Watch for Eucatastrophes

Watch for Eucatastrophes July 8, 2021

Yesterday we looked at hubris, the pride that brings on catastrophe in Greek tragedies.  Here is another literary term that helps account for the real world:  eucatastrophe.

My fellow Patheos blogger and Baylor history professor Andrea Turpin brings up the concept in her post Eucatastrophe in American Evangelicalism.  She defines it as “the sudden and unexpected occurrence of something deeply good.”  As opposed to catastrophe,” the “sudden and unexpected occurrence of something deeply bad.”

She applies that to the recent convention of the Southern Baptists, in which the presidential election ended up with her candidate winning and other positive outcomes, something she didn’t expect.

She, in turn, points to a post by Chris Theissen that uses the concept in its literary sense:  Eucatastrophe in Taylor Swift.  He shows how her songs tend to be about romantic relationships gone wrong.  But often, those songs contain a surprising “turn” in which everything works out after all.  That’s eucatastrophe.

Far be it for me to weigh in on Southern Baptists or Taylor Swift, but I appreciate being reminded of the concept.  As both bloggers note, the term was coined by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” one of the best literary analyses of a genre that I have ever come across.  He says that  eucatastrophe is 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.”

In a fairy tale, Snow White comes back alive at the kiss of the prince; Cinderella must return to misery, except the magic in the glass slipper stays.

Unexpected bad things happen to the causes we care about, but so do unexpected good things.  We tend to fixate on the former, but fail to fully notice or hope for–or pray for–the latter.

As Prof. Turpin says, “Eucatastrophes happen.”

Not only that, whether in literature or real life, they point to something more.  As Tolkien says in his essay, “The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”  And of our story.


Image:  “Sleeping Beauty” by Gustave Doré –, Public Domain,


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