Whatever happened to happy endings? All children grow up surrounded by stories that have happy endings. In fact, I remember being confused as I grew older, whenever I would encounter a story that did not have one. Isn’t everything supposed to turn out alright in the end? But when children do grow up, the cruelty of life tells them that there are no happy endings, that such things are, in fact, childish. So many modern stories (especially the critically cclaimed ones that we are all supposed to read) are gritty and wrathful and sad. Happy endings, we are told, are simply not realistic.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien presents an alternative view. He declares that any ‘fairy story’ (what we would term ‘fantasy’) must have a happy ending to be successful. Further, Tolkien says that happy endings in fact do not deny the horrors of the real world. Indeed, such tragedy and evil “is necessary to the joy of deliverance.” Besides, happy endings are what we all really want anyway. They deny “universal final defeat and… [give] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
If tragedy is the highest form of drama, then the fairy story with a happy ending is the polar opposite—yet there is not a literary term that fully expresses this, so Tolkien supplies one: eucatastrophe. Happy endings are probably considered the simplest of endings but Tolkien asserts that pulling off a successful eucatastrophe is actually quite difficult. It requires the storyteller to focus much of his tale around the Turn, which Tolkien considers to be one of the highest forms of literary art: the Turn comes with “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”
The entire story acts as the setting for the Turn and when done well, such a Turn puts all the previous terror and evil in perspective and actually “reflects a glory backwards” to use Tolkien’s wonderful phrase. We see this, of course, in Tolkien’s own The Lord of the Rings, wherein the opponents of Sauron fight on despite inevitable failure. The members of the Fellowship seem to move from defeat to defeat throughout the books. Ultimate defeat would have made their efforts futile, but the destruction of the Ring and casting down of Sauron actually reflects glory back upon even tragedy.
And that is the real key to what happy endings are–in The Lord of the Rings, the eucatastrophe is not the journey to the West, or Sam returning to Bag End. Rather, it is the final defeat of Sauron and the casting down of the dark tower. The eucatastrophe is less about the “happily ever after” than it is the Turn, the moment when evil is routed and good begins to triumph; the moment when the glory begins reflecting backwards. So for Tolkien, the happy ending is less about actual happiness than it is about hope and the final victory of goodness.
The desire for eucatastrophe is a basic part of our humanity. We are always waiting for the Turn to come, for the moment when things are made right. Whenever tragedy strikes or evil is on display in our world, we ask ourselves, in the words of Sam Gamgee. “is everything sad going to come untrue?”
The Christian answers “yes.”
Indeed, for Tolkien the Gospel is the greatest eucatastrophe of all. It is the Turn that gives us hope that happy endings are possible at all. Imagine discovering that your favorite story was actually true—imagine discovering that there really are lightsabers in a galaxy far, far away. Or imagine actually receiving an invitation in the mail to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Discovering that such things were real would send a thrill up your spine; a sense of joy that something so fantastic could actually be true.
Tolkien says that this is why acknowledging the truth of the Gospel produces such great joy. He writes that “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
We convince ourselves that stories that end in sadness, anger, violence, depression, or hopelessness are the truest and closest to reality. The Gospel tells us that this is wrong. The reason the eucatastrophe is a vital part of literature—and a vital part of our very nature—is that, in the midst of a world that is broken and terrible, it holds out the promise of redemption, healing, and the hope of the Great Turn.