Yesterday I looked at story, and the concurrent breakdown of story and morality. Today I’d like to wander around a bit, asking continuing to examine story and it’s place in our lives.
I start with J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote Lord of the Rings, and much more anonymously, worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for some time.
Tolkien loved both story and words. We see this is LOTR: he invents whole languages. He also employs language differently depending on the situation. The hobbits, for example, use a sort of late 19th century English (with added words, and made-up words that would fit such a time period). Yet, during an important and “high” meeting such as the Council of Elrond, speakers use an older syntax and words with older roots. Such detail gives the casual reader a sense that the council is quite a hallowed meeting.
But that’s neither here nor there, just an interesting note about LOTR. What’s more pertinent is that Tolkien, with his understanding both of language and story, pens a new word: eucatastrophe. We’re familiar with the word “catastrophe,” which traditionally means the denouement of a drama. Since the denouement of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, is not usually good, catastrophe has in our language taken a rather negative tone. Tolkien adds the prefix “eu” (meaning good) to this word, thereby inventing a word that means a sudden turn of positive events at the end of a story.
Eucatastrophe is a sudden happy turn, but one that fits within the story. You may say, in hindsight, you could see this happy turn all along.
Though Tolkien talks mainly about fairy tales and eucatastrophe, he also says that the gospel is a eucatastrophe:
The gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. And among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the inner consistency of reality…God is the Lord of angels and of men, of men and of elves; legend and history have met and fused.
Tolkien argues that the Bible tells a story: the story of God’s relationship with humanity. And the essence of every fairy story fits within the larger story of the Bible. Northrop Frye, a literary critic who wrote The Great Code goes a step further: he asserts that the Biblical story is the basis for all western literature. It’s quite a claim.
Yet, if we think about it, those who have stepped into the reality of the story the Bible tells, we see that this is the story of humanity. We see that the Bible begins a story that everyone participates in, whether she knows it or not. Thus, the larger story of the Bible embraces all true stories: autobiography and history and the like. Yet, as Tolkien as Frye assert, doesn’t it also embrace the world of fiction?
Doesn’t it embrace the essence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? We see a similar eucatastrophe, a fully realized world with the forces of good and evil? Or the essence Shakespeare, and the psychology and cunning and evil and joy?
Perhaps you may say: I’ve read some bad stories. Some poorly constructed stories. Some stories that aim primarily at devaluing the Bible. Some stories that aim only to corrupt my thoughts.
Then let me put it differently. The Bible tells the one all-embracing and true story of human history. It tells from whence we came. It tells where we are now. It tells what hope we have, and what the ultimate future holds for us. It is the foundational story of humanity. And, if the Bible is the foundational story, we cannot get away from it. We cannot tell a story that in no way relates to the Bible. If we are defined by this story, then it defines all we do.
We’re not coming up with new stuff, unrelated to the Bible. (I can go on about what I mean by “embrace” or “essence” but I’ll stop here.)
Thus, I believe that we can judge a story by how it relates to the Bible. Lord of the Rings? So many people judge it highly because it relates so closely to the Biblical story. It has good vs. evil, hope vs. doubt, a small people against a larger empire, etc. The same goes with Shakespeare. The same goes with Faulkner or Hemingway or Dan Brown. How it mirrors and matches the True Story lets us know a story’s merit, its worth, its value. That’s partially why we like page-turners (a tight plot, closely related to the tight plot of the Bible) but, ultimately, they don’t hold up over time. They don’t have the psychology: characters are either all good or all evil. We know from the Bible, and from observing ourselves, that people are more complicated that that. So, the story has moderate value.
Or it tells why the Christ-figure turns up again and again and again in literature: there is a truth about such a figure.
Now here’s the catch, where I will leave us today: if this is true of literature and stories, is it not true of our own, individual stories?