“The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”
“strophe” = turn
“cata” = down, against, back
“eu” = good
“Eucatastrophe” is a sudden, unexpected, and wonderful turn for good in an absolutely dire circumstance.
When I asked the late Dr. Michael Stanton to elaborate on Tolkien’s use of “eucatastrophe,” my friend and mentor (in all-things-Tolkien) wrote the following in an interview over a decade ago, “In our modern usage ‘catastrophe’ has come to mean a large-scale calamity or horror (Hurricane Katrina comes to mind); thus Tolkien’s word means almost the opposite: a large-scale turn toward the good from an originally dire situation. What Tolkien says about it in his discussion at the end of ‘On Fairy-Stories’ is that it is a kind of revelation, a glimpse or feeling of joy not unmixed with sorrow (the two always seem intertwined)” (emphasis mine).
Are you interested to read what Tolkien himself wrote about the meaning and significance of “eucatastrophe”? Here’s what he wrote about this wonderful word at the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:
“I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe 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 was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to 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, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”
“I am gald that you are here with me,” said Frodo. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.”
“Yes, I am with you, Master,” said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. “And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.”
“Maybe not, Sam,” said Frodo; “but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape” (The Return of the King, p. 228).
Hansen then adds, “But then there is a sudden turn in the story. We see in the next scene that ruin and downfall, the end of all things, the worst catastrophe, is unexpectedly reversed, and it becomes a good catastrophe, a ‘eucatastrophe.’ Our sorrow turns to joy as Frodo and Sam are lifted on eagles’ wings and borne to safety and recovery.
“Tolkien coined the word eucatastrophe—the good catastrophe—to express the reality of ‘a sudden and miraculous grace.’ It gives the reader ‘a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, and a piercing glimpse of joy and heart’s desire.’ The gospel, Tolkien says, ‘is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world…Art has been verified…Legend and History have met and fused'” (pp. xi, xii).
So, on this Easter Sunday, let’s find joy and our heart’s deepest desire in the Eucatastrophe of the Resurrection, As Tolkien writes, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy” (‘On Fairy-Stories’).