The Tolkien Option: Consolation and Eucatastrophe
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,and cry to herthat her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,that she has received
from the Lord's handdouble for all her sins.
Recovery, escape, and consolation. These are the essential elements of a good fairy story, writes J.R.R. Tolkien. As air, water, and food are to humanity, so are recovery, escape, and consolation to the fairy tale.
Tolkien’s view of recovery helps us regain a proper view of the world, to see life as it should be; through our journey in a good story, we see our own world more clearly. Escape is the longing that good stories give us; the desire to be freed from the prison of death and darkness.
And now, at last, we come to Tolkien’s final element of a good fairy story: consolation. We see the consolation of a good story most clearly in its denouement. Take for example Harry Potter’s final words in The Deathly Hallows, said after all his adventures, brushes with death, and his final battle with Lord Voldemort, “All is well.” Samwise Gamgee, likewise, declares his hard-fought contentment upon arriving home at Bag End, saying to his beloved Rosie, “Well, I’m home.” And of course, the quintessential fairy tale resolution: and they lived happily ever after.
Scripture, too, is full of consolation. Jesus’ words to his disciples before his ascension: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Paul’s refrain of benediction in his epistles: “The grace of our Lord Jesus the Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor. 13:14), or Jesus’ promise at the end of Revelation: “Surely I am coming soon.” (Rev. 22:20). Consolation, or the Happy Ending, is essential to all good stories in Tolkien’s view. “Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.”(Tree and Leaf, 68). If recovery gives us a proper view of the world as it ought to be, and escape fills us with the hope of rescue, consolation is the breath of life filling our lungs, hearts, and minds with the fresh, incorruptible air of the new creation. It is as essential in our world as it is in the imaginative world of a good story.
We need consolation. We are surrounded by lies, lust, murder, madness, corruption, chaos, sin, sorrow, death and disease. Like the men, hobbits, and elves of Middle-earth, we lament the restless evil that grips our world, our communities, and even our closest friends and family. Like Frodo, we wish that such dark days would not happen during our lifetime. Like Merry and Pippin, we grieve for our shire, or our land, that has been swallowed up by the shadow of death. These are echoes of the great laments such as we hear in Psalm 13: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (v. 1).
When we experience grief, sorrow, and death it is tempting to feel alone. As if we are the only one who has felt the cold, icy grip of death and the grave wash over us. But we are not alone. It was Jesus who cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He prayed this for us. He was forsaken for us. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and by his wounds, we are healed.
Jesus crucifixion and resurrection for us is the unexpected, unmerited, undeserved consolation that we never saw coming. It is the joyous turn in the story of the world. In an hour of darkness, Jesus reveals his greatest glory. In Jesus’ affliction, we are healed. In Jesus’ death, we live. In Jesus’ defeat, we are victorious. In Jesus crucified, we find consolation. And in his resurrection, we witness the impossible made possible. Death could not hold him.
Tolkien calls this sudden, unexpected turn in a story the eucatastrophe. According to Tolkien, it is the highest function of all good stories. It derives from the Greek words, ‘eu’for ‘good’, and ‘katastrophe’ for destruction. It is a good catastrophe, the collision of grief and joy. Think of the cross where Jesus reveals his greatest humility, and his greatest glory, and his resurrection where Jesus does the unexpected in rising from the dead. Jesus took our catastrophe of sin and turned it into the Great Eucatastrophe in his death and resurrection.
“I was there led to the view that [eucatastrophe] produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane (....) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 100).
It’s no surprise, then, that we see little eucatastrophes - glimpses of the Great Eucatastrophe of Jesus’ death and resurrection – in so many stories. The Eagles rescue of Frodo and Samwise on the cracks of Mt. Doom. Gandalf’s resurrection following his descent with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Samwise’s defeat of Shelob the spider. And the list could go on. The consolation of the fairy tale points us to the Great Consolation of Jesus crucified, and to the Great Eucatastrophe he accomplished for us. “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).