At last [Sam] gasped: Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’ ‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land…
-J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Return of the King
For three years, night after night, my sons and I would end the day with J.R.R. Tolkien. They’d slide between layers of sheets and blankets. I’d draw the volume from the shelf and page my way to our current place. And we’d be transported, for the next thirty minutes or so, to Middle Earth, as we immersed ourselves in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fantasy epics.
By Holy Week 2021, we’d nearly finished The Return of the King, the final book of Tolkien’s masterful trilogy. I was cramming in a bit of sermon preparation between services and meetings, and decided to conclude my Easter proclamation that year with Gandalf’s joyful pronouncement to Samwise Gamgee after he and Frodo are miraculously rescued from the bowels of Mount Doom.
Frodo and Sam carry out their terrible task, destroying the Ring of Power. Mordor heaves, quakes, and begins to disintegrate. Frodo and Sam are sure they’re about to meet their end. But then, Sam wakes and discovers, to his own surprise, that he’s not dead. He asks Gandalf what’s happened. And the wise old wizard, with a beaming smile, responds: “A great shadow has departed from the world.”
The line was a fitting sermonic crescendo for Easter. But as I concluded the sermon at the final worship service, and relayed that triumphant moment, I noticed an unexpected flurry of motion out of the corner of my eye. Glancing over toward the back of the sanctuary, I realized that it was my sons — they had thrown up their arms in exasperation.
Then I remembered: we were still a few chapters from the end of Return of the King in our nightly reading. Where we had last stopped, Frodo and Sam had just cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom, and were saying their goodbyes to each other. My boys, I grasped in that moment, surely thought Frodo and Sam were about to die.
After all those nights of bedtime reading, I had just spoiled the ending of The Lord of the Rings for my sons.
I’ve been musing on that Easter Middle-Earth-spoiler. A few weeks ago, I was in Oxford, England, and meandered my way through Blackwell’s, the iconic bookstore that was a frequent destination for Tolkien. He reportedly racked up quite a tab there over the course of his life. Since I was in a favorite haunt of one of my literary heroes, I picked up a copy of his Tree and Leaf, and spent a cloudy English afternoon re-reading his famous essay “On Fairy Stories.”
In that landmark treatise, Tolkien unfolds why “fairy stories” have such abiding allure, for both children and adults. He depicts the ways in which myth and fantasy speak to “primordial human desires.” And then, he proceeds to sketch some of the genre’s essential elements, including two features for which Tolkien fashions his own names: dyscatastrophe and eucatastrophe.
Dyscatastrophe is the tragic element of a story; its sorrow and tears, its failures and the seemingly inevitable final defeat. Thus my sons’ reaction: the most likely lot for Frodo and Sam was certain death.
Eucatastrophe, on the other hand, is the “sudden joyous turn,” the “good catastrophe” (Tolkien coined the term from the ancient Greek: “eu”- “happy,” and “catastrophe”- “final end”). It’s victory in the face of certain defeat, life in defiance of death. All our most powerful stories enfold both of these dynamics. As Tolkien asserts, the “good catastrophe”
…is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence 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…It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears…
The cynical literati is suspicious, of course, of the final, joyous turn. It’s telling that Tolkien’s work is excluded from the Modern Library critic’s list of the 100 greatest novels of the twentieth century, while he’s always included when readers vote on such polls, and his novels have sold more copies than almost any books outside the Bible.
Despite the critical skepticism, these stories exert a powerful, lasting pull among us. And Tolkien insists that “fairy stories” ring true to us because they resonate with the Gospel, which he calls “a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories…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.”
Dyscatastrophe / Eucatastrophe
I’ve been thinking about these two elements and the interplay between them, as it comes to art, faith, and Christian practice. The music we perform and the novels we write, our preaching and our teaching, the work we publish and the community life we inhabit, to my mind, need both. Eucatastrophe without dyscatastrophe is sentimental, trite. It’s dishonest. But dyscatastrophe without eucatastrophe is jaundiced, tired, cynical.
We need art and philosophy and proclamation that is unflinching about tears and woe and the fissure of evil that tears its way through all of life. And, the world cries out for Good News, said and sung and performed and played with honest-to-goodness conviction, that insists that tragedy doesn’t get the last word. We need the Story that announces Resurrection in the face of the grave, Life in defiance of death. We need the hope that promises that there will be a Day in which, against all odds: “A great Shadow has departed.”