By Scott Keith –
“Fairy stories are the major gift that we have received from the preliterate ancient world. They’re wilder than Aristotle’s ideas, deeper than Luther’s complaints, more full of truth than Montaigne’s prose, great as that is.“
– Robert Bly
After the lovely and talented Mrs. Koch posted her blog last week, there was much a to-do regarding the importance, or even, legitimacy of fairy tales. The “commentsphere” (I invented that word, I think), seemed hell bent on destroying the idea of fairy tales, and in some cases even happiness. I began to wonder if those bemoaning fairy tales ever enjoyed classics like, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, or The Snow Queen. Or if they did not enjoy fairytales, maybe they fancied the modern equivalents. Books like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or even movies like Star Wars or The Matrix.
There is a concept in literature and film called eucatastrophe. Eucatastrophe is a term invented by the philologist and popular storyteller, J. R. R. Tolkien, in his lesser known essay, On Fairy Stories. When inventing the word, Tolkien attached the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to the English word catastrophe. He used this term to describe the unexpected turn of events that shows up at the end of a story. This twist often makes sure that the central character does not meet some dreadful, imminent, and likely disastrous fate. The word, as used by Tolkien and others, is used to describe the “sorting-out” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. Used apologetically, the term connotes a deeper understanding that goes beyond its literal meaning. It refers to the ultimate eucatastrophe that is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which turned the plot of the history of the world. It thus refers to our salvation. In literature and myth a eucatastrophe is present when the author paints a picture revealing to the audience that the final card played will be the ultimate turning point where redemption is finally won. The prince breaks in to the midst of the kingdom now taken over by the evil witch. He defeats the witch and breaks the evil spell that has kept the princess and her kingdom in chains for more than a century.
Approaching the Christian story as real, we should expect to see reflections of that story in the world around us. It should not surprise us that we notice these reflections in art, literature, music, and film. God redeemed us corrupt creatures in a way that we recognize, through the familiar things of this world: that is, through a man, the incarnate Christ. Thus the Gospel message is, at one and the same time, a familiar yet alien story. It is a story that we recognize in our deepest regions, yet feel it is too good to be true. In this sense, it is so beautiful and artistic in its own nature that it is almost mythical, and that is a story of a larger kind. Yet this story is true.
Therefore, as Tolkien claimed, the message of the Gospel is the most complete of all possible eucatastrophes.
Further, this story has entered into our history and occurred in real time and in real space. Its occurrences are locatable both chronologically and geographically. The birth of Christ really happened, yet it feels too good to be true. The crucifixion of Christ truly occurred, yet it feels too sad and desperate to be dealt with as fact. The resurrection of Christ is true as witnessed by the apostles and over 500 people at one time, yet we hold our breath on Easter morning desperately waiting to answer when pastor says, “Christ is risen,” while we respond gloriously, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” The resurrection is that kairotic moment when our hopes that were dashed in the despair of the cross, are raised with Christ in the hope of His own resurrection. The resurrection is truly the eucatastrophe of our story and His. It is a story that begins with joy, tests our trust in the middle, and ends in something too good to be true. As Tolkien said, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”