Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Great Eucatastrophe

Our long journey together has led us to this day. The hope that's carried us through the joys and the hardships has culminated in this day and all that it will bring: a breaking of the past, a look toward the future, and unlimited possibilities.

According to Appendix B in The Return of the King, on March 25th, 3019 of the Third Age, the Ring of Power was destroyed, the Tower of Barad-dur crumbled, and Sauron passed from Middle Earth. The Captains of the West, fearing utter defeat from enemies far beyond their number, were instead victorious, and the King himself passed beyond the gates of Mordor in triumph.

This event is the great eucatastrophe in The Lord of the Rings novels – the greatest, in fact, though there are many others: the close encounter on Amun Sul and safe crossing of the Bruinen, the Ents march of war upon Isengard, the Rohirrim’s arrival on the fields of the Pellenor, etc., etc., etc. The word 'eucatastrophe' is a word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, which he strongly felt needed to exist in order to explain some of life's greatest moments. There is, of course, this term 'catastrophe', which we use to describe when things turn suddenly from good to bad. But, we don't seem to have a term for the opposite. In other words, when the world looks bleak and all hope fails, there occasionally comes a great change for Good. We often have felt these moments throughout our lives (whether we acknowledged them at the time or in hindsight) and we need a word to describe these experiences. So, Tolkien added the Greek “eu”, meaning “good” or “pleasing”, to ‘catastrophe’ to create ‘eucatastrophe’ – a sudden change for the good.

For Tolkien, the great eucatastrophe in human history was the Incarnation: the idea that in the midst of insurmountable pain, suffering, and little hope, the God of the universe put on flesh and blood to set things right. (This was part of the argument that swayed C.S. Lewis on their famous Addison walk). The Incarnation of God in human form through Jesus Christ changes everything in history, and is exactly the kind of thing we hope for and experience on a smaller scale every day.

Many remember and acknowledge the Incarnation in December, when the birth of Christ is celebrated. But this is in error, for the Incarnation, when God became flesh, actually takes place at the Annunciation, the time at which an angel brings news to Mary that she is with child. Though Christ would not be born for nine months, the process had started at that moment, and hope was rekindled for all; God had arrived in our world. When the world looked bleakest and all hope had failed, there was a great change for Good.

A strong Roman Catholic, it should be no surprise that when he began writing of another world, Tolkien wove this consistent theme of eucatastrophe into its histories and characters. And, while he despised allegory, it is no accident or coincidence that he chose March 25th for the victory over darkness and despair in Middle Earth. For on March 25th in the Christian calendar, as tradition has held for millennia, we celebrate the Annunciation (and therefore Incarnation) of Christ.

Tolkien includes this date in the history of Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings at least three times, and on each occasion he hints at its huge, life-changing significance. As we read in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, it was on March 25th that Gandalf met Thorin Oakenshield in Bree in 2941 and convinced him to return to the Lonely Mountain. It bears repeating here:

"Yet things might have gone far otherwise and far worse. When you think of the great Battle of the Pellenor, do not forget the battles in Dale and the valour of Durin's Folk. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador, night in Rivendell. There might be no queen in Gondor. We might now hope to return from the victory here only to ruin and ash. But that has been averted - because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth."
~The Return of the King, Appendix A

A "chance-meeting" indeed. This is a pivotal, eucatastrophic event in the history of Middle Earth. As this passage shows, this meeting greatly impacts the events that take place in the War of the Ring decades later, which also culminates on the 25th of March. It is not enough that the Ring of Power is destroyed on this day in 3019, but the armies surrounding the Host of the West flea in fear as well, and the great and terrible tower of Barad-Dur falls into utter ruin. Evil everywhere, it seems, is dealt a severe blow. The third great and concluding eucatastrophe takes place just two years after the Ring's destruction, on March 25, 3021, with the birth of Elanor, first daughter of Samwise. Elanor is beautiful and fair, and the future and lasting legacy of Samwise and, by extension, Frodo and Bilbo. All three of these events taking place on March 25th are consistent with the themes of the Annunciation and Incarnation: redemption, hope, and birth. It was a long journey for Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo, as it was for Abraham, Isaiah, and Malachi... and a long journey for us, too.

It is said that the people of Gondor, from that day when the Ring was destroyed, always celebrated the New Year on March 25th. Throughout history they would be in good company, as it would also be celebrated on that day by the Saxons, Romans, and yes, various groups of Christians in their acknowledgment that the Annunciation and Incarnation were the beginning of a New Age. Like the people of Gondor, we can celebrate - today and every day - a new year and a new age as we recall that we are given hope, freedom, and rebirth through Jesus Christ.