Guest Post: Eucatastrophe: Hope Beyond the Walls of the World

Tolkien 2012

Urania is a student working on her M.A. in English Literature.  She loves stories, particularly fantasy and science fiction.  In her spare time, she is a gamer and a writer of short stories.  Her favorite Tolkien character is Maedhros.  If he were more real, or she were less sane, she’d marry him—after he returns from Mandos, of course!

Near the end of The Two Towers, as Sam and Frodo steal a few precious hours’ rest on the stairs to Cirith Ungol, Sam muses about the nature of adventures.  He says:

“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for because they wanted them . . . But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. . . I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know.  And that’s the way of a real tale.  Take any one that you’re fond of.  You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know.  And you don’t want them to.”

” No, sir, of course not.  Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours.  But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil.  And why, sir, I never thought of that before!  We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you!  Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still!  It’s going on!  Don’t the great tales never end?”  (Two Towers, chapter 8: “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)

In this passage, the hobbits have identified two key truths: first, that they are in a tale, and second, that as characters within that tale, they cannot see how their story will end.  The same is true of our own lives: each of us has a story, but we’re not allowed to know its conclusion.  And while Frodo is exactly right that when we read or hear a tale, we wouldn’t want the characters to know the ending, is it not also true that the characters wish for their tale to end happily?  In the same way, when we conceive of our lives as stories, we long to know we’ll get a happy ending, even if we can’t know every particular of its joy.

So, just where can we find hope for a happy ending in a world where we may often feel like Frodo and Sam: poised on the brink of a journey into the land of Sauron himself, where all signs seem to point to the certain failure of their quest?

As we see, Sam turns to another story, that of Beren and Lúthien and the Silmaril.  Many times throughout this tale, the two lovers find themselves facing hopeless situations, even death itself.  And each time, they are saved by the sudden, nigh-miraculous intervention of friends, and even Valar.  (If you’ve never read the tale of Beren and Lúthien, I won’t tell you how it ends.  Go find a copy of the Silmarillion and read their story for yourself—it’s beautiful and romantic, joyous and heartbreaking in the best kind of way.)

A story like Beren and Lúthien’s offers us hope through the action of what Tolkien, in his wonderful essay “On Fairy Stories,” calls eucatastrophe (literally “good catastrophe”).  He writes:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, [is] the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy tale). . . In its fairy-tale—or otherworldly—setting, it 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 fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

When Beren and Lúthien are saved from disaster and despair by the sudden intervention of good, we are reminded that a greater Power exists outside the story and orders that story toward a happy ending.  Of course, Beren and Lúthien’s story is a fiction, yet it offers us hope in reality, as well.  By experiencing the fictional eucatastrophe, we are prepared to see more clearly the eucatastrophes in our own stories.  True, we will still experience evil and grief, but the fact that we have seen glimpses of “miraculous grace” gives us hope that our story will ultimately end well.  It is this universal final victory that is the evangelium (“good news”) for us.

Lastly, as Sam points out, “We’re in the same tale still!  It’s going on!  Don’t the great tales never end?”  There is hope in this realization, as well.  We may not seem to be great heroes, the ones destined to be remembered in ballads, but we are all part of one Great Tale.  And as characters in this true Fairy-Story, our lives each have purpose and the final Eucatastrophe is our own.

If you liked this post, you can find more from Urania at the Egotist’s Club:

A Few Literary Watersheds

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Eucatastrophe: Hope Beyond the Walls of the World

  1. jubilare says:

    Well spake. I am glad you brought in the realization that the “great tale” includes us all. As a writer, I try to think of my stories like that, where every story spreads beyond its edges, and every character is a central character somewhere. All a story is, is a snapshot of something greater, like each of our lives.

    Tolkien has such a way with words, in fiction and nonfiction, doesn’t he?


    • Urania says:

      Thank you! I can definitely say, “On Fairy Stories” was an essay that changed the way I think about stories and literature. Well, that and some of Lewis’s essays on stories, too. Stories aren’t just something we tell to pass the time, they matter to how we live in the “real world”!


  2. David says:

    Thanks for connecting that bit from LOTR to Beren and Luthien. It’s been so long since I’ve read LOTR, and it was before I knew anything about The Silmarillion, that I didn’t even remember that Frodo’s vial from Galadriel had some of the light of the Silmarils. Also, wouldn’t that mean that the light is also from the Trees of Valinor? Wow, now that’s myth-making in action. When I do reread the trilogy, I’m going to be noticing so many Silmarillion references that I never got before!


  3. Urania says:

    Yeah, when I read LotR after reading the Silmarillion, I was so excited about all the references which I’d never noticed before, but that that suddenly made sense! Well, and the biggest one being Bilbo’s song about Earendil. I remember being really confused the first time I encountered that story. So it was a definite eureka moment when I finally knew what the song was all about!

    Also, I’ve always thought it was the coolest, most stunning idea ever that someone in Middle Earth could look up at Venus/Earnendil and see the light of the trees of Valinor. Talk about a sign of hope–Earendil was indeed called Gil-Estel, the star of high hope. (And you will recall that Estel was also Aragorn’s name.)


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