Eucatastrophe in Taylor Swift

By

It’s not enough to say Taylor Swift sings about romance as if it were just a topic of interest to her (though it is). Romantic relationships are the entire genre, language, and viewpoint through which she interprets the world around her. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that few in recent years have mined the myriad angles and experiences of romantic relationships better, or at least more thoroughly, than Taylor Swift. In her catalog, we find every sort of human emotion fathomable expressed as a reaction to or result of romance, from infatuation (“Enchanted”) to vengeful rage (“Better Than Revenge”), wistful longing (“Teardrops on My Guitar”) to sorrowful regret (“Back to December”), and so on and so on.

Sure, these songs are explicitly about relationships. But through each romantic encounter, Swift is exploring something in herself, her story, and in the human story. Through romance, she wrestles like Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction with whether our story is a tragedy or a comedy. Is the world headed for a Happy Ever After or a “Sad Beautiful Tragic” ending? And here in this tension is where I realized Taylor Swift meets J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe and decides that, in the end, love conquers.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien coins the term “eucatastrophe” as the “highest function” of the fairy tale, “the sudden joyous turn [that]…denies universal final defeat” and gives “a glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” It’s the moment Gandalf appears gleaming like the sun at the break of dawn to lead the Rohirrim’s charge against the forces of evil at Helm’s Deep. It’s the moment in Avengers: Endgame where all hope is lost, and Thanos has won. But then suddenly, resurrected reinforcements arrive; death is overcome; evil is undone.

In Taylor Swift’s music, we see the same eucatastrophe at play, not in fantastically epic battles, but in the intimate relationships we share with each other. We see an early glimpse of this in the smash hit “Love Story,” a song we’ve heard so many times, it’s easy to miss the significance of what Swift accomplishes. In this 2008 country-pop hit, Swift inserts herself into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but dares to reimagine one of literature’s most famous tragedies as an act of eucatastrophe. She sings in the bridge:

I got tired of waiting
Wonderin’ if you were ever comin’ around
My faith in you was fading
When I met you on the outskirts of town

—Taylor Swift, “Love Story”

She then sings the chorus, replacing her infatuation earlier in the song with quiet lines of doubt and feeling like the relationship is over: “Romeo, save me, I’ve been feeling so alone / I keep waiting for you, but you never come / Is this in my head? I don’t know what to think.” When Swift is feeling her lowest, when the tragedy should strike, Romeo kneels on the ground, pulls out a ring, and the song modulates—a joyous turn in the darkest night.

This scene plays out almost exactly the same way on Speak Now opener, “Mine.” Again, Swift uses the bridge to present the dark night before turn: 

And I remember that fight, two-thirty AM
‘Cause everything was slipping right out of our hands
I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street
Braced myself for the goodbye,
‘Cause that’s all I’ve ever known
Then, you took me by s