Tolkienian Eucatastrophe

Well, it’s been over a year since I last wrote here, probably a rather bad idea if I want to develop a readership. But alas, I am now in a PhD program, and yet paradoxically I will probably have more time to write here. My Honours year is well and truly over, and the strange lull of 2016, filled as it was by a flurry of apparently useless activity, is thankfully over.

In this post, I want to return to a theme I addressed in a previous post: specifically, the notion of eucatastrophe as it is developed by Tolkien in his essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’.

In that post I suggested that the concept of eucatastrophe, or the notion of a sudden joyous turn, as actually inadequate as an explanatory device in the context of Tolkien’s fiction. I want to return to that idea here. Please note, this post assumes a knowledge of the Turin story, and familiarity with Tolkien’s theoretical ideas.

In recent months I’ve been listening to several podcasts which aim to explore Tolkien’s fiction. One of these, the Prancing Pony Podcast, features Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese, both great podcasts hosts, who are currently (as of April 2017) working their way through The Silmarillion. As of this writing, they are in the midst of the Turin chapter, which as I’ve written before tends to have a clarifying effect on the way that readers approach his work.

Without wishing to disparage the hosts of this podcast, which is really wonderful, I think they exemplify the same kind of reading that I was, in a previous set of posts, so critical about in regards to Corey Olsen (aka the ‘Tolkien Professor’. THE Tolkien Professor!). One way or another, the story of Turin invites, indeed it implores, the reader to ask particular questions about Tolkien’s world which are otherwise tangentially present in Tolkien’s other fiction. Questions like, why is there suffering in the world? Or, alternatively, why does God allow suffering if he is apparently so benevolent? The nature of the Turin narrative forces readers to ask these questions because it clashes so starkly with the (apparently) hopeful and consistently ‘eucatastrophic’ message in the rest of Tolkien’s fiction. There are several responses a reader might have to the Turin saga that attempt to square it with the wider eucatastrophic impulse:

  1. This is the most common, and it is answer that the podcasters at the Prancing Pony seem, at least implicitly, to endorse. This thesis proposes that the suffering of Turin is either entirely his own fault, or is primarily his own fault, and therefore cannot be laid at the feet of God, or the Valar. Corey Olsen more or less explicitly endorses this thesis, when, for example, he refers to Turin’s pride. A character flaw like Pride is said to explain Turin’s rash actions, and thus the suffering of the story can be attributed in a more abstract sense to the sin of human pride – a comfortingly Christian explanation.
  2. The second response to Turin is related to the first, but takes a wider, more cosmological view. Like the first response, it seeks (if implicitly) to denude God or the Valar of culpability within the story, and to show how the workings of fate (understood as Iluvatar’s overall design) are in fact benevolent in outcome. Essentially, God works in mysterious ways. All will be well in the end. Such clichés express this view. In light of the suffering narrated through the story, this response seeks to show that such unfortunate events in the story as the death of Turin’s sister, his random and therefore tragic killing of Beleg, or the graphic demise of Finduilas and other such heart rending events are merely ripples in a cosmic drama that will eventually end in a benevolent victory and the overthrow of Evil.
  3. Another view, which is an even ‘harder’ theological response than the first two, considers the Turin story to be a kind of morality tale. The most well known exponent of this view is probably (again) Corey Olsen, although Christian apologists like Ralph Wood also make this argument (see, for example, Ralph Wood’s essay on Turin in the Ring and the Sword essay collection). In this view, Turin’s story is often paralleled with that of Tuor, who is the god (vala) fearing Man we all wish Turin were, if he were only capable of making the right choices. Turin’s story is thus reduced to a cautionary footnight (despite its status as the most fully developed of the Silmarillion tales) in the cosmic drama.

All of these views are related and they all share certain features in common. To begin with, they are all kinds of theodicy, or explanations of suffering. Rather than take the narrative as it is presented, the action of the story, and the implications which flow from it, are made secondary to a philosophical principle. For example, that God has a plan, or that one particular character flaw is capable of explaining away the events in the characters’ lives. Notice that these explanations closely mirror those offered by religious believers in the real world. Like Turin’s story, the lives of almost all individuals in the real world are riven by sufferings of one sort or another. How to explain this? Such theodicies are often suggested as a means of resolved the Platonic dilemma of omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence. But they are also offered as answers in light of personal suffering. A relative dies? God works in mysterious ways. You lose your job? God has a better plan for you. Perhaps this is a caricature, but such explanations always boil down to a simple idea: you are ignorant. You cannot see the bigger picture.

Regardless of Tolkien’s intent, this Turin story obliges readers to confront these questions. Even if you are a Christian reader, and view Tolkien as a kind of prop for faith, the Turin story cannot help but raise questions about the place of God in Middle-earth, or the reasons for suffering, or the injustices of mortal life.

In a future post I want to address the three theodicies above, and hopefully show why each is wrong in the case of the Turin story – or at the very least, why each is a problematic explanation. I also want to show how the idea of eucatastrophe is inadequate, and the reasons for why I think we need to move away from it when discussing Tolkien’s world.


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