Monday, September 20, 2010

Eucatastrophe: What Does This Mean?

I've been asked several times what the word "eucatastrophe" - in the subtitle of the blog - means. If J.R.R. Tolkien - a master linguist and philologist, not to mention writer, poet and devout Christian - couldn't find a word to describe what he wanted to communicate, he made one up. Hence, eucatastrophe. For all you linguists out there you may recall the Greek word eucharist, meaning thankfulness and joy and so on, combined with catastrophe. Tolkien describes it as a good catastrophe, a collision of joyous events. It's not an oxymoron, however. It is a word to describe the indescribable. A word which tries to explain something infinitely more joyous than we are capable of explaining this side of heaven. Which is ultimately what he was doing in his collective work as a writer, defending the Gospel with the pen and elves and hobbits (although in very different way than, perhaps, C.S. Lewis does in Narnia).

In an essay entitled, On Fairy Stories, written to Charles Williams (fellow member of the Inklings - more on them another day), Tolkien speaks of this eucatastrophe - what it means in fairy stories and chiefly, what it means in the greatest true story, in fact the central story of all human kind, the Gospel. What does this word - eucatastrophe mean? Here in his own words, Tolkien tells us exactly what he means.

The consolation of fairy stories, the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow or failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of denies universal defeat and in so far is a glimpse of joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

The Gospels contain a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatasrophe 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 is true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Pimary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject leads either to sadness or wrath...

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy story were found to be "primarily" true, its narrative to be history...the joy would be exactly that same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the "turn" in a fairy story gives: such has the very taste of primary truth. It looks forward (or backward) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused."

- J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.

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