Eucatastrophe is a term that Tolkien coined as early as 1939 as part of his Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. This concept was outlined in more detail in the publication of his 1947 essay On Fairy Stories, which is something of an apologia for fantasy literature in general. The term comes from adding the Greek prefix meaning “good”, eu, to the word catastrophe, which refers to the unraveling of the plot in a story, as well as, obviously, disaster.
Tolkien identifies eucatastrophe as central to his idea of mythopoeia, which I’ve mentioned a few times before. Mythopoeia is his term for a fictional mythology that comes from Tolkien’s poem of the same name…to say a lot more about it would entail at least another blog post in itself. Suffice to say, all of these things are carefully connected.
Eucatastrophe refers to a sudden reversal of fortune, at the point when hope seems entirely lost, in which the story is redeemed and the protagonist is saved by what is often an un-looked-for force or influence or event. For Tolkien, the Resurrection of Christ is the ultimate, archetypal eucatastrophe. He also sees it as central to the literary category of “fairy story”, which loosely includes his own works, though he made the conscious attempt to go far beyond what his contemporaries were doing in creating what we often think of as fairies, what Tolkien strongly detested and derided in his letters.
He seems to have seen the Victorian take on European myths about “fairy”, as a place and as a kind of being, as part and parcel of the general domestication of the imaginative/mythological landscape that goes hand-in-hand with industrialization and, though he wouldn’t use the term, reductionism. It was all part of the disenchantment of the world, and Tolkien’s own fictional writings were self-conscious attempts to counteract this trend in his own small way. Of course, in doing so, he essentially invented the modern literary genre of Fantasy.
In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it is a simple thing to locate when the eucatastrophe occurs, because Tolkien intentionally marked the reversal which brings about a good ending in the exact same way. At the moment when all seems lost, around the time that the point-of-view character goes unconscious, someone looks up and shouts “The Eagles are coming!” In The Hobbit it is Bilbo himself; in The Return of the King it is an unnamed person whom Pippin hears.
In The Hobbit this occurs at the peak of the Battle of Five Armies at the gates of the Lonely Mountain. Thus far, only four armies had arrived – the army of the Elvenking of Mirkwood, the army of Dwarves under Thorin including his companions in the Lonely Mountain and reinforcements from the Iron Hills, and the Men of Dale led by Bard on one side, and loads of Goblins from the Misty Mountains and the Grey Mountains under Bolg on the other side. At the moment in the battle when it seems that the Goblins are going to overwhelm the protagonists…
“The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed in the West. Seeing the
sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that
made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
‘The Eagles! The Eagles!’ he shouted. ‘The Eagles are coming!'”
In the Return of the King, the cry is heard at the peak of the battle at the Black Gate, when the armies of the West, from Minas Tirith, Dol Amroth and Rohan, have been encircled atop two hills and are only awaiting their demise. Pippin is crushed beneath the dying body of a troll..
“‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above: “”The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!”
You could find a parallel easily enough, if you can imagine the women, led by Mary, running to the Disciples who are huddled, frightened, in a borrowed room, shouting as they burst through the door “The tomb is empty! The tomb is empty!”
The reversal itself, the eucatastrophe, seems always to be in the form of grace. No one expected the Eagles to arrive during either climatic battle; and surely no one expected an empty tomb. When the good thing comes, it is more often than not unexpected, because it does not come from something you can predict or understand. It is an invasion of good into a situation of what appears to be inexorable evil, making a sudden landing on our shores from across a sea we thought infinite…our out of a sky we thought empty.