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What Easter Has to Do With Fairy-Stories
Joy Like Swords And The Greatest Eucatastrophe In History
On Easter and Fairy-Stories
It’s the week of Easter, so it’s the perfect time to discuss Tolkien’s concept of Eucatastrophe and how he saw Easter’s place in his understanding of fairy-stories.
According to Tolkien—who coined the term in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”—a ‘eucatastrophe’ is “the consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)” (“On Fairy-Stories,” The Tolkien Reader, 86). This ‘good catastrophe’ gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Ibid.). Tolkien continues:
It is the mark of a good fairy-story…that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (Ibid.)
So a eucatastrophe is the “joy of the happy ending” or “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” in a fairy-story. Tolkien’s own stories contain wonderful examples of this: Bilbo’s cry of “The Eagles! The Eagles! …The Eagles are coming!” during the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit, Gandalf arriving with reinforcements at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the arrival and charge of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, or the destruction of the Ring itself. Each of these moments are ones where, whether you are reading the books or watching the movies, you might experience that “catch of the breath” or “beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears” Tolkien describes.
While all successful fantasy hopefully draws upon and is grounded in reality in manifold ways, Tolkien considers this joy not just a drawing upon reality but a “glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” of the primary world (“On Fairy-Stories,” 88). For a moment the curtain is drawn back, and we experience something ultimate, something absolute and real. And what truth is Tolkien, a devout Catholic from boyhood, ultimately referring to? The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Epilogue to “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien goes into further detail and applies the concept of ‘eucatastrophe’ to our own history:
The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. (88–89)
In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien expands on what he means about the resurrection being a eucatastrophe:
The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest.
This weekend Christians all over the world will gather together to celebrate Easter and the “greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible”—the defeat of Death itself when all hope seemed lost. Where in a fairy-story the curtain is pulled back and truth breaks through for a moment as we glimpse the Joy beyond the walls of this world, in the gospel Truth himself has broken through from the far shores of eternity into time itself and torn the veil separating us. What greater Joy could there be than this? What greater ‘turn’ or happy ending?
At the conclusion of The Return of the King, the Host of the West is gathered together. To celebrate the victory over Sauron, a minstrel sings the song of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.” And his song produces a tearful joy like this among all who are gathered there:
And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.
As Christians gather like the victorious Host of the West, we gather to sing of and remember the story of One who was pierced so that we could be healed, One who for the joy set before him went to the cross and suffered death. One in whom Joy and Sorrow meet, who drank the cup of wrath so that we might taste the wine of blessedness, who died so that we might live. And this risen One offers us the chance to join him in this joy, if we will only accept him.
Happy Easter, friends. He is risen and that eucatastrophe is Good News for us all.
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Amazon’s Rings of Power Problem
Earlier this week The Hollywood Reporter published a new report about Amazon Studios. The lede is all about The Rings of Power and contains the following statistic about the show. After a record breaking start that dominated the Nielson ratings during its premier,
The Rings of Power had a 37 percent domestic completion rate (customers who watched the entire series). Overseas, it reached 45 percent. (A 50 percent completion rate would be a solid but not spectacular result, according to insiders).
So that’s…bad. That’s bad, right? It can’t be great. Especially not for a show that cost a billion dollars!
The “50 percent completion rate would be solid but not spectacular” context isn’t all that helpful, so I looked for a bit more info for more context and found some statistics from Netflix to compare.
Every show on this list with a completion rate under 50% was cancelled and every show over 50% was renewed. Now, Amazon and Netflix don’t make decisions exactly the same way and Netflix mostly releases their shows all at once or in a few big chunks for for people to binge (so surely a show that airs weekly like The Rings of Power will have a higher dropoff).
And it’s hard to compare shows from different streaming services, because there’s apparently no agreed-upon metric for doing so and there are loads of other contextual factors that might make an impact on the platforms evaluating it as a success.
Amazon, for instance, is also hoping that The Rings of Power will drive more viewers to its other shows, drive more sales of books like The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, keep viewers subscribed to Prime, and encourage viewers to otherwise engage with their ecosystem of products and services. We don’t have metrics on those effects and so this completion rate statistic is lacking the additional context that insiders and the studio bosses are using to evaluate it.
But it’s still a seemingly illuminating statistic, especially considering the built-in franchise branding and devoted fanbase that The Rings of Power had that many of these other shows couldn’t count on.
Spun positively, almost 40 million of the 100 millionviewers of The Rings of Power completed the first season. And the show is far from cancelled: the second season is well under way, has added some stellar new cast members, raises the stakes, has a two-episode battle, and has the benefit of all the lessons learned from the first season.
But that’s still over 60 million viewers who didn’t make it through all eight episodes. Surely that’s a disappointment for Amazon, who had hoped for a critically acclaimed cultural juggernaut of a show.
Studio chief Jennifer Salke is quoted in the article and doesn’t seem concerned (publicly at least):
“This desire to paint the show as anything less than a success — it’s not reflective of any conversation I’m having internally,” she says. The second season, currently in production, will have more dramatic story turns, she adds. “That’s a huge opportunity for us. The first season required a lot of setting up.”
I for one hope that she’s right and that the second season is stronger than the first. Though I have my criticisms, I overall enjoyed the first season and am willing to give it the chance to improve (and am hoping it does). But time is already running out for the show to right the ship and be considered an overall success. The “It took a lot of setting up but it’s going to pay off” excuse only goes so far without the promised payoff, and “You’re going to love this show, it gets really good after the first two or three seasons” is hardly a winning sales pitch.
A new feature is coming to Substack: Notes!
It’s essentially a social media feed for Substack, but without the ads because everything here revolves around and is ultimately funded by subscriptions. I’m very keen to try this out and see how it compares to other social media feeds, especially with Twitter falling apart and worsening seemingly daily. Look for me to start using it as soon as it is available! I’d love to interact with you all here and try this new tool together.
That’s all for today’s newsletter. Farewell, friends, and have a wonderful end of the week and weekend! Happy Easter! He is risen!
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In response to the two recent profiles, Brandon Sanderson wrote an essay on writing and on belonging called Outside. It’s worth a read, both for devoted fans of Sanderson and also those who enjoy the art and craft of writing.
All typos are totally on purpose. Links may be affiliate.
Studio head Jennifer Salke said in an October interview with Variety, “We’re cresting toward 100 million customers having watched it.” Surely they’ve passed that by now? Though I can’t find any news that they did and we don’t know precisely what “cresting toward” means. 90 million? 95 million? 75 million? All could be “cresting” from a certain point of view. I digress.