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.