On Fairy Stories,” that one of the gifts fantasy brings to humankind is a glimpse of joy, a sudden “turn,” an undeserved gift. It does this through an outcome he called “eucatastrophe.” (The prefix “eu-” comes from the Greek language and means “good.”)
Tolkien thought fairy stories bring us consolation from a “catastrophe” turned good, or (put the other way) happy endings tinged with sadness. Later fantasy, following in Tolkien’s shadow, has not always kept faith with this idea. Two trends in fantasy novels, though apparent opposites, both diverge significantly from Tolkien’s vision.
First is the (rightly criticized) tendency for fantasy-novel heroes to be invincible. Facing ludicrously powerful forces of evil, they come through unscathed. This quality, whenever we see it, fails to measure up to Tolkien’s perception of “eucatastrophe” because it overemphasizes the “eu” part and forgets the other: catastrophe. Something terrible has to happen, some irreparable damage has to be done to somebody we care about, or the good outcome loses its poignancy and joy. If you want an excellent illustration of this, just think of Frodo before he leaves Middle Earth. Frodo is damaged—irreparably so. His heroic feat costs him his “humanity,” if I can call it that.
That outcome is not accidental. For Tolkien, there can’t be any consolation where genuine suffering is not recognized. (Anybody who’s ever been handed a platitude in the face of real personal tragedy knows this.) If the hero of a fantasy story is, in effect, invincible, a person who never suffers real injury or hardship, then the tale will be incapable of giving us one of the gifts that is fantasy’s birthright—at least, according to Tolkien.
Many people—readers and writers and editors among them—have been unsatisfied with such invincible heroes. As a result, we’re seeing an opposite trend, a reaction that also, however, fails to fill the role Tolkien envisioned for “fantasy.” Bluntly: I’m talking about so-called “gray characters.” These characters are “human,” at our worst and most egocentric. They lie, cheat, avenge themselves. If they do something “good,” it’s for despicable reasons. There’s no “good” versus “evil,” no heroes and villains, just the soft, spongy middle.
This, we are told, is “gritty realism.” And it might be that, but it’s also not “eucatastrophe.” It’s not what you get in the fairy stories. It gives no consolation—far from it. The accent has shifted to the “catastrophe”—except that here there isn’t “evil” in the old sense of the word, either. Catastrophe becomes the constant, the uninterrupted state of existence.
The first departure—failing to embrace the existence of real suffering, so that consolation can be provided by the unexpected “turn”—might be relatively harmless next to this second one. Because a brutal insistence on only “gray characters” and death and mayhem may—I hope not, but it probably does—amount to a denial of the possibility of “joy,” of hope, of the dream of goodness, that the fairy stories sometimes offered. Certainly Tolkien’s work offered it: those of us who love it are left with a keen yearning to visit Minas Tirith under Aragorn’s benevolent rule, or (for us democratic Americans) a long stay in the Shire, among people (hobbits, that is) who are genuine if a little provincial.
No doubt, many and greater champions of Tolkien can be found than me, but I want to join my voice to theirs. His characters are not perfect, and they aren’t unrealistic or one-sided, either. The best example here is Frodo. Think of it: he starts out good, he wants to do the right thing—so far, I think that’s like most of us. Check one. He’s a “little person” faced with forces beyond his control or understanding or capacity to overcome. Check two—so are most of us. Frodo’s asked to do something extraordinary, and he reluctantly agrees. Some of us have done the same; many of us, for instance, faced with an invalid child or parent make the “good” choice, the “right” one, the unselfish one, to care for that child or parent ourselves. People make such hard choices every day. Yes, their motives might be mixed. But they embark, wanting to do the right thing. And don’t forget, Tolkien lived during an era renowned for self-sacrifice. So, check three.
But what happens to Frodo at the end of this story? Let’s fast forward to the culmination of his quest, when he stands at the cracks of Mount Doom and, after all his work and all his suffering for “doing the right thing”—he fails. He can’t quite bring himself to do the self-sacrificial deed he intended at the beginning. He puts on the ring and he, little exhausted Frodo, defies Sauron. Check four—most of us would have failed too, in analogous circumstances. Think of the dutiful person taking care of that invalid child or parent, day after day, year after year. And losing, in the midst of all that, the thread of why she was doing it. And maybe coming to loathe the child or parent, in small and maybe larger ways. Or maybe feeling cheated in life—and even acting out to restore the balance.
As fantasy should for Tolkien, the “eucatastrophe” comes as the result of an unexpected turn. Gollum bites off the finger; Frodo’s original resolve is brought about despite his failure at the end. That part doesn’t have to be “realistic,” because this is “fantasy”—it draws on the fairy tale tradition, where such a turn is part of the magic of the story itself. How does Cinderella win the day without that lost slipper? Or the magic that got her to the ball? If you want nitty-gritty (and who doesn’t, sometimes?), fantasy might not be the best place to seek or find it.
But the catastrophe isn’t over yet. Frodo is damaged; he can no longer continue in Middle Earth. He’s saved his world from oppressive malice, but he’s lost the world for himself. He exits the novel a wounded figure. The battle against evil takes a real toll.
No, Tolkien’s characters and realms aren’t perfect; they have their faults and weaknesses. But when it really matters, they normally do the right things, or at least they want to. I think that’s more like most of us, or at least more of us than some folks like to admit. But even if you think all humans are so hopelessly corrupt that no one would have done what the “fellowship” did, the role of fantasy is not to show us the world as we normally live it, but rather to offer us a vision of the world that’s touched by “faerie,” by a magic that’s not about grasping but dreaming. Part of that dream is for people, realms, choices, that are good, at least in part. Or at least they struggle toward being good. And in the outcome, as cliché as some people may find it, without the “happy ending” that Tolkien said was “essential”—a happy ending tinged with sad, real loss—fantasy might just turn out not worth the hard work it demands.
[Note: This is the third of three posts on Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.” The other two are here and here.]