Before he wrote The Lord of the Rings, the author JRR Tolkien coined a word – “eucatastrophe” – that scholars would still be writing about 70 years later. What did he mean, and why could it relate to the very real story of humanity?
In the early 1940s, JRR Tolkien wrote an essay about fairy stories – and why they matter. Based on a lecture he had delivered in Scotland, it not only defined and shaped his views as a fantasy writer, but would prove influential for years to come.
Fairy stories, Tolkien argued, are not only meant for children. Immersing oneself in fantastical worlds with wizards, talking trees and dragons is a “natural human activity”. Such tales have a purpose that nourishes the heart and mind, he continued. They can help us to remember and recover what may have been lost or taken for granted; they offer escape from one world to another, and ultimately, they bring consolation, and the reassurance that there can be happy endings.
At the time, Tolkien had only recently published The Hobbit, and was just beginning to work on The Lord of the Rings. It was a pivotal moment. As a writer, he was shifting into a more serious, authentic voice and tone. The literary scholar Verlyn Flieger describes the essay as “Tolkien’s definitive statement about his art” – but also much more.
In particular, Tolkien wrote about what makes a happy ending so powerful in stories. And to do so, he came up with an intriguing coinage: fairy stories, he suggested, often feature a “eucatastrophe” – this was, he suggested, a “good” catastrophe. So, what exactly did he mean? And could such events happen in real life too?
In the present day, Tolkien’s idea of the “good catastrophe” has attracted the attention of scholars who study existential risk and humanity’s future prospects. It turns out that eucatastrophes may matter beyond fairy stories – and identifying the conditions that lead to them could be necessary if we want to thrive as a species.
According to Tolkien, a eucatastrophe in a story often happens at the darkest moment. When all seems lost – when the enemy seems to have won – a sudden “joyous turn” for the better can emerge. It delivers a deep emotional reaction in readers: “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart”, he wrote.
In The Hobbit, it’d be the sudden arrival of the eagles in the Battle of the Five Armies, while in The Lord of the Rings, it’s the moment Gollum unexpectedly falls into the cracks of Mount Doom, destroying the One Ring. But many other stories feature such turning points, whether it is the kiss that revives Snow White, or the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars.
s Tolkien wrote: “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairytale, 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’… is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well… it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.”
Literary scholars have deployed Tolkien’s framing to describe such turns within narratives ever since. But in recent years, the word has drawn attention in other academic fields too – specifically among those who think about the deep future of humanity.
A few years ago, the philosophers Owen Cotton-Barratt and Toby Ord at the University of Oxford were writing a paper about how best to define existential catastrophes – those events that could threaten our species’ long-term potential: supervolcanoes, nuclear winter, pandemics, or the advent of a global totalitarian regime.
The pair realised, though, that their field lacked a word for brighter abrupt changes: moments when humanity’s prospects suddenly improve. So, they reached for Tolkien.
“Tolkien talks about the eucatastrophe as the sudden and surprising turn for the better. This is the concept that we were trying to name,” Cotton-Barratt explains. These would be “moments when things, in expectation at least, suddenly get a lot better”, he says. “And the world looks like it’s in a much better position.”
Eucatastrophes have already happened on Earth. The origin of life might be one example. “When life first arose, the expected value of the planet’s future may have become much bigger,” write Cotton-Barratt and Ord. Against all odds, after billions of years of barren sterility, fire and fury, living creatures finally emerged.
Examples within human history are a little harder to come by, but Cotton-Barratt (tentatively) suggests that the intellectual flourishing of the Enlightenment might be another case of a sudden, positive trajectory change. Some might say that the ends of World War One or Two could also count. For Tolkien himself, a Christian, the ultimate human example was the life of Jesus: his birth, and eventual resurrection: “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true,” he wrote.
But why bother labelling such events at all? For those who want the future to go well, the reason it matters to talk about possible eucatastrophes is that we could, in principle, prepare the ground for them to happen. “It doesn’t have to be totally unanticipated,” explains Cotton-Barratt. “We don’t need to be blindsided.”
So, for instance, a possible eucatastrophe might be a specific discovery enabled by investment in science, such as the emergence of a miraculous form of clean energy, like nuclear fusion, just as the world teeters on the precipice of total climate catastrophe. Or it could be a moral revolution: where humanity navigates through dark moments to come to a whole new realisation about how to live peacefully and harmoniously on this planet.
Amid a time of crisis and conflict, preparing for such turns for the better might be difficult to imagine. But Cotton-Barratt, Ord and others suggest that we owe it to future generations to ensure that we don’t neglect or ignore opportunities that could help them to encounter these moments of potential flourishing. There’s no doubt that we urgently need to reduce existential risk, they say, but we ought to also seek ways to increase what they call existential hope.
“The world is radically different now than it was in centuries past – particularly if you go back many centuries,” says Cotton-Barratt. “I do think it’s very possible that the world could be radically different again.” Building a world where “we are robustly well-prepared to face whatever obstacles come” is therefore not just prudent – it is also necessary if we want our great-grandchildren to live in a better world than we can currently imagine, he argues.
So, could Tolkien’s eucatastrophe word soon enter the vernacular? Cotton-Barratt isn’t so sure. “It’s not a term I ever can really imagine going mainstream,” he acknowledges. “It just sounds confusing to people. I think it’s easy for people to hear it and think it’s a type of catastrophe.”
Benepeteia – based on the Greek word peripeteia, another suggestion, which means a sudden reversal of fortune.
Euflection Point – also drawing on the eu- prefix, meaning “good” or “well”.
Anastrophe – if “catastrophe” is a turn down (kata-), its opposite (ana-) would be an upturn.
Delajoy – a feeling of transcending joy.
Plethoration – the realisation of abundance.
Gleðitár – an Icelandic word for “tears of joy”
Lighter suggestions like Fantastrophe, a Hyper-gooding, or simply: Big Happy Surprise.
The winning entry? Efflorescence – a process of unfolding and blossoming.
Would Tolkien have approved? Perhaps: he once said that language invention was his “secret vice“. And his interest in philology – the study of linguistic evolution – means he might expect his influential term to eventually fade away.
For the time being though, the term eucatastrophe has stuck – and maybe one day, you and your descendants might actually be fortunate enough to see one happen.
“THE ANCIENT ROOTS OF LORD OF THE RINGS
It’s sometimes assumed that Tolkien was inspired by the most famous ring in opera, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs. Both Tolkien and Wagner drew inspiration from the same sources, chiefly Nordic sagas. For Tolkien, the obsession began in childhood, when he fell in love with the story of Sigurd the dragon-slayer.
But we also know that Tolkien was familiar with the site of a Romano-Celtic temple to Nodens, a Celtic healing god. Tolkien worked on the excavation of the site, named Dwarf’s Hill, and became fascinated by its folklore. In particular, he investigated Latin inscriptions, one of which brought down a curse on the thief of a ring.”
*Richard Fisher is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets @rifish
In 1966 late in the fall I started attending lectures at a Fourth Way School’s Symposium (The Prosperos’) led by Kenneth Walker (who had been a student of Gurdjieff.)
I was a student of that school for several years until I branched out into Sufism and Gaiian studies. I have though kept in touch with students and teachers at that school ever since, lots of good people, gentle souls. Some I have known from 1967 on.
One of the very interesting things that I heard in a lecture early on, and then later in conversations with a couple of the teachers in the school was that: During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 there was an international effort by various spiritual, metaphysical and occult schools in conjunction with each other to prevent Nuclear War through meditation, prayer, magical acts as well as organizing, speaking to people, letter writing to newspapers and politicians.
This had me considering over time and in my meditations, what were the possibilities of combined work across the spectrum of the various movements in existence today? I know that within that school now, there is an active group working through the use of their various spiritual tools to help change the current situation.
So here are some thoughts. We have horrible situations unfolding, and ongoing in Yemen, Myanmar, Syria, and now the Ukraine to name but a few of the conflict/war zones. We have famine rolling through Africa, Southwest Asia. The world is still in grip of the Covid Pandemic. We have an ongoing worldwide climate crisis. It seems overwhelming, yet here we are at a juncture where we have tools to actively organize via social media, email, web pages, talking to family, friends, neighbors the same united spiritual front that in my mind, turned the tide in 1962. We know through studies now via Sheldrake and others that consciousness extends to all existence. By working in our homes, community, and online, we can and will make a difference.
What I Suggest:
Form Affinity Groups. Contact your friends, family, community. DO IT.
Develop a Schedule for Group Meditations on Specific Topics, i.e., Ukraine, Afghanistan, Covid, etc.
Make it a Weekly Practice, at least, nightly or daily if you can.
Broadcast your actions on Social Media. Invite others to join in. Organize!!!
Become Active Locally. This is deeply important.
Take Care of Your Loved Ones. Spend Time in Nature, Pray, Meditate, get your hands into the soil. Give thanks for what you have.
We left London towards the end of November 1978 amidst sugar strikes, transport strikes, all kinds of strikes disrupting London and whole of Britain. It was even difficult to get out to Heathrow, but we took a Black Cab…
Landing in L.A. at around 10:00PM, experiencing US Immigration and Customs at it worst. (Oh, I have stories about this, but another time) My friend David T. picked us up at the airport at even though he was sick as a dog with flu and dropped us off at my good friend Mike’s over in Westwood. Mary’s first experience of the US freeways was the 405, chock a block full of cars racing along at around 80mph close to midnight…
Mike greeted us and gave big hugs to yours truly and Mary. We had been roommates off and on for quite a while and he opened up his apartment to the both of us, full of love and welcoming…
Within a couple of days, I was working again at the Sidewalk Cafe again and on her first visit there introducing Mary to all and sundry. The cafe then was a culture unto itself, writers, musicians, actors, comedians… Several became cultural icons along the way. An incredible crew of people.
She was amazed at the size of Los Angeles and at the weather difference between London and LA…. There’s nothing like the first trip to an American supermarket to shake up a European… (Mind you this was 1978 and not currently.) We spent two hours in the market with Mary checking everything out and going slightly whacked in the coffee aisle… “Too many choices!!!!”she exclaimed. We left the market; she was nearly in tears from being so overwhelmed by the evidence of American consumerism.
Not all of Los Angeles was so shocking to her, she absolutely delighted in Santa Monica and Venice, she took Hollywood in stride and marveled at Bel Air and Beverly Hills.
It seemed like one big party, she was met with much love and affection by all of my friends.
Life started to assert some routines at this point. We started to look for an apartment, my daily duty at the Sidewalk, our evening walks in various neighborhoods, visiting Rhino Records a few blocks up Westwood…. I took her to my favorite bookstore Papa Bach’s and the NuArt Theater up on Santa Monica Blvd. In those days I was still very much in love with Los Angeles.
We had arrived in Los Angeles with barely any money. After a couple of days of tips, I felt absolutely giddy and ran around the living room in Mike’s apartment throwing money into the air with joy. We had been so skint in London in the last couple of months after our marriage in October… I could now take her to restaurants, out to films and concerts. We would soon have an apartment…
Somehow coming into December, I was able to get New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off from The Sidewalk Cafe.
New Year’s Eve is kind of a blur now I can’t remember if we were on speed or drinking or on speed and drinking but as it happens, we didn’t sleep that night. We had plans to meet up with Phillip Lithman and Philip W. along with Lizbeth at the sidewalk for drinks and hanging out.
Lizbeth had introduced me to Mary in London the year before. (That is another tale for later on.)
Phil W was Mary’s downstairs neighbor in Clapham Common, and my friend in LA where I had met him in the summer of 1977. Lizbeth, a friend who I had met in 1976 when I met her skating in Venice. She had married Phil w. to get him residency papers.
Phil Lithman as I have mentioned previously was a musician friend of mine who had played small gigs within LA. He has been in the pub rock band chilly Willy and the Red Hot Peppers in London and was working with The Resident’s in San Francisco.
We all settled in having a few snacks and more than a few drinks… We were all very excited and enjoying each other’s company watching the circus pass by us at the Sidewalk. Sea gulls collected along the Boardwalk, looking for treats and snacks.
Skeeter the maître d’ was immaculately dressed in a a white wool suit as he skated taking customers to the tables and dropping off menus. All of the recent transplants from New York were sitting around complaining about Los Angeles as they usually did, the skaters were going back and forth out on the boardwalk and a lone bicyclist was riding his bike whilst sitting on the handlebars pedaling backwards back and forth in front of the cafe…. A typical holiday afternoon at the Sidewalk…
And just about at that moment when everything just about blurred into perfection came a noise from the north, Malibu way… it was a fantastic rumble getting louder and louder I thought it was a military jet scrambling down along the bay.
No… it wasn’t an airplane but an earthquake, moving down the fault line along the coast. What was amazing was that you could see the Earth rolling towards us like a small wave moving on the surface as it got closer. The gulls took to the air in panic cawing loudly in dismay and confusion.
Mary cried out “What is it”? Having never experienced one before… Phil L. standing up, picking up his glass and another, said “Earthquake” in the most nonchalant way.
We all stood up grabbing our glasses as the wave moved along the beach through the cafe and the boardwalk. It passed directly under our feet, a rounded wave of tarmac on its way south. Mayhem ensued. Skeeter was thrown into a table full of dishes of fresh spaghetti… The bicyclist was thrown off of his bike and he landed on his back on the boardwalk looking quite dazed. Almost to a man all of the New Yorkers in the cafe jumped up and ran for their lives. One of them decided to run across tables to get over the railing so great was his panic, kicking plates and glasses everywhere.
You could hear people screaming up and down the boardwalk. We all sat down and continued our drinks as if nothing had happened. You could trace the path of the guest by empty glasses going up the boardwalk.
The management went out and gathered up guests and brought them back in giving free drinks to everyone. The New Yorkers of course were totally freaked.
As we sat there, free drinks in hand you could hear the noise now quite familiar off to the south and coming back our way very rapidly. The earthquake wasn’t done yet, the second wave of the fault moving was readjusting back north.
We were prepared this time, but others weren’t… Once more the bicyclist was thrown off his bike to the ground. The New Yorkers freaked out and ran out of the cafe, and the same man who had run across all the tables did it again kicking crockery and glasses everywhere. Skeeter was in the corner trying to clean spaghetti sauce off of his white suit to no avail, shaking his head, eyes wide with disbelief.
The boardwalk was in utter mayhem, glasses from the Cafe all over where they had been abandoned. We decided that perhaps it was time to go. Mary and I hugged the two Phil’s and Lizbeth and then headed back to Westwood.
Arriving back at Mike’s, we found him bumping around the flat already into the Brandy and ranting about the earthquake.
We settled in for the evening, had something to eat, some drinks and listened to music. We hung out for a while on the back entry/balcony smoking cigarettes as darkness enveloped the evening sky…
Eventually we headed to bed in the living room, settling in talking about the events of the day… As we laid there, I looked up above us on the wall, where Mike had a large, gilded mirror hanging. I decided to take it down, just in case. We started to drift off, and Boom!!!! Another quake. The building shook like it was resting on jello, the walls snapping back and forth. Mary grabbed onto me burying her head into my shoulder.
Welcome to L.A. my Darling!
One of our songs, from then: Dear Kate….https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/YSOACab2t7k?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0
Poetry Break: My friend Whit’s new work. Worth your time!