Monday, February 10, 2014

Dyscatastrophe and Eucatastrophe in Tolkien's Greatest Love Story, 'Beren and Luthien'


     In On Fairy Stories J.R.R. Tolkien states that eucatastrophe “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these are necessary” (OFS 153). Eucatastrophe, the “sudden joyous turn”(OFS 153) in a good fairy story is not only made possible by dyscatastrophe, but relies upon it. By turning away from sorrow and despair, the turn towards joy is made all the more great; the moment becomes more than just a happy ending and becomes eucatastrophe. In The Silmarillion Beren and Lúthien face seeming failure and doom many times but there is always an extraordinary turn towards eucatastrophe.

 Many of the dyscatastrophes that Beren face come as a result of being separated from Lúthien. Thus the sudden turn to eucatastrophe always occurs when Beren and Lúthien are reunited. For example, although Beren is physically tormented and worn from his first journey to Doriath, it is only after Lúthien inexplicably “vanishe[s] from his eyes” (165) where he first experiences dyscatastrophe: 

“He fell into a sleep as it were into an abyss of shadow and waking he was cold as stone, and his heart barren and forsaken” (165). 
Beren is in a deep sorrow and despair but when Lúthien returns to him and lays her hand in his, it is a moment of eucatastrophe because she does so “beyond his hope” (166). We are then told “no others of the Children of Illúvatar have had a joy so great” (166). This is a formula that happens throughout the story of Beren and Lúthien: the pair first gets separated, Beren then comes close to death and despair, and finally Lúthien comes to Beren, in true eucatastrophe fashion, unlooked for. 
            Lúthien’s arrival is “never counted on to occur” (OFS 153) and is always a “sudden and miraculous grace” (OFS 153) for Beren. For instance, in another eucatastrophic moment, Lúthien comes to Beren in the dungeons of Sauron and saves him from despair and misery. All of Finrod Felagund and Beren’s companions have died by the work of Sauron and when Felagund finally dies Beren “mourned beside him in despair” (174). Beren is not only in deep physical misery and danger, but he is mentally anguished as well. All hope is lost and yet, 
“In that hour Lúthien came, and…she sang a song that no walls of stone could hinder” (174). 
Whether intentional or not, this moment also echoes the way Tolkien describes eucatastrophe as a “Joy beyond the walls of the world” (OFS 153). Lúthien’s song is unhindered by “walls of stone” and Beren is able to feel a joy beyond the walls of his prison. Despite the darkness, he envisions stars and trees and nightingales and begins to sing an answering song (174). Once Lúthien wraps her arms around Beren he comes fully “back into the light out of the pits of despair” (175). Beren, near death and full of sorrow, once again experiences eucatastrophe through an unlooked for reunion with Lúthien.

While eucatastrophe does not deny dyscatastrophe (and indeed, relies upon it), what eucatastrophe does deny, Tolkien states, is “universal final defeat” (153). A true eucatastrophic moment saves the character from ultimate and final despair. Thus the greatest and final eucatastrophe in the story of Beren and Lúthien is their return from the Halls of Mandos (death). After Beren dies Lúthien once again comes for him wholly unexpected. Among the dead Lúthien has beauty “more than their beauty and sorrow deeper than their sorrow” (186) and is able to move Mandos to pity. It is from this mixture of sorrow and beauty that the great eucatastrophe of Beren and Lúthien occurs: they are released from Mandos and Lúthien is able to chose to live a mortal life with Beren.
 Thus Beren’s final great eucatastrophe is twofold: not only does he come back to the living world to be with Lúthien, but he and Lúthien are no longer to be separated by their race. We’re told, “whatever grief might lie in wait, the fates of Beren and Lúthien might be joined, and their paths lead together beyond the confines of the world” (187). Here is a perfect illustration to Tolkien’s description of eucatastrophe as a Joy “poignant as grief” (153). Lúthien’s death is certainly sorrowful, but it is equally wonderful and joyous because she is ultimately able to live and love with Beren.


Tolkien's On Fairy Stories
Beren and Luthien Story (chapter 19 in The Silmarillion)


  1. You know, the stories that really stay with me are the ones with eucatastrophe, in which the characters are saved from final despair, but in which the victory is still distant, and the trials still numerous, so you are left with something bittersweet but satisfactory.

    1. Completely agree! I love the idea of living through tragedy, but denying "universal final defeat." Nothing quite like an ending that does that, and certainly nothing like the way Tolkien does it!


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