“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.”
-J. R. R. Tolkien (On Fairy-Stories)
“And they lived happily ever after.”
This is possibly one of the biggest cliches in writing. Whether it’s manifested in those exact words at the end of a children’s story or fairy tale, or it’s just the idea itself presented at the end of a novel, it is hard to escape. Even within my favorite genre–fantasy–the happy ending is almost always there. In fact, it might be more prevalent in fantasy than any other genre. Coincidence? I think not!
In today’s society, however, the “happily ever after” mindset has become the target for much sneering and mockery, and most authors and readers try to avoid it like the plague.
Why? Because it’s not realistic.
“Happily ever after” implies that the characters experience nothing but sunshine and rainbows for the remainder of their days. Yet even after the good guy wins, as is the most common outcome, it doesn’t mean that’s the end to all his troubles and he’ll never have a bad day again. We want stories with substance, not those filled with cotton-candy dreams that quickly melt away. This is our argument.
But are all happy endings truly unrealistic and shallow? And why are they so common in fantasy literature?
For the answer to those questions, I would rather turn to a man who was vastly smarter than myself–and, as it happens, left behind his own thoughts on this very subject with far more eloquence and grace than I could hope to achieve on my own: the author, philologist, scholar, and Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien. If anyone ever grasped the intricate workings and true potential of the fantasy story, it would be the mastermind behind Middle Earth.
How do I know this? Because in 1939, the professor delivered a lecture at the University of St Andrews in Scotland in which he discussed the purpose and nature of “fairy-stories,” as they were called. That lecture was later published in essay form, under the title “On Fairy-Stories.” I came across it quite by accident, having picked up a short book entitled The Tolkien Reader, in which the essay can be found, along with a few short stories of his.
As boring as the idea of reading a lecture or essay might sound, it remains to date one of my favorite works by Tolkien. The essay is packed full with beautiful gems of truth, and I highly recommend it for all fantasy writers (and even interested readers). He put to words quite beautifully the reason for my own deep love of fantasy, and for me, reading his essay was a moment of clarity. You could say the figurative light bulb clicked on inside my head.
Critics of fantasy (or those who view it with indifference) are quick to describe it as “escapist.” For, they argue, those who read (and write) it are willing to voluntarily suspend belief and reason in order to enter into a fictional world that differs significantly from reality.
Sure, I admit it’s fun to pretend for a little while that magic, dragons, Elves and wizards are real. But are fantasy stories truly escapist? Is that their only purpose?
“Of course not!” has always been my answer. I never really considered fantasy to be a mere “escape from reality.” It always seemed more important than that to me. Although, before reading Tolkien’s essay, I probably couldn’t have explained why.
Furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, fantasy stories most often contain to some extent what the unaccustomed observer might call “an unrealistic outcome.” In other words, they usually end with happy endings. And, though quick to sneer at the idea we might be, by some ironic contradiction we still seem to be drawn to the stories that end with good conquering evil and the hero winning against all odds.
Fortunately for us, Tolkien coined a word in his essay to explain this very phenomenon: Eucatastrophe.
In the Greek, “catastrophe” comes from two words: “cata” meaning “down” or “back” and “strophe” meaning “turn.” Thus, it is the “down-turn” of events, almost exclusively used in a negative sense, to point to some great calamity. When one hears the word “catastrophe,” we expect something bad has happened.
What did Tolkien do, then? Why, he naturally added onto the beginning the Greek word “Eu,” or “good.” So a Eucatastrophe is quite literally a “good catastrophe.” Sometimes the word is over-simplified by others to mean “a happy ending.” But I think it is much more than that.
According to Tolkien,
“The ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it….The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
“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 dyscatastophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it 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 the world, poignant as grief.” (On Fairy-Stories).
Eucatastrophe, then, is the turn of the story, right at the darkest moment when no hope remains, from the overwhelming inevitability of defeat to a “sudden and miraculous grace.” So yes, it is a happy ending–but one which was born out of great suffering and catastrophe. One which came about against all odds.
Tolkien goes on to argue that fairy-stories themselves give a “peculiar effect” when they employ the Eucatastrophe, which he explains in a letter to his son Christopher:
“I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’….And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives….that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection [of Jesus Christ] was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy-Story–and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” (Letter 89)
The line where he describes Christ’s resurrection as the greatest Eucatastrophe of all gets me every time. Without a doubt, the true story of man’s fallen condition and our inescapable fate for Hell is the most tragic catastrophe of all. There was absolutely no way for us to save ourselves from this doom, making it the most hopeless and dark of circumstances.
BUT, just like there is “no true end to any fairy-tale,’ so is the case for God’s story. Thank the Lord that it doesn’t end there! No, for it was then, against all evidence of failure, that Jesus Christ came to earth as a Man, lived a perfect life, then died in our place and rose from the dead, thus conquering evil and death in what truly is the greatest Eucatastrophe of all!
And THAT, my dear friends, is why happy endings are not only allowable (especially in fantasy stories), but why they are in fact so powerful. For, although we might have delved into a fictional and imaginary world, that does not mean that it holds no truth. Quite the contrary. The best stories ever written always contain truth at their core. And no greater truth exists than that of the Gospel.
In another letter to his son, Tolkien said:
“But if literature teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium).” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien)
A true “happy ending” is not the sappy, warm and fuzzy, love-conquers-all facade, but that which is born out of sorrow and strife in the face of universal defeat as the result of a sudden and miraculous grace. The power of the Eucatastrophe is that it provides a “glimpse of Truth,” as Tolkien says.
And that Truth is this:
No matter how difficult, dark, and dangerous our road, no matter the sorrow and the evil we face along the way, if we are God’s children, we are part of the greatest Eucatastrophe in history. By the grace of God, we will partake in the only true happy ending.
In that case, it can truly be said of any who pass from this life into the glory of God’s presence:
“And they live happily ever after.”