The “Eucatastrophe” of Salvation: The Exodus and Empty Tomb via Tolkien and ‘Toy Story’

My favorite new word was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Eucatastrophe.”

The prefix “eu-” has Greek origins and means “good” (e.g., “euphemism”—good saying). Think of the Greek term for gospel (“good news”): euangelion.

For Tolkien, a “eucatastrophe” is a sudden event of catastrophically good proportions. Here is how he defines it:

“It is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. . . . It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (From his essay “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, p. 153).

Besides the climactic scenes in the cinematic renditions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the most poignant portrayals of eucatastrophe on the big screen is that moment in Toy Story 3 when Buzz, Woody, and the gang are plummeting into the junkyard’s menacing furnace. There is absolutely no way out. There is no escape whatsoever. In an expression communicating a sorrowful resolve to face inevitable death, Buzz takes Jessie (the cowgirl) by the hand. The metallic clanking of the music pounds incessantly like a death knell. Though trained on happy endings in Disney films, we the audience await for a breakthrough. But the clanking persists, the incinerator growls, and the scene stretches out for so long that we ourselves share Buzz’s resolve: this is the end of these characters we’ve come to love. All is lost.

Then… BOOM!

Rescue. Salvation. “The Claw!”

This must have been something akin to how the Israelites felt that day on the shore of the sea as the sound of the surf was gradually overpowered by the thundering of Pharaoh’s chariots and the stomping of his massive army. Children cry out, parents clutch their babies, 600,000 hearts racing in panic. They are trapped between a sea of spears and a sea of waves. There is absolutely no way out. There is no escape whatsoever. All is lost.

Then… BOOM!

Rescue. Salvation.

Eucatastrophe.

The sea ripped open in a scene beyond imagination.

And here is something else beyond imagination: God became flesh. He walked among us.

But then he died. The tomb was sealed. The Saviour needed saving and no one came to save. The sea did not part. No hand rescued from above.

Death.

Yet you know the rest of the story. BOOM: the locked up grave had its stone door blown off.

Tolkien understood this as the ultimate Eucatastophe. Jesus came in the flesh. But when crucified, he rose again.

Amen.

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).