by the moral failures of Lydia in eloping with the dishonorable George Wickham (which threaten the ability of any of her sisters to make an eligible match), until love conquers all when Jane and Elizabeth nab the wealthy and proper gentlemen of their fancy (Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy).  Again, though, the depth of the novel depends both on the satisfactory nature of the happy ending for the deserving Elizabeth and Jane as well as how close to the tragedy of spinsterhood these worthy young women came.  Let us not forget that this tragedy of spinsterhood (and a painful, premature death) is precisely what happened to the witty author of the novel, after all.

Sense & Sensibility likewise includes some major brushes with tragedy that end in a happy but realistic fashion (typical of a eucatastrophe rather than what is falsely called a ‘fairy tale ending’).  For example, the heroines of Sense & Sensibility are the two eldest daughters of a poor widow who is just barely scraping bye at the bottom rungs of gentility.  The eldest daughter, Elinor Dashwood, catches the eye of a diffident young man (Edward Ferrars) who is trapped in a secret engagement with the mercenarial Lucy Steele, the discovery of which leads his mother to threaten him with financial ruin, before he is able to gain a small living from the somewhat melodramatic Colonel Brandon, allowing him to make an honorable marriage after Lucy breaks their engagement to engage with Edward’s brother Robert.  Marianne, on the other hand, catches the attention of the handsome rake John Willoughby, who toys with her heart but at least refrains from taking her honor (as he did the poor Eliza) but who marries for money after being cut out of the inheritance of his wealthy relative.  Poor Marianne nearly destroys herself in sorrow before marrying the much older but compassionate Colonel Brandon.  It is a happy ending, but not an unrealistic one, given its close brush with tragedy.

Northanger Abbey is one of the less well-known novels of Jane Austen, and bears close resemblance to parody, but even here there are brushes with tragedy.  For example, the heroine of the story, the naive but adorable Catherine Moreland, falls in love while in Bath to the handsome and witty Henry Tilney, and ends up being taken from the safety of her family friends, the Allens, to the eponymous Northanger Abbey, the estate of the Tilneys.  While there Catherine’s attempts to ferret out the wickedness of General Tilney end up in her embarrassment and her brother is treated poorly by the heartless Isabella Thrope, who had pretended to be a friend of Catherine’s, and Catherine is cruelly forced to return home without money or anyone to accompany her in a hack coach, which itself could have ended very tragically.  Of course, it ends happily with Henry rejecting his father and marrying Catherine, and with a reconciliation afterward, but it was a near run thing.

Other Jane Austen novels have plenty of brushes with tragedy as well–Persuasion deals with spinsterhood and the vulnerability of navy wives to the threat of death and horrible injury in the Napoleonic war, Mansfield Park touches on issues of child abuse and slavery as well as the penalty for adultery in her time (surprisingly serious material for a romance novel, wouldn’t you agree?), and even Emma deals somewhat obliquely with the effects of emotional incest on the ability of a young woman to form romantic attachments.  The happy endings of Jane Austen’s novels are not happy endings that ignore the sadness and sorrow and tragedy of every day life, and it is the transcendence of that sorrow into a reasonable happy ending that accounts for a great part of the depth of Jane Austen’s novels and their enduring worth.

Conclusion

In conclusion, these three examples of eucatastrophe in very different sorts of works:  The Bible, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Jane Austen’s novels, demonstrate that eucatastrophe, the realistic transcendence of tragedy into a happy ending, is a phenomenon of the best sort of writing.  There are many more examples of eucatastrophe that could be found, that do not neglect or overlook the corruption and sin of life but manage to transcend it, and so let us leave this subject for now in the understanding that such elements are so important because they are a part of our own lives–the awareness of sin and loss, the reality of death, and the longing for eternal life and happiness and victory.  We ourselves long for redemption, and this redemption, when found in writings, resonates with that longing and makes it stronger.  Let us not forget to seek after those noble works which provide us with a happy ending that recognizes the sort of beings we are, and strive to become.  Let us all be blessed in the end with our own eucatastrophe–a happy ending of glory and honor and joy.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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