Thursday, April 5, 2012

Euphoric Eucatastrophe






E is for Eucatastrophe.

Today I am going to talk about another wonderful word invention of J.R.R. Tolkien, the philologist. Eucatastrophe is a storytelling device that he identified as a fundamental part of the Fairy Story and thus also as part of Fantasy as its successor. It is essentially a joyous catastrophe, a major reversal at the climax of the story which leads to a happy ending rather than a tragedy. It gives to the reader a euphoric feeling of release and relief and, again, joy. The Eucatastrophe is all about joy.


Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. ~J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The fantasy genre, as the literary heir to the Fairy Story, is, I think, the best place to find such sudden joy. Life rarely offers this to us, and most other genres are meant to be more true to life than fantasy. Because in fantasy it is possible to raise the stakes far higher than any other genre, the resulting reversal and happy ending can be all the more powerful.

Think of the reversal in The Lord of the Rings, when the ragged armies of Rohan and Gondor stand outside the gates of Mordor prepared to give their lives to protect the Free People of Middle-earth... and then the sudden reversal. The thing we have been waiting for has come to pass. The Ring has been destroyed and the tower of Barad Dur is toppled. The armies of Sauron flee in fear, for the Men of Rohan and Gondor have gained renewed strength from this Eucatastrophe.

Think of Harry Potter. (Spoilers ahead if you haven't read it.) Hogwarts is under seige, all of Harry's friends and loved ones about to be destroyed by an army of Death Eaters. All he has to do to save them is surrender his life. Harry dies at the Dark Lord's hand. But then... the joyous reversal. Harry's sacrifice not only allows him to return, but gives protection to everyone he is fighting for. Voldemort, who fled from death, can no longer stand against him who was willing to die for love.

The Eucatastrophe lends tremendous emotional power to stories that employ it. It gives joy in the face of destruction and hope in the face of tragedy.

22 comments:

  1. And that's why I enjoy reading fantasy. Real life doesn't always work out that way.

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  2. Reading Tolkien and Lewis always makes me feel like, 'This is exactly what I've been feeling all these years and I just never knew how to say it!'

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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    1. I get that feeling all the time from them.

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  3. Never heard "eucatastrophe" before. Very useful to have a word for an already-familiar (and pleasant) concept!

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    1. Indeed. Sometimes it takes a linguistics expert to coin things perfectly.

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  4. There's a word for that?! This is AWESOME. My poor fellow-writer and co-worker . . . she's going to hear me saying this word over and over and over again . . .

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  5. Great great post! I was watching the special features of the Lord of the Rings extended versions the other day and a critic was talking about the eucatastrophe. I haven't read On Fairy Stories but bought Tales from the Perilous Realm a few months ago and I'm looking forward to reading the essay in particular. I love fantasy because no matter how hard things get, something good always happens in the end to turn it all around.

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    1. On Fairy Stories is, predictably, brilliant. I highly recommend it.

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  6. Ah, yes, Precioussssssss, we love Lord of the Rings. When the movie came out, I reread the four books written by Tolkien. I had read them 25 years earlier, and they were just as satisfying as when I first read them.. I have always loved fairy tales, and used to tell them to the children who came into my library in elementary school.
    Thanks for the reminder. Ruby

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  7. Yes, I think those only happen in Fantasy. I think Tolkien really nailed the whole genre. His fantasies make sense. I'm trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs this month.

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  8. First of all, what a FABULOUS word! I had never heard of this before but it makes great sense!

    Second, why'd you have to go and ruin the ending to Harry Potter for me? ;)

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  9. This is the very first time I've heard this word or its definition. Thanks for such a unique post!
    Fellow A-Zer:
    http://libbyheily.blogspot.com/

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  10. Eucatastrophe. I like that word, and it is the first time I've "heard" it. Love LOTR, and this just fits why I enjoy reading so much.

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  11. I've never heard this word before, but I love it. Great example, too.

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  12. I got chills reading your post. Seriously. I love Tolkien's quote. And just thinking about that moment in both LOTR and HP is awesome.

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  13. The words "Horns, horns, horns" from The Return of the King is one of those examples I think. wow. Very cool. I lived and breathed these books at one time. still one of the best fantasy books ever.

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  14. That's an awesome post---didn't know about this at all.

    Look forward to your challenge run…
    --Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z
    #atozchallenge

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  15. Ooh, I agree with Huntress, that's another good example. "Ride now, ride now, ride to Gondor!"

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  16. I LOVE that quote from Tolkien and you've got me really thinking about the sudden reversal and its implications. I can't wait to read more in your series, please post more!

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  17. Excellent post! One of the best I've read this week. Harry Potter is an excellent example. I employ this element in my upcoming book, although unlike Harry, the guy doesn;t get to come back. But he sacrifices his life and saves a lot of people. And rightfully so as the mess the world is in is his fault.

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Comments, Precious, we appreciates them!