The eucatastrophe of Man’s history

It’s still Christmas and will be for a total of 12 days.  Jim Denney reminds us of what J. R. R. Tolkien said about it in his classic essay “On Fairy-Stories“:

JRR Tolkien, the creator of “The Hobbit,” once wrote that his goal as an author was to give his readers “the Consolation of the Happy Ending.” That consolation takes place at the point in the story when all hope is lost, when disaster seems certain—then Joy breaks through, catching the reader by surprise. In a 1964 essay, Tolkien called that instant “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Tolkien even coined a word for the moment when the light of deliverance breaks through the darkness of despair. He called it “eucatastrophe.” When evil fails and righteousness suddenly triumphs, the reader feels Joy—”a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”

Is the Joy of eucatastrophe just a literary device for manipulating the reader’s emotions? No. This same sudden glimpse of Joy, Tolkien wrote, can be found in our own world: “In the eucatastrophe we see in a brief vision . . . a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” Evangelium is Latin for “good news,” the message of Jesus Christ.

Tolkien went on to compare the Christian Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, to “fairy-stories,” the kind of fantasy tales (like “The Hobbit”) that produce the Joy of “eucatastrophe,” the consolation of the happy ending. The difference between the gospel story and fairy-stories, Tolkien said, is that the gospel is true: “This story has entered History and the primary world.”

“The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” Tolkien explained. “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”

via JRR Tolkien, the star of Bethlehem, and the fairy-story that came true | Fox News.

HT:  Paul Veith

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I believe it was precisely this concept and how Tolkien was able so masterfully to communicate it that proved the instrument God used to bring about the conversion of C.S. Lewis.

    I can not remember where I read it, but I recall reading that it was during one of their many conversations that Tolkien told Lewis that just because something is/was a legend does not mean it is not true.

    Lewis had become convinced that the NT is simply nothing more than pious wishes, fairy tales and legends, therefore not true.

    Tolkien looked at completely opposite and was able to lead Lewish to find and to see the “eucatastrophe” of the story of Jesus.

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I believe it was precisely this concept and how Tolkien was able so masterfully to communicate it that proved the instrument God used to bring about the conversion of C.S. Lewis.

    I can not remember where I read it, but I recall reading that it was during one of their many conversations that Tolkien told Lewis that just because something is/was a legend does not mean it is not true.

    Lewis had become convinced that the NT is simply nothing more than pious wishes, fairy tales and legends, therefore not true.

    Tolkien looked at completely opposite and was able to lead Lewish to find and to see the “eucatastrophe” of the story of Jesus.

  • SKPeterson

    The Road goes ever on and on,
    Down from the door where it began.
    Now far ahead the Road has gone,
    And I must follow, if I can,
    Pursuing it with eager feet,
    Until it joins some larger way
    Where many paths and errands meet.
    And whither then? I cannot say.

  • SKPeterson

    The Road goes ever on and on,
    Down from the door where it began.
    Now far ahead the Road has gone,
    And I must follow, if I can,
    Pursuing it with eager feet,
    Until it joins some larger way
    Where many paths and errands meet.
    And whither then? I cannot say.

  • Tom Hering

    At first, Larson’s theory bugged me. As if God’s action in the world is limited to natural means, and the Incarnation had to wait for the stars and planets to be aligned. The star of Bethlehem isn’t a miracle anymore. But then I thought it’s very reassuring that the course of the stars and planets were set at the Creation so they’d be just right for the Incarnation.

    So, whether it was Jupiter or a miraculous celestial object, I’m okay with it.

  • Tom Hering

    At first, Larson’s theory bugged me. As if God’s action in the world is limited to natural means, and the Incarnation had to wait for the stars and planets to be aligned. The star of Bethlehem isn’t a miracle anymore. But then I thought it’s very reassuring that the course of the stars and planets were set at the Creation so they’d be just right for the Incarnation.

    So, whether it was Jupiter or a miraculous celestial object, I’m okay with it.

  • EGK

    Thanks for the quote. It has been running through my mind a lot these days. But a significant point is missing. Tolkien goes on to say that to reject this story leads either to sadness or wrath. Given the trolls that continually pop up when Christians post on facebook, and the vituperation inherent in the new atheism, it is clear that Tolkien was right.

  • EGK

    Thanks for the quote. It has been running through my mind a lot these days. But a significant point is missing. Tolkien goes on to say that to reject this story leads either to sadness or wrath. Given the trolls that continually pop up when Christians post on facebook, and the vituperation inherent in the new atheism, it is clear that Tolkien was right.


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