One of the things that people commonly underestimate is the depth of grief and despair to be found in the works of JRR Tolkien. This is, without a doubt, a big part of the huge impact that his work had on me, starting as an early adolescent to the present day. I could either say that I struggle with depression, or that I perceive the world around me and feel tremendous grief and despair about it, and either one, or both, would be true.
A friend recently @ed me on Twitter, wondering what I had to say about eucatastrophe, as I’ve written and thought about it in the past. Eucatastrophe is, in brief, a “The eagles are coming!” moment, as found at the climax of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is an idea that Tolkien first described with that term, but not an idea original to him by any means (of course). Tolkien learned it from Christianity, and would say that his idea of eucatastrophe is merely patterned after the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, he argued that we find ideas like eucatastrophe compelling precisely because they mirror the great story of God saving the world. It come up in his poem Mythopoeia, if you look for it, and in many of his writings. Dig in – I’m not going to cite everything here.
My friend said the following on Twitter:
“Because Holy Christ, do we need a little eucatastrophe right now. I honestly don’t know how else a deliverance from global social media-fueled capitalist fascism will occur.”
Now, this is a Unitarian Universalist saying “Holy Christ,” so you know it’s serious and they’re at wit’s end.
Since he asked me, I thought about what I might say on the topic of eucatastrophe, because I definitely share his despair about the situation of the world. And rightly so – if you are optimistic about the next 100 years for humanity and the natural world, I’m comfortable saying that you are ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, a lot of things. And to be clear, I don’t blame you. If you can’t escape the burning house, you can try to make sense of the flames. Maybe that’s all we can do.
The eucatastrophe is by definition unexpected – it is something you did not anticipate or even imagine happening. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus came back, you can probably agree that after his crucifixion, no one around him expected him to come back. None of his followers behaved as if he was going to come back – not even the women, who were clearly the smart and courageous ones.
Let’s say my friend and I are right, and only an eucatastophe can save us, and millions of other species as well, at this juncture. That means that our current moment is some moment before this eucatastrophe. But what is the moment before eucatastrophe like? The main eucatastrophe scene in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings occurs while the point of view character is unconscious, but let’s look at the one from The Return of the King, starting with preparation for the last battle at the Black Gate in the chapter “The Black Gate Opens.”
During their preparation for the last battle, Gandalf says this:
‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’
Bilbo growing in courage is a theme of The Hobbit, and courage without hope is a theme in The Lord of the Rings, becoming a more dominant one as the story progresses. Even the small glimmer of hope that Gandalf clings to here is snuffed out in the same chapter, as we will see. But this is the kind of decision-making that occurs before the eucatastrophe – no reasonable hope of victory or success exists, and yet they resolve to see the fight through to the bitter end.
Here we get the admixture that is found in many places in Tolkien’s writing – a combination of faithfulness and fortitude in the midst of a hard task. Here Tolkien drew upon his understanding of Roman Catholic moral theology and virtue, as well as the grim courage in the face of certain death that typified the Germanic heroic literature which was his professional life. It is, in the best sense I think, martyrdom. It is something we can see reflected in, for example, Daniel chapter 3:
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.[b]18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
Like many of the heroes we see in The Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Theoden in Helm’s Deep, and now the Captains of the West preparing to march on Mordor, here we have the heroes of the story resisting not because they expect victory but because they simply refuse to give up. Being faithful to what they value and believe is more important than winning, and even the hopelessness of their situation cannot turn them aside.
But even the small hope that Gandalf holds out is later extinguished.
When they reach the Black Gate, neither the Captains of the West nor the first-time reader knows what has happened to Frodo and Sam, but the Mouth of Sauron relishes the opportunity to crush everyone’s hope:
The Messenger put these aside, and there to the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first the short sword that Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone.
As the moment before eucatastrophe is drawn out, even small hopes are extinguished. The hopes of the strongest, the leaders of this last desperate attempt at buying time for true victory, are crushed. Not long after this, battle is truly joined, and everyone’s hope is lost. Now nothing seems to stand between them and a painful, meaningless death.
The wind blew, and the trumpets sang, and arrows whined; but the sun now climbing towards the South was veiled in the reeks of Mordor, and through a threatening haze it gleamed, remote, a sullen red, as if it were the ending of the day, or the end maybe of all the world of light. And out of the gathering mirk the Nazgul came with their cold voices crying words of death: and then all hope was quenched.
And we, as the reader, are privy to Pippin’s last thoughts, which hint at eucatastrophe for us. But from Pippin’s point of view, this is his death, ending in defeat as he thought would happen all along, crushed and suffocated beneath the weight of a troll-corpse, one more lump of carrion for the crows.
‘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!’
For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.
We see that there might be some hope to keep us reading, as we look at see that we have 3/4 of the book left to go through (including Appendices) before we’re done. We know the story continues, but Pippin does not. As far as he knows, all of his friends are dead or will soon be killed, and the Shire will be destroyed, and all the known world will be plunged into darkness.
Wrath, Grief, and Ruin
The moment before eucatastrophe is a time of wrath, grief, and ruin. Wrath, as we see Gandalf seize the tokens from the Mouth of Sauron, in memory of his friends, and then he drives the ‘Messenger’ off in terror. Fine. There is no hope. Gird up your loins, then, because we are coming for you.
Grief, because in learning that Sam and Frodo are apparently captured, sentenced to long, slow torture spanning years until they are utterly broken, Gandalf is losing two beloved friends and companions. Not only the hope of the world was with them, but Gandalf’s love, concern, and friendship. Pippin can’t help but cry out, revealing that they know to whom those things belonged, and the Mouth of Sauron delights in their pain as eagerly as if he was wearing a red MAGA hat.
Ruin because this was the end. At that point, no one in leadership had any expectation of survival. They came to terms with the fact that all they had left to do was to go down fighting.
So then, if we are in a similar moment, what is it that we can look toward that will save us from social media-fueled capitalist fascism?
The Means at the End
This is a dangerous place to leave the discussion, because one could easily imagine the MAGA-bomber giving a similar answer – that wrath, grief and ruin drove him to the last desperate act of political assassination. Any number of people, driven to horrific violence, might tell a similar story of perceived loss, and of what they saw as courage in the face of terrible odds.
For this reason, any movement that seeks to resist social media-driven capitalist fascism, or however else you imagine the looming end, must be nonviolent.
Because a terrible end to this human story seems so inevitable; because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against any such resistance; because the forces of evil are so thoroughly ascendant, there is no other option that has any hope of leading to moral ends. In the story of The Lord of the Rings, violence didn’t work. It didn’t bring hope or lasting victory. In our current story, we thought that we defeated the Nazis back in 1945. Little did we know that millions of Americans would support a President who our own Nazis would see as their last, great hope, who would sing the praises of authoritarian dictators and vilify the press, campaign on explicit bigotry and nativism, and basically follow the blueprint of 1930s Germany.
In the face of wrath, grief, and ruin, driven to extremity, human beings who hold up violence as an option will almost invariably turn to violence. This is where the imagery in The Lord of the Rings falls short in applicability to our situation today. We aren’t fighting orcs, we are fighting other human beings who are on the wrong side of history for some human reason. They are not driven by the supernatural will of the emissary of a fallen angel, but driven by recognizable, human motivations like fear, addiction, greed, cowardice and apathy.
The means with which we fight must be humane above all else.
Here, radical ideologies are often unhelpful, but Christianity might be a powerful resource. Earlier, I described the moment before eucatastrophe as martyrdom from Tolkien’s Roman Catholic point of view, and the martyrs, as far as I know, died resisting nonviolently. (Know a lot about martyrs? Comment below)
To live in this moment before eucatastrophe, we need much more MLK Jr. than we need Aragorn. But to see and understand this moment, I think we can look to the works of Tolkien, to understand our current moment. If it is the moment before eucatastrophe, we will of course not know, but the heroic thing is to fight anyway, with or without hope.
‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’
The above quote from Gandalf is not quite accurate, given climate change, but important nonetheless I think. There is always another evil – we are only responsible for the fields that we know.