"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Word of the Day: Eucatastrophe

In the June 2015 edition of the Magnificat Magazine, a devotional monthly, the editorial from Editor-in-Chief Father Peter Cameron, O.P. starts with a J. R. R. Tolkien  coined word, “eucatastrophe.” From the editorial:  

What is “eucatastrophe”?

In one of his letters, Tolkien writes:

I coined the word “eucatastrophe”: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears….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 nature is made.

That is quite fascinating, both as a theological argument (which I’m not going to get into here) but as an element of story craft.  Happenstance, a chance event that turns a plot, may if the author integrates it correctly be an integral part of worldview and not just a convenient way of turning a plot.  The happenstance carries meaning, Tolkien calling that eucatastrophe.  Fr. Cameron goes on to explain:

Just as the hero of a mythical tale is on the verge of a disastrous dead ends, with his demise looming before him, terrible and inevitable, the eucatastrophe happens:

The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”….this joy is a sudden and miraculous grace….It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy.  Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Tolkien considered the Incarnation as the eucatastrophe of human history, and the resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.

And then Fr. Cameron goes on to develop the theology. 

One can see how Tolkien employed this in his fiction.  But let’s explore the etymology of the coinage since Tolkien was a philologist by training.  The word can be broken down to eu, which comes from the Greek (through Latin) word for well or good, and catastrophe.  From the Online Etymology Dictionary:  

catastrophe (n.) 1530s, "reversal of what is expected" (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe "an overturning; a sudden end," from katastrephein "to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end," from kata "down" (see cata-) + strephein "turn" (see strophe). Extension to "sudden disaster" is first recorded 1748.

So there you have it, eucatastrophe, a good fatal turning point.  That is a great word to know and keep in mind as one reads stories.

1 comment:

  1. And there I was thinking that eucatastrophe is the feeling one gets when one sits on a cactus.

    Just reading your articles makes my brain hurt, Manny. You overpower me with your intellect.

    God bless.