It’s always good to find writers you appreciate writing well about the stories you love. Even though I can’t yet bring myself to reread the Harry Potter series, I always enjoy reading things about the story of “the boy who lived,” including the essays by Alan Jacobs about Potter’s adventures. So I was doubly-glad to see him posting some reflections on The Lord of the Rings. The context: a response to some thoughts from British science fiction writer Adam Roberts on the possibility of healing. Jacobs writes:
I would say that healing is not only possible for Tolkien but inevitable — and yet inevitable in a very curious way. That magnificent moment in The Lord of the Rings when Sam, having expected to die on Mount Doom, awakens to find that he is alive and so is Frodo and so is Gandalf and so cries, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” — surely this is the most perfect embodiment in his writings of what Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe”
“Eucatastrophe,” of course, it the word Tolkien used as a contrast to catastrophe: in this case, a good and joyful ending. Jacobs wisely notes that victory in Middle Earth is never as final as one might like. The most recent sense of that can be found in the cinematic version of The Hobbit, where we see the confrontation between the White Council and a reemerging Sauron. Jacobs goes on to say:
That all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary is a strong theme here — and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits, and makes the return of evil more likely even among those who start out with “clean earth to till.”
And so, as Tolkien puts it (and Jacobs echoes) there is a long defeat that points to some ultimate, final victory. But it is not this day.
There will be, then, a “final victory,” but that will be (to return to the quotation from “On Fairy Stories”) “beyond the walls of the world.” Within the walls of the world all victories, all healing, will be temporary and imperfect — eucatastrophic only in the short term. In the longer term the effects of even the most heroic and righteous deeds will seem so narrow and brief that they will scarcely seem worth doing.
Which is why, for Tolkien, the best impetus to heroic and righteous deeds comes from some intuition of a final victory not in history but beyond history. To lack that intuition while clearly seeing the “long defeat” of history clearly is the curse of Denethor — not a person, for all his wisdom, to envy. For Tolkien, the suspicion that there is some perfect righteousness “beyond the walls of the world” is what prompts righteousness and generosity in the here and now. It’s what might make some of us strive to “uproot evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after might have clean earth to till.”
It’s a beautiful post. You can read all of it here. And, as always, you can read your way into the world of “the long defeat” in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
(image from the University of Leicester)