JRR Tolkien stated that while the highest purpose of Drama is Tragedy, the highest purpose of Fairy-tale is Eucatastrophe.
What is "Eucatastrophe"?
In his famous essay "On Fairy-Stories", JRR Tolkien coined the term "eucatastrophe" (taken from the Latin root words meaning "good" and "destruction") to embody that "sudden joyous 'turn'" in a story from certain calamity to utter happiness, a "sudden and miraculous grace" afforded a doomed character, "never to be counted on to recur."
It is, rather than deus ex machina, a sudden redemption from tragedy, the snatching of one from disaster by a Greater Force.
A sudden, sublime deliverance, eucatastrophe does not undermine the role of tragedy but builds upon its expectation to effect Joy--not only for the characters but more especially for the audience. Tolkien characterizes this particular joy as "beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."
"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, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."
Eucatastrophe in Middle Earth
Here is a classic example from Tolkien's Faerie land of deliverance despite overwhelming odds:
What Does It Feel Like?
We've all been there, right? We're reading a book or watching a movie, helpless against the imminent sacrifice of our favorite character(s). Then, just when all seems lost, some outer force swoops in and snatches our hero from death or destruction.
In that moment we feel a burning in our chest, unbidden tears spring to our eyes, or we want to laugh with relief. What our hero could not do for himself someone else has done for him. And he, against all expectations, is safe again.
Eucatastrophe, if done right, produces such a powerful emotion in the reader that it transcends the bounds of Story and gives the audience "a piercing glimpse of joy and heart's desire." Tolkien says further that it does this not only because it provides "'consolation' for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction and an answer to that question, 'Is it true?'"
It reaches to the ultimate Truth, the ultimate Eucatastrophe, that we seek in real life.
It seems part of human experience for us to come to some point in our lives where it seems that no matter what we do we cannot get out of the mess we are in; and we silently long for help. Eucatastrophe in Story, Tolkien maintains, lets us experience it for ourselves vicariously.
And this is its great purpose.
Sam Gamgee Said...
Tolkien couldn't explain it any better than he does here through Samwise the Hobbit:
The Transcendence: From Faerie to Reality
Tolkien does not presume, however, that eucatastrophe has merely artistic value. We need not believe that we can only experience it vicariously. Rather, he argues, eucatastrophe is just as potent in the real world, which is why it touches us so much in art. It is an entity as real as air; and people experience it for themselves every day.
In answer to his own question, he argues that eucatastrophe whispers to us "Yes, it is true."
There is a greater, saving force out there for us as well.
Eucatastrophe in Haiti
See here, for instance, an amazing story of one Haitian family's eucatastrophic experience directly after the 2010 hurricane.
The Ultimate Eucatastrophe:
The Reason It Gets Us
Why does eucatastrophe happen? How can the laws of nature and logic be supplanted at times to allow for cathartic, merciful, even divine deliverance? In Story it is allowed, but in real life? Tolkien gives the answer to this as well: the power of eucatastrophe in art is verified in the greatest Eucatastrophe of all.
Every eucatastrophe, in essence, points to "the Great Eucatastrophe," which is what Tolkien calls the Birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ's sacrifice for men, and His resultant snatching of them from the pains of death and hell, is found the true Eucatastrophe, that one which every other joyful deliverance—artistic or not—draws from.
Of this, Tolkien states, "God is the Lord, of angels, and of men-and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused."
The records are there. Christ's atoning sacrifice for us is real. Any human who lends himself long and hard enough to the honest examination of the story finds this eucatastrophe already imprinted on his heart as it is on the Lord's hands.
A Savior Was Needed
"For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
"For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice...
"And that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
"And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance." (Alma 34:9-16)
Christ Offered Propitiation...
"He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
"Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth." (Isaiah 53)
And Gave Us Eucatastrophe
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim iliberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
"To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
"To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified."(Isaiah 61:1-3)
"For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
"But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
"Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit-and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink--
"Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men." (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-19)
Eucatastrophe: In the End, and Every Day
While life is fraught with problems and hardships, even unfair treatment, because Christ has paid the price for this He has the power to redeem all of it as well.
Life is not easy; it was not meant to be so. But through this proving ground the Lord has promised us that He will compensate those who come to Him for help. Whether in this life or in the next, it matters not; our every situation is recorded, and the Lord is not only just and merciful but equipped, through the Atonement, to keep His Word.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin explains what the Atonement of Jesus Christ means to us, not only in the grand sense of salvation, but also in the context of everyday problems: "While [compensation] may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude."
In the end, thanks to the power of Christ over death and evil, our mortal troubles will seem like drops in the pail compared to the blessings which He will give us, running over at the rim.
Because of Christ's Atonement we will lose nothing important here in this life that will not be returned to us "in good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over." If we follow Christ and accept His Atoning sacrifice in our daily lives, all of our losses will be made up, thanks to Him. (Luke 6:38)
I believe that what Tolkien says is true: Jesus Christ's sacrifice for our sins and sicknesses, our pains and griefs, is the greatest Eucatastrophe imaginable. Every time we experience a eucatastrophe--whether in a story or in our own life--it pierces us with Joy because it echoes that ultimate Deliverance already wrought for us.
I know this is true. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and His atoning sacrifice is real and in full effect for any who will come to Him. He loves us; He wants to bring us back to Him, and through the Atonement He has opened the way for us. I have received a witness of this for myself.
I am grateful every day for the Atonement of Christ which allows me a new chance every time I need it. I know God loves me; I love Him. I can pray to Him anytime, anywhere, and He will listen and help me. His arm of mercy is long enough to cross any distance and reach into any hole.
I invite any who do not have this witness for themselves to search the scriptures and ask God Himself if, as Tolkien said, the Story is true. He will answer.
The Book of Mormon: With the Bible, Another Testament of Jesus Christ
"Come What May, and Love It: Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin's last address on the Savior to members of <a href="http://www.lds.org/?lang=eng&cid=Sgo-csm-cjw">The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints</a>
The Holy Bible: A Testament of Jesus Christ
"On Fairy Stories": JRR Tolkien's landmark essay on the power of fantasy in expressing truth