If you are looking for a formula for writing the “and they lived happily ever after” ending of Disney’s Cinderella or Snow White, then you are going to be disappointed. I want to talk about real fairy tale endings such as Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” where the prince finds his one true love and the mermaid dissolves into sea foam or George MacDonald’s Phantastes which I will not spoil since every fantasy author should read it for themselves. Or the modern reimaginings of the fairy tale ending such as of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’ Last Battle, and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. An ending too tragic to be comedy and an an ending that continues after catastrophe– a Eucatastrophe. I want to talk about the defining narrative of Faerie and, oddly enough, a distinctly Christian type of narrative.
J. R. R. Tolkien was the first to coin this term, so it is only fair to start with his understand of this unique plot found in the “serious tale[s] of Faerie”.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale — or otherworld– setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance…
Eucatastrophe literally means “good catastrophe” and in a sense it is a type of Deus ex Machina (more on this in the examples). But I think it is more useful to think about Eucatastrophe as a tragedy fulfilled to its more tragic point and then suddenly, undeservedly redeemed where the grace can never be counted on again or taken for granted. The Eucatastrophe is free to be more tragic than a tragedy, and, by no means, should it end with a magic, unsatisfying fix to everything. In fact, the turn in a Eucatastrophe is rather unique and tricky to write, so I want to look at three example of how that turn should be written.
(As we are talking about endings, I will be spoiling the ends of the following books– you have been warned)
Lord of the Rings: You may have never noticed, but Lord of the Rings almost ends in the most tragic way possible. After sacrificing everything– his home, his garden, his life– to suffer unimaginable mental torment on a hopeless journey, Frodo fails to destroy the ring. After three books, Frodo finally stands at the Cracks of Doom and succumbs to the power of the ring. Even his companions, who parted from him long ago, are walking as martyr to their death before the Black Gates with the belief that Frodo has been captured and Sauron has the ring of power. The tragedy is complete. Yet, then there is a sudden, unexpected grace. Gollum bites the ring off Frodo’s hand and, in his greed, falls into the Cracks of Doom, destroying the ring. Suddenly, the story has become a comedy– but still, not quite– Frodo will suffer his entire life from two deep wounds and must leave his beloved home forever.
This turn is notably not a Deus ex Machina, and the set up to Gollum’s good catastrophe is what makes the story work. From the very first chapters, Gandalf forshadows the ending, saying, “My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” Then taking the advice of Gandalf to do good towards Gollum, “not to strike without need”, Frodo repeatedly refuses to kill Gollum, even after Gollum clearly proved treacherous and beyond hope of saving after Shelob’s lair. It is not Gollum or the “God of the Machine” that saves the story, but a simple decision by the protagonist to do good. It is also worth noting that the actions of Gollum are completely within his character which saves the ending from feeling forced.
The Last Battle: I am willing to bet that this ending is a bit more controversial– in fact, I would not be surprised if Tolkien himself would not consider this a true eucatastrophe (after all, he didn’t care for Lewis’ Narnia books), but I am going to include it anyways. The woods of the dryad are cut down; the dryads are dead. Aslan’s name is now hated in Narnia. The false god Tash turns out to be real and powerful. The last king of Narnia is thrown into an old stable and burned alive, and even the old kings and queen who came back to rescue Narnia as they have in the past have been burned in the same barn. Again, Lewis fulfills the tragedy. But then the story turns. The kings and queens find themselves before Aslan, and they watch Aslan rain judgement down upon Narnia and destroy the world in fire and ice. Then they find themselves in a more glorious Narnia– a weightier Narnia to barrow from another Lewis’ story, “The Great Divorce”– where the story will continue forever.
Now, this ending is a true type of Deus ex Machina; Aslan steps down to resolve the story himself, and this is what I suspect Tolkien would have a problem with. However, this still works for Lewis, partially, because the tragedy still has a cost. The Pevensie children are truly dead (killed in a train accident) and can never return to England, and Susan has forgotten Narnia and will never return. But I think what really makes it work is Lewis’ beautiful descriptions of the Eschaton (the end of all things) and how the story will never end. Further up and further in! Now, even with this defense of Lewis’ eucatastrophe, I’d suggest that we model our stories after my other two examples. It is a much greater chance that your story will end in a cliche and unsatisfactory manner if you go for the true Deus ex Machina eucatastrophe rather than a more natural one produced within the goodness in the world rather than from God stepping in.
Mistborn: Like The Lord of the Rings, it is the last book in a long hard journey. Vin herself, the protagonist, brought Ruin upon the world and has spent the last two books trying to keep the entire world from being destroyed by ash. Believing herself to be the prophesied Hero of Ages, she finally takes the power of Preservation and becomes a god– one of the two duelistic deities in Sanderson’s world. As a god, she is completely estranged from her husband, Elend, not even able to tell him what happened. Ruin kills the entire world except a few hundred people, and even those will die soon. Then Ruin kills Elend in front of Vin. The tragedy is fulfilled when Vin commits suicide in order to kill Ruin. Vin is a true tragic hero as her desire to sacrifice her own desires for the greater good is what originally released Ruin upon the world. Yikes. But then suddenly, the story turns. Sazed, the humble scholar and eunuch, who in the course of the final book watched his entire race die out, takes the powers of both Ruin and Preservation (freed up by Vin’s sacrifice) and becomes the true Hero of Ages. Using literally generations of knowledge, stored up through Sanderson’s impressive magical system, Sazed recreates the world, making it more beautiful than it was before the series began. In a Noah’s arch, type of ending, the surriving few set out to make the new world their home.
To be honest, I was rather surprised to find that Brandon Sanderson (who is a not a Christian nor steeped in fairy tales as far as I know) wrote a eucatastrophe. His turn truly captures the elusive Joy that Tolkien speaks about, and it works because it makes sense. Since the first book, the prophecy for the Hero of Ages uses a gender neutral pronoun. At first, the reader is lead to believe that this is because Vin is a girl. Then the reader learns that Ruin actually manipulates and changes the prophecy (using whatever person he can) to get the fake hero to release him from his imprisonment, so a gender neutral pronoun seems to be simply for flexibility. The moment when Sazed, after putting together the manipulate prophecy, realized that the gender neutral pronoun is for him, as he is neither truly male nor female, hits the reader like a punch to the gut. Moreover, as a scholar and the preserver of thousands of years of knowledge, Sazed is already the only character who knows how to remake the world. The turn makes sense and came with a heavy cost, but the heavy joy– joy as poignant as grief– that flood the reader as Sazed make flowers grow upon green grass around the bodies of Vin and Elend is incredible.
The Truth of Eucatastrophe
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it…. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question, ‘Is it true?’
So why is a Eucatastrophic narrative true? How is reality a Eucatastrophe?
Eucatastrophe is the narrative of the Christian Martyr.
I think it is really important not to diminish how tragic martyrdom is. When we think of it as simply dying, martyrdom doesn’t seem to bad, but remember that a martyr has lost all of their hopes, dreams, and plans. All of their relationships are suddenly cut short. They can never go home again. Not even God has saved them from death. Their God allowed them to die. That is the most tragic ending for a Christian that there is– for our God to allow us to die.
And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
~ 1 Corinthians 15:17-19
But that is not how the narrative of the martyr ends. There is a promise of bodily resurrection and a new life full of glory. Of course, we can’t fully comprehend this hope, and I doubt we are meant to, but the Joy of Eucatastrophe is one small glimpse of this hope.
[Eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief…. [I]n the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater [than ‘if you have built your little world well; yes, it is true in that world’] — it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world…. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme, but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich…. I would venture to say that… the Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.
And this is why it is important to write stories with Eucatastrophies. Christian writers are often criticized for avoiding the hardest topics and truly exploring suffering, abandoning those who most need the Joy of Eucatastrophe. But this type of narrative allows an honest viewing of suffering– in fact, I believe that Eucatastrophies are free to be more tragic than traditional tragedies. George R. R. Martin may talk about killing off all of his characters, but for his story to work, he can’t. C. S. Lewis could.
So have you ever heard of Eucatastrophe before, and have you ever considered writing one? What do you think the biggest challenges to writing a Eucatastrophe would be? And what is your favorite Eucatastrophe that you have read before?