April 13, 2018—A Community Lecture Series Event: Tolkien and the Function of Fantasy—Holly Ordway, PhD.
The acknowledgment that Fantasy has a function was empowering. There’s a subtle vibe that writing about wizards and witches might not be a positive contribution to the world. This lecture said that there is. And it emphasized the importance of Storytelling, a defense against the notion that “telling stories” always and only equals lying and the bias that a writer “just makes things up” makes a story less true.
And I learned a new word: EUCATASTROPHE.
It has its own Wikipedia Page. It’s the technical term for something every reader has surely experienced: the unexpected happy ending when doom seemed certain. Tolkien coined the word Eucatastrophe, and it appears in his On Fairy-Stories.
Tolkien coined the name, and he makes use of eucatastrophe in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but he didn’t invent it. It’s found in Fairy Tales and Fairy Stories—the illustration on the Wikipedia page shows the Prince in Sleeping Beauty emerging from the lethal ring of thorns and about to wake the Princess after 100 years. Says it “needs citation”, but it’s dead-on. Tolkien calls the Incarnation of Christ the eucatastrophe of human history—and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.
At the end of The Return of the King, all certainly seems lost. Despite an alliance of Men, Elves and Dwarves, despite enchanted swords and rings of power, it seems impossible that Sauron can be defeated. Anyone who touches the One Ring is corrupted by it. Frodo can’t bear to destroy the Ring. Gollum doesn’t want to destroy the Ring. And yet…
One of the functions of Fantasy is Consolation. Consolation after sorrow. Reversal of tragedy. And a eucatastrophe is always a consolation. We have a need for that consolation, and we turn to storytellers in quest of it.
That’s never to say writers have to obsess about including eucatastrophes in their work. Eucatastrophe is more of an academic term for the use of literary critics—like theme, trope, allegory. Writers shouldn’t worry about including any of those things in their stories. Chances are, if the story needs it, it’s probably in there!
Writers should tell their stories—that’s the writer’s job, after all!