Monday, 4 February 2013

Tolkien's Eucatastrophe

I recently read '"Just a Fool's Hope": Tolkien's Eucatastrophe as the Paradigm of Christian Hope' by Margaret Bush, a senior thesis on Christianity in Tolkien's works. I sought out this paper because I was interested in finding out more about this 'eucatastrophe' and realized that in many ways, the eucatastrophe forms the key to the centre of Tolkien's mythopoeia and Christian beliefs.

Mythopoeia comes from the Greek word μυθοποιία, 'myth-making', and is both a genre and an action. Authors such as Tolkien, who coined the term, C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft are known for creating a mythology and world for their novels. Middle-Earth, Narnia and the Cthulhu Mythos are rife with mythology and stories created by their respective authors in order to offer a background to their primary narrative. For a closer look at mythopoeia, Tolkien is the best example. Works such as 'The Silmarillion', 'The Book of Lost Tales' and the appendixes to 'The Lord of the Rings' are filled to the brink with stories, languages, myths and chronologies, offering the reader with so much material that Middle-Earth seems as real as Ancient Greece. Nothing but stories remain of either and yet Tolkien's tales are so similar to our "original" and "real" mythology, while remaining unique, that they have been raised to the same level by many. 

In his mythology, Tolkien brought together two of his passions: paganism and Christianity. When I write paganism I do not mean men covered in blood sacrificing humans, I mean the culture and beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, which Tolkien studied throughout all of his life. He was not only interested in their languages, which influenced Elvish and Rohirric, but also their culture and beliefs. For the Anglo-Saxon and Viking common men there was no such thing as an after-life in which they would live blessed lives. The awareness of this, the gloom that comes with it, and the idea of a courageous and honourable death is seen by Bush as the reflection of Tolkien's studies into pagan cultures. The Fellowship in 'The Lord of the Rings' is willing to fight on even after they believe Frodo to be dead because it is the right and honourable thing to do. So where does Christianity fit into this?

This is where the eucatastrophe comes in. Tolkien first coined this term in his essay 'On Fairy-Stories' in which he analysed fairy tales and their form. The eucatastrophe can be anything that happens near the end of the story that saves the hero from doom and turns the story from tragedy to joy. Unlike deus ex machina, the eucatastrophe comes from the story and is not, as such, a divine intervention. In her analysis of 'The Lord of the Rings' Bush sees many occasions in which Tolkien uses a kind of Fate as divine presence. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, just as Frodo was meant to inherit it. Bilbo's mercy for Gollum was his own decision and is what eventually allows the eucatastrophe in 'The Return of the King' to logically happen. Frodo has succumbed  to the Ring and everything seems lost when suddenly Gollum interfers and accidentally destroys the Ring.  Crucial here is Frodo's failure because it differentiates him from Christ, whose Incarnation was, in Tolkien's eyes, our, human, eucatastrophe. 

Frodo's failure sets him apart not only from Christ but also from the heroes of old such as Beowulf, and makes him a common man. Tolkien here shows us that normal people, hobbits, are almost bound to be seduced in the face of such spiritual evil as the Ring. Frodo cannot resist and is not sacrificed, like Christ did and was. He does, however, have his own, personal, eucatastrophe. Again, the seeds for this were sown earlier on, much like Bilbo's previous mercy was the cause for the final eucatastrophe. Frodo's pity for Gollum in 'The Two Towers', that leads him to spare his life, allows him to spiritually survive his failure. 

Bush argues that there is no true eucatastrophe in 'The Lord of the Rings' because the end is, ultimately, not happy. Frodo leaves Middle-Earth as do its Guardians, Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf. But this is where Bush sees Tolkien's focus. He wanted to find a place in God's creation for his own creation. He does not presume to be able to repeat God's Eucatastrophe of sending down Jesus in his own work but rather he gives us a story that shows us human eucatastrophes, of people inadvertently saving the world with a little push from Fate or God, who knows. 

These are my thoughts on eucatastrophes, mythopoeia, Tolkien and many other things. I hope it was somehow interesting and coherent. I definitely recommend the paper to anyone who is interested. If you can't find it, drop me an email and I can send it to you. All thanks go to Margaret Bush for writing down everything so clearly that even I understood it. And I also recommend reading Tolkien's poem 'Mythopoeia' which he wrote after a discussion with C.S. Lewis, who dared to call myths 'lies breathed through silver'. This was the first ever poem I, partly, memorized. 


  1. Wow! It has been a long time since I thought so deeply about Tolkien and his world. Middle Earth truly is quite a creation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts (and Ms. Bush's).

  2. Hi, Juli! I'm Margaret Bush, the author of the paper. I found your blog after Googling the title of my thesis out of curiosity.

    Thanks for reading, recommending, and sharing your own thoughts. You did an excellent job of encapsulating the meaning of eucatastrophe and the Christian nature of the story. I'm so glad you found the paper interesting and illuminating. It certainly took a lot of effort to write, but I'm pleased that it's found an online audience.

    I hope you're able to see this comment in spite of the fact that this post is over a year old. If you would like to discuss Tolkien, LotR, or the topic of the eucatastrophe any further, I would love to chat! :)

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I really enjoyed your paper and all the credit goes to you if I understood it properly!