Sunday, August 19, 2012

Catastrophic Events

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

In his essay called "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien coined a new word to describe an event at the end of a story that suddenly brings about a good resolution when all hope seems to be lost: eucatastrophe, which literally means "good catastrophe." A eucatastrophe is not the same as deus ex machina – it is an event that, while sometimes implausible or just in the nick of time, nevertheless has been set up earlier in the story and does make sense to the narrative, rather than being something completely new that suddenly appears out of the blue right when help is needed.

Eucatastrophes don't have to be positive events themselves. In fact, by definition it is still a catastrophe, no matter what good comes of it in the end. When we last saw Bilbo, he, Gandalf, Bard and the men of Lake-town, and the Wood-elves were trying to negotiate with Thorin and the dwarves for the portion of the treasure stolen from the men's ancestors. Thorin finally agreed to trade Bilbo's share of the treasure for the Arkenstone, but all sides knew that he had no intention of actually following through on his plan.

Now, the men and elves are besieging the Lonely Mountain fortress and Thorin's cousin Dain has just arrived with reinforcements for the dwarves. Battle between the two sides is now imminent and unavoidable. Into the midst of this tense situation, however, comes word of a more serious threat: Goblins from the Misty Mountains are on their way to avenge the death of the Great Goblin and many others of their compatriots at the hands of Gandalf, Thorin, and company towards the beginning of their journey. Tolkien tells us that "the Goblins were the foes of all, and at their coming all other quarrels were forgotten." Dwarves, men, and elves now band together to face the new threat and vanquish the evil that threatens them all, in the process forgetting what now seem to be petty squabbles.

The coming of the Goblin army is definitely a catastrophe – in the ensuing Battle of Five Armies, many allies' lives are lost (including Thorin's) and the Goblins almost win the day. The end result, however, is that the allies remain friends, compromises are reached, fences are mended, and alliances are strengthened. It is not merely a catastrophe, it is a eucatastrophe because many good things do come out of it.

Everyone experiences catastrophic events in their lives. The key lesson is to remember that God turns catastrophes into eucatastrophes. We may not recognize this until we look back after the fact, but even in the midst of negative circumstances we can still trust God to walk with us and we can have faith that better days are ahead.

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