Happy Birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien

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Last week was J.R.R. Tolkien’s 117th birthday.  I give you some excerpts from his excellent work, “On Fairy-Stories,” on art, fairy tales, eucatastrophe, and the Gospel:

In its fairy-tale or other world setting, [eucatastrophe] 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 glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned: Man, Subcreator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all the crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons – ’twas our right (used or misused). That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we’re made. Fantasy is a natural human activity.

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).

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels-peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has preeminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.


6 Comments

  1. Tony Heringer

    Travis,

    Thanks for the post. I have always loved Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe”.

  2. Emily

    My deep thanks for writting all of these, so called, “Ressurection Letters”. I love coming here and seeing all the new things that have been posted onto this site. All of these devotionals have been a huge help to me, please continue the good work you are all doing. 🙂 Also, thanks for notin Tolkien birthday! Amazing authour..
    Thanks again,
    Emily

  3. Nate

    This response is a little late, but I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s category of the eucatastrophe this morning whilst reading Philippians 1. Paul writes that his desire is to part to be with Christ, for that would be far better. Paul’s saw his death as a grand event for himself, but a good event as well – a eucatastrophe, I think. A commentary reads like this:

    It would be no catastrophe, since it would cause Paul to “be with Christ.” He foresaw no soul-sleep while awaiting the resurrection, nor any purgatory. As he had already explained to the Corinthians, absence from the body means for the believer immediate presence with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). There was no question in Paul’s mind as to the ultimate superiority of this. It was “better by far” (pollo mallon kreisson), because it would bring him to the goal of his Christian life (3:8-14). I would bring rest from his labors (Rev 14:13) and the joy of eternal fellowship in the very presence of the Lord whom he loved. (Homer A Kent Jr)

    There you go. A eucatastrophe.

  4. Nate

    Of course Tokien might not like it if he knew I was using his word to describe the fact that there was no purgatory. Maybe I should hush up about it. What do you all think?

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