Don’t wait for gaint eagles: Tolkien’s solution when all seems lost

Tolkien was a literature scholar and had some interesting ideas about stories and the world. One of these ideas was that of the ‘eucatastrophe’. A criticism of Tolkien’s work is that sudden unlooked for events provide happy outcomes when all seems lost. Giant eagles rescue the heroes from likely death and disaster at least FIVE times (In the The Hobbit when the eagles pluck the heroes from burning trees and later change the tide of the Battle of Five Armies, and in The Lord of the Rings when they save Gandalf from imprisonment at Isengard, change the tide of the Battle at the Morannon, and rescue Frodo and Sam from the errupting Mt Doom). Bilbo saves the dwarves from giant spiders when all is lost. Gandalf saves the dwarves from the Goblin King hordes when all is lost (they really were a bit hopeless these dwarves). Gollum destroys himself and the ring when Frodo finds that he can’t do it. Wormtoungue kills Saraman to end the destruction of the Shire. And so on.

Image by Julie and Adrian Paterson

All of these events are some form of eucatastrophe. As Tolkien said in his essay in ‘On Fairy-stories’ a eucatastrophe is “the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible and probable doom“. It is similar to a ‘deus ex machina’ ending but it is not the same, as an outside power or event does not have to be involved (Gollum destroying the ring accidentally would be an example – completely consistent with what we know about the character). Tolkien felt that eucatastrophes were inherently optimistic in their view of how events unfold in the world. Could there be a more mid-century English idea of the ‘muddling through’, ‘things will be all right on the night’, ‘it might brighten up later’ world view?

In the cynical 21st century we find it hard to accept that there might be unexpected happy endings. There is a lot of gloom, if not outright doom, around. Steven Pinker has done his best to point out how, despite appearances, most things are getting better (here and here). I regularly point out to my students that we are living in the golden age. There was no generation before now that lived as well or long or as fully as this one. It’s hard to argue against when you look at the trends that measure our lives.

There are some ‘buts’ though. But what about climate change and species extinction and loss of privacy and loss of jobs to robots in the future? These are valid concerns. Tolkien would have countered that the eucatastrophe does not gaurantee a golden run for everyone all of the time. Or even some people some of the time. What Tolkien suggests is that things will turn out all right because the world’s plan will make it so. Tolkien usually thought of the Christian God as enabling the plan but we can just as easily substitute human knowledge and ingenuity.

This optimistic view of life is very unattractive at the moment. Yes there are lots of issues to solve in the world. Yes this is difficult. Yes we should be upset about things. But I would argue (and I’m sure Tolkien would have nodded his head) that if we don’t have optimism that our efforts will turn things around (the eucatastrophe) because of what we can do with our science, knowledge and ingenuity, then why should we bother? If it is all doom and gloom then we should just give the ring to the nearest Nazgul rather than keeping on trying to destroy it. Eucastrophe is really another word for hope. And if we have no hope then why do anything?

In Tolkien’s stories the characters don’t just sit around waiting for a eucatastrophe. They struggle, usually against the odds, to achieve their goals. Sam and Frodo crawling through the wastes of Mordor. Gandalf facing off against the Balrog. Thorin spending years in exile to reclaim his birthright. Those that do give up to the apparent doom of the future and stop struggling are themselves doomed to fail. Denethor, Steward of Gondor, can see no way out, gives up and dies by his own hand. Saraman, overwhelmed by what he sees in the Palantir about the might of Sauron, betrays his allies and ultimately loses everything.

What does this have to do with ecology and conservation? We are faced with a great deal of doom and gloom in this field. Climate change leading to species range shifts, often into reduced habitat or competing with invasive species. Extinction rates of species that are approaching mass extinction levels. Contamination of oceans and rivers. Desertification and increased fire regimes in dry areas. And so on. It’s easy to become disillusioned with the future.

On the positive side there are increasing numbers of people that are concerned and working on these issues. When we work on such things as alternative energies, removing invasive species from areas, conservation outcomes, reducing our footprint, we are working towards the eucatastrophe. If we see no way forward and all is doom and gloom then why bother? Let the end come. But we don’t do this. We continue to strive against tremendous odds to make the world a better place. Not because we think the giant eagles will arrive to save us in the nick of time, but because we have optimism that by continuing to struggle along something good may just happen.

The synergy of lots of people doing the right and optimistic thing.

The eucatastrophe.

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