This post will conclude the series. I hope you have enjoyed it! Published on the last day of the year, it is an important reminder of the hope that drives our purpose in the new year.
When I think of Tolkien, the first word that comes to my mind is eucatastrophe, a word he coined. Eucatastrophe is his word for those sudden and un-looked-for upheavals of joy that bring tears to our eyes. These moments afford us a rare and unusual grace, for as we experience them we are convinced that evil will not triumph in the end. This is the taste of Joy “beyond the walls of the world” that Tolkien wrote about so memorably in On Fairy Stories. Samwise Gamgee experiences this glimpse of Joy, when in the depths of despair in Mordor, he suddenly sees a white star:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
Eucatastrophe, in literature and in life, is like that star! It fills us with hope because we know that in the face of such beauty, the Shadow is only “a small and passing thing”. We experience eucatastrophe when Eomer lifts up his sword in despair at the coming of the Corsairs, only to find that the ships bear Aragorn himself: “Thus came Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind of the sea to the kingdom of Gondor….”
We experience it when Samwise Gamgee discovers at the end of Return of the King that Gandalf is alive. The passage is worth quoting at length:
But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever knownBut he himself burst into tears. Then as sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.
“How do I feel?” he cried. “Well I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” – he waved his arms in the air – “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”’
Sam’s question, “is everything sad going to come untrue” is at the core of the Christian hope, and Tim Keller writes: “The answer of Christianity to that question is – yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”
Eucatastrophe pulls our hearts towards evangelion, the good news that Jesus is Lord and He is returning to put the world to rights.
The inhabitants of Middle-Earth may have had a hope without guarantees, living with a fundamental uncertainty of what happens in the end. But we living on this side of the Great Eucatastrophe, have much more hope than that! Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is given to us as a deposit of our future inheritance (Eph 1:18). Peter tells us that we have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3).
We may die, but Aragorn’s words at his own death are instructive: “In sorrow we must go, but not despair. Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!”
Our living hope denies, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, universal final defeat. It does not deny sorrow; it denies despair.
Have ye then no hope?
Take heart. There is hope – more than you could dream.