Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe, Catharsis and Communion

What is the eucatastrophe at the end of The Lord of the Rings? I used to think it was the coming of the eagles, but this seems a bit shallow (though it’s hard to argue with the LOTR Project’s Gandalf Problem-Solving Flowchart). The “sudden joyous ‘turn’” (as Tolkien defines the term he coined in his essay “On Fairy Stories” for the opposite of the familiar dyscatastrophe) is no less than the deliverance of Middle Earth from the power of Sauron and the kind of power he represents. What this turn requires is more than just the eagles, and what it accomplishes, both within Middle Earth and for readers, is more than just joy (“The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!”). Eucatastrophe, more than utopia, is a key to what much literature, not just fairy-stories, can call us to.

At the Foot of Mount Doom by Ted Nasmith
At the Foot of Mount Doom by Ted Nasmith

One thing the eucatastrophe of The Lord of the Rings requires is, in fact, dyscatastrophe: the failure of Frodo and the tragedy of Gollum. Eucatastrophe, Tolkien says, “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat, and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Eucatastrophe shares the prefix eu- with evangelium, “good news,” and with one possible sense of u- in utopia, “good place” or “no place.”) Tolkien’s story suggests, in fact, that eucatastophe is not just a contrast to dyscatastrophe, but a completion and healing of its effects.

The catastrophic downfall of a hero is a distant repetition of the scapegoat mechanism that is, in Girard’s mimetic theory, the primordial human way of dealing with violence that always threatens within a group. The spontaneous choice of an essentially random victim unifies the group in a single, conclusive act of all-against-one violence and temporarily establishes peace. Repeating this mechanism and its effects in more controlled fashion is the origin and basic function of cultural institutions, beginning with religious ritual and continuing down to things like tragic drama. The catharsis that Aristotle sees as the purpose of tragedy is, according to Girard, a similar experience of unanimity through violence.

Girard sees the effect of tragic catastrophe as relational rather than individual. The catharsis of pity and fear identified by Aristotle serves the establishment of group solidarity just as does the killing of a bull on the altar of Dionysius at the same festival where Athenian tragedies were performed. Can the effect of eucatastrophe also be seen relationally? Tolkien focuses on individual joy, and eucatastrophe has an important function in calling individuals away from unanimity maintained through scapegoating violence. Yet fairy-stories also escape, he says, toward communion with all living things—like the communion with trees mediated by reading about Tolkien’s ents, or with the talking eagles. “Communion” seems just the right word, too, for the kind of relationship between people that fairy-stories press furthest into, but that is also a possible fruit of many kinds of literary reading.

The great tragedies, for instance, according to Girard, offer a double reading: one for the crowd unified in emotion and desire by a violent spectacle, and one for those who have ears to hear something else. Hamlet gratifies the desire for vengeance but also exposes the ideology perpetuated by revenge tragedies. King Lear, I would say, goes farther to nurture hope, at least, for a faithfulness that transcends death. A Winter’s Tale goes beyond tragedy to something more like a fairy-story with a eucatastrophe involving conversion from envy and the beginning of reconciliation.

For me, The Lord of the Rings goes still further toward imagining and generating the fullness of human communion opened by eucatastrophe: the moments shared by Frodo and Sam when they still expect to die despite the deliverance of Middle Earth; the coronation of Aragorn after decades of patient self-sacrifice; the honor paid to the hobbit heroes; even the parting at the Gray Havens; and maybe most of all Sam’s return home (expanded in a posthumously published extra chapter). Indeed, the whole eucatastrophe of Middle Earth is brought home, as it were, by its repetition on a smaller scale and through more ordinary agents—which is to say, more comically—in the final chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.” Through it all we glimpse something like the new community—the alternative to the violent solidarity exposed by the tragedy of the Crucifixion—that is inaugurated by the one eucatastrophe, the Resurrection, and tasted in the new ritual of Holy Communion.


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