Eucatastrophe: in a word, this is what we need today, for a renewed, vibrant, and compelling Catholic literature.
The word, coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in his great essay “On Fairy-stories,” means “the good catastrophe”: the unexpected happy ending, the turn from sorrow to joy. Tolkien’s own great work The Lord of the Rings has precisely such an ending, but the significance is deeper: Tolkien writes that the eucatastrophe of history is the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ. We respond to the happy ending of a story with joy because it echoes the story that God Himself is creating: the story that began in the Garden and—after darkness and pain—will bring us to the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Tolkien (like his friend and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis) could show a convincing and attractive vision of the Christian faith, precisely because his faith, and thus his literary vision, included the dark but knew that the light triumphs. It is because he recognized the darkness that Tolkien could show a convincing Joy: his work rings true. The Lord of the Rings is deeply Christian (like the Narnia Chronicles, though in a different way).
We do not have enough true joy in our literature today. Popular literature tends to the bleak and dystopian, and is morally unmoored; and even the most widely known modern Catholic writers—Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene—are more dyscatastrophic than eucatastrophic. There is an important place for satire, for a vision of the fallenness of the world, and for the literature of ‘doubting faith’: these authors speak profoundly to some readers and we should be grateful for their work.
But this is not the whole story: the Catholic faith is the fullness of the truth, and the truth is that our story has a happy ending.
What, then? Christian literature across all traditions will flourish when we have more writers who are committed to Christ and serious about their art. And, speaking more directly, we need more Catholic authors who are faithful and devout, accepting all that the Church teaches and striving to live it out; who have the eucatastrophic vision that is rooted in and nourished by the Church; and who have the talent and dedication needed to express it well. Can we hope for such a literary renewal in the coming years? I think we can.
[Ed. note: We are very happy to have Dr. Holly Ordway, Ignatius author and professor of English, bring some reflections on Tolkien and the renewal of Catholic literature to the Novel Thoughts blog. This is the first in a series—stay tuned for more! Update: Here are Part 2 and Part 3.]