Thursday, May 25, 2017

Eucatastrophe, Language, Narrative Pacing, and Worship

Given Tolkien’s area of study, one might expect him to be fairly optimistic about the ability of language to capture mystic experience.  However, he states in several places his dissatisfaction with words as a vehicle for portraying such experience.  In Letter 89, writing to Christopher, he attempts to describe a vision of the Light of God, and qualifies it multiple times, describing it as “very immediate, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself.”  A little further on, he fears he has “failed to convey” the comfort he took from this vision, and the passage as a whole is sprinkled with interjections and stumbling attempts to make clear his experience. 

            Should we be surprised that such an eloquent wordsmith has trouble conveying certain types of mystical experience?  I don’t think so.  As Tolkien makes clear elsewhere, eucatastrophe is a particular emotion that we come upon primarily through story – it’s in fact inherent to narrative.  Unlike other emotions, which can be conveyed more or less directly through a single passage, eucatastrophe is a kind of release which requires the ratcheting up of narrative tension and the investment over time into the fate of characters.  It is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”  For joy to spring out of a situation where all seems lost (at what NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty calls the “85% mark” of a story), we must first have had a full narrative buildup to that point.

            In my view, the passage in which Tolkien most powerfully invokes this sensation for the reader is in Book VI, Chapter IV, when the gathered host of Gondor hear the lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom: “And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold… until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”  Notably, the metaphors here are fairly simple; the emotive power of the passage comes mainly from the sense of closure and release after 900 pages of emotional investment in Sam and Frodo’s journey.  The laughter and tears, both of the collected host and of the reader, only make sense in the context of the quest’s fulfillment.

            Jorge Luis Borges’ paragraph-length short story “On Exactitude In Science” describes an empire so invested in cartography that the only acceptably exact map of it is the full size of the empire itself.  Borges sketches it humorously: “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.”  But the conceit resembles a suggestion we toyed with in class yesterday: that eucatastrophe is meaningful and powerful to the degree which it maps onto the overarching narrative of the universe – the Christian story and the eucatastrophe contained within it are the territory, and the “map” of LOTR is effective in part because its sheer scale is closer to that story’s scale than many other works of myth. 

            Tolkien indirectly notes something similar to this in Letter 328, when he describes his realization that LOTR isn’t entirely his own work.  As discussed in class and as Tolkien correctly describes, Middle-earth is pervaded by “some sort of faith [which] seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.”  We struggled in class to discern what that source is: I’d argue that in part it’s the ability of the story to portray eucatastrophe in a manner parallel to that of the Christ story.

            We’ve seen that Tolkien has little faith in the power of individual descriptions to draw out eucatastrophe or to describe transcendent experience, and instead relies on narrative that mirrors the Christian one to create that emotional response in us.  But are there other ways in which eucatastrophe is exhibited?  Tolkien doesn’t explicitly say so, but Letter 54, again to Christopher, suggests that liturgy gives us that experience.  “If you have [the Latin praises] by heart you never need for words of joy.”  Liturgical invocations such as the Gloria Patri are short chunks of text, but they carry embedded in them reference to the whole Christian story.  Liturgy is, like narrative, seasonal and sequential: even when one invokes it by rote and without conscious engagement, it ties one to the narrative pattern of Christianity.  If Tolkien is correct in saying that “the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story,” then both narrative story and liturgical story can contain eucatastrophic references. 

            Indeed, Tolkien conceives of Man as storyteller: what makes us human is in part our storytelling nature.  Therefore, Man must be redeemed “in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”  Laughter and tears comingled aren’t simply a high aesthetic experience or a cathartic necessity: to Tolkien they are Man’s natural response to his own story, to the story of the universe, that of redemption.

-- Santi Ruiz


  1. Beautifully observed! I think you have hit on something very important here: we tend to think of mystical experiences as moments of rapture, but perhaps they are better understood as eucastrophes in narrative: they *need* the build up through story. Likewise with the liturgy as a kind of drama or story: it *works* because the worshippers invest themselves in the story, not (just) because of the aesthetics of the moment. RLFB

  2. Your use of the Borges story in this post is interesting, but I don't think that it's necessarily the best use to which you could have put it. By his own insistence, Tolkien's legendarium doesn't map strictly to the Christian story, but rather to itself. Tolkien's notes, sketches, and stories of Arda are simultaneously map and territory, and that was, I think, crucial to his success. Any story worth telling must be its own primary referent, or else it would have no reason to exist: there would be other, simpler, more reliable ways to say all the things it says. Tolkien's triumph is his painstaking self-awareness of this fact, though he considered it in different terms than I am here. Other works are maps of themselves by nature, but Tolkien, like the ruler of the empire Borges describes, is doing it on purpose. —Nathaniel Eakman

    1. I think this is well put - good thought.

      -- Santi