Word of the Day: eucatastrophe eu•ca•tas•tro•phe | ēu-kə-tăs′trə-fē noun the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter # 89)
For all of you preferred video learners, here’s a video version of this topic in my new Youtube Channel below.
This term was coined during a letter, Letter #89, that Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher. However, it is not the first place I heard about the term. I had first heard it actually in a site that was dedicated to Tolkien quotes. I forgot which one it was, since it was definitely a few years ago.
I had also heard of the term in the video below, portraying Tolkien having a good talk with his friend C.S. Lewis about faith. He starts mentioning the term at around 6:20 or so.
But it was so clear to me when reading Lord of the Rings, that there were some instances of eucatastrophe.
So in terms of the languages – we could say that it is a Westron term, or a term of the Common Speech, though it seemed like he didn’t create the term primarily for use of his Middle-earth lore and works. He coined the term primarily during his personal life, which may actually have something to do with his Middle-earth legendarium, since the instances occurred during his Middle-earth legendarium.
But we don’t have to think of it as “Middle-earth versus non Middle-earth,” as according to Tolkien, Arda (Middle-earth) is our world in a mythical past. This was told to me by a fellow fan, though I’m not sure where he got it from. But it does make sense – as Tolkien had remarked from time to time in his letters that he wanted to create a legendarium for England, the country he was living in at the time, and thus, Middle-earth was invented.
However, today we will go over letter #89, since that is where Tolkien had coined the term, eucatastrophe, in a letter to Christopher. Most know this term from Frodo’s destruction of the ring, or the scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo exclaims, “The Eagles! The Eagles are Coming!” or in in the Battle of Morannon in Lord of the Rings.
Letter # 89
Tolkien starts out by describing an experience he had at St. Gregory’s chapel, after Christopher Tolkien mentioned the care of his guardian angel.
He spent a half an hour there before the Blessed Sacrament – when the Quarant’ Ore, as known as the Forty Hours Devotion, was there. So he definitely had a spiritual reason to coin the term. But it doesn’t come out for a while – yet – the description of how he coined the term eucatastrophe comes shortly after that.
From the reader’s perspective, it’s like the calm before the storm. He wasn’t sure, but it was the time when he was about to describe something, like the finite being relative to the infinite. This was something that he thought about especially during the devotion. The ray was the Guardian Angel that Christopher mentioned, and he received comfort from the vision.
He was there at a service with his daughter Priscilla when she wasn’t feeling well, and they had a very good sermon there – talking about how Jesus healed the woman and Jairus’ daughter.
Then, the priest compares this to three evangelists, one included the part where a woman in their area was similarly afflicted with a tumor, cured instantly at Lourdes as the tumor couldn’t be found.
In another scene, the little boy with tubercular peritonitis in 1927, who wasn’t healed and going to the hospital via train – looking like he was already dying. In the same train there was a little girl who had been healed. However, on the way there he wanted to talk to a little girl at the Grotto. Then after playing with her for a while, he came back to say he was hungry, so they gave him some cake!
Finally, there was another scene of a Franciscan Friar who was mortally ill, and couldn’t eat anything for years. However, he was cured and had two dinners, as he was so happy about it he was jumping for joy! (Or eating in joy?)
He later talks about the biblical passage, and how these scenarios relate to it. In those cases, they weren’t feeling well and were worried about the state of their health. However, he was deeply moved by the stories, especially the one about the little boy in 1927, that he coined the term, eucatastrophe.
He later calls it also a sudden glimpse of truth, and a sudden relief after “your whole nature is [chained in a] cause and effect.” It’s like when you have a tight limb that snaps – and everything is suddenly going great.
Since he holds Christian beliefs, he concludes that the Resurrection is the most important eucatastrophe in the greatest Fairy Story (the Bible).
We can look at it and think that if he thinks the Bible is the greatest Fairy Story, this means that he doesn’t believe in God. However, he clarifies this shortly after, saying that he doesn’t mean the Gospels were only a fairy story, but they do tell one.
It’s clear that when Tolkien refers to something as a Fairy Story, it doesn’t exactly mean it’s a lie. It can be a true story – and one that provides the greatest eucatastrophe of all, with a moving story in a manner consonant with his nature. But he couldn’t reproduce an argument which led to this, since there wasn’t one. But there was a reason, or what he calls a direct appreciation of the mind.
He recognizes later that he wrote one in The Hobbit, a eucatastrophic action when Bilbo exclaims,
He also mentions that the term ‘eucatastrophe’ applies in the last chapter of Lord of the Rings when Sam was convinced that Frodo was dead. At the time, he hadn’t published LOTR yet, so he could only vaguely describe the situation, though there was a really moving part where Sam was convinced that it was the end of Frodo’s journey, after he was caught by Shelob in The Two Towers.
Then, finally he brings up a vision he had with a man and his daughter, who wore rags, but he seemed to remind him of St. Joseph. While he was worried it was becoming a very peculiar letter, he’d hoped it wasn’t incomprehensible. After that, he starts listing and describing things in his daily life, such as a performance, his friends, and apple trees he had to protect from moth.
Since it defines eucatastrophe, it definitely provides a lot of context on “eucatastrophic moments.” So there were three scenes:
- When a woman they knew was in a similar situation as she dealt with a tumor, and cured instantly at Lourdes.
- A little boy with tubercular peritonitis who wanted to talk to a little girl at the Grotto.
- A Franciscan Friar who was mortally ill.
So in these three cases, they had situations where they were gravely ill. While it’s unknown how they were cured, they all had things in common: that it led to a sense of hope, where a sudden turn of happy events which brings you joy.
This is what he later calls eucatastrophe. It could bring anyone – the reader, the person experiencing the eucatastrophic moment – joy.
Through those three moments that were described by the priest, Tolkien coined a term for it – which was eucatastrophe, coming from eu- (‘good’) and -catastrophe (‘sudden turn of events’).
When we normally think of catastrophe, it usually involves in a destruction. When we discuss something as “catastrophic,” it usually has a negative context, as if everything is going into turmoil. However, Tolkien penned the term, eucatastrophe, in order to provide one for a positive turn of events.
And later, he makes a very important point, that it doesn’t have to be these agonizing events. It can also be the little things that happen in our lives. Such as the part where “The Eagles are Coming!” in The Hobbit, which (when compared to the three mentioned eucatastrophic moments he mentions earlier, or even the destruction of the Ring or the time when Sam was wondering if Frodo was still alive) don’t seem as life-changing.
But they can still provide the same sense of life-changing joy, when things seemed to be wearing you down before, but a sudden turn of events bring you joy. This means that anything that creates this joyful moment that is often unexpected, is, as we now know it as eucatastrophe.
This is wonderful – as it claims that catastrophic events don’t always have to be negative. They could lead to positive moments!