You can’t read much Tolkien (or much about Tolkien) without running into that wonderful thing he called eucatastrophe. You might not know the word but you certainly know the feeling: that sudden turn from dark to light, that longed-for help in the midst of real and crushing evil, that unexpected moment of sweet relief that feels like singing and all the world’s bells ringing as help is finally on the way.
Tolkien explained it as the “joy of the happy ending,” “the good catastrophe,” “a sudden and miraculous grace,” “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief,” and, most important of all, “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” The evangelium he mentions is, of course, the gospel, the gōd spel, the good story—God’s salvation for the world: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”
And that explains the best part of all: Eucatastrophe is real. It isn’t an escape into fantasy; it is “a sudden glimpse of Truth [as] your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back…[This] is indeed how things really work in the Great World.” The best eucatastrophes are the ones that put it in your heart, not just your head, that in the real world, not just in stories, no matter how fierce the hell—in the end, everything really does turn out all right, better even than before it was broken.
Eucatastrophe isn’t simply victory or brute triumph; it is a particular kind of victory. As I wrote down the scenes that best captured the sensation Tolkien described, I realized what it is. It is rescue. To be sure, rescue and victory are frequently mixed (when Luke blows up the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, he and the rebels are “rescued” from defeat and/or death), but the purer the rescue, the greater the eucatastrophe. It is the joy of escape, of being lifted by a power stronger than yourself out of evil stronger than yourself, of watching heaven come down to earth when you could not possibly have reached it on your own, of seeing that the rock has been rolled back from the empty tomb while you were sleeping that really makes the “sudden joyous turn” Tolkien so loved.
Eucatastrophe’s impact, when it charges in at last, is “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” Tolkien felt it himself when re-reading his own Hobbit after enough time had gone by for the story to become new again. “I knew I had written a story of worth,” he wrote to his son Christopher, “when reading it (after it was old enough to be detached from me) I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the ‘eucatastrophic’ emotion at Bilbo’s exclamation: ‘The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!'”
The scene, in case you don’t remember, goes like this:
On all this Bilbo looked with misery. He had taken his stand on Ravenhill among the elves—partly because there was more chance of escape from that point, and partly (with the more Tookish part of his mind) because if he was going to be in a last desperate stand, he preferred on the whole to defend the Elvenking….
“It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down and captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili an all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfrotable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”
The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”
With the third Hobbit movie coming out this week, this scene in particular has been on my mind (hoping to heaven Peter Jackson doesn’t botch it). And it made me wonder, what other eucatastrophes can be found in Hollywood art? So here are the scenes/moments that best embody eucatastrophe of all the many hundreds of films I’ve seen. (Warning: The best parts of all these films are about to be given away, which I hate, so I’d prefer that you read on only if you’re already seen these films—or if the only way you’ll be convinced to watch them is by reading hearty spoilers.) I’m sure I’ve forgotten some and simply haven’t seen others, so if you think of additional examples, feel free to drop them in the comments. And for more on eucatastrophe, do read Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories and letter 89 from The Letters of Tolkien.
10. Saving Mr. Banks: When P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) dances to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” The rescue is of P. L. Travers from herself, snatched suddenly from her own bitterness as she dances to the same song which Mr. Banks (also saved from himself) eventually dances to in the movie based on her book. I have a few issues with the rest of Saving Mr. Banks, but this scene got me all teary-happy.
Miss Pettigrew has laid down her life for others for so many years, all on her own, after losing her fiancé in World War I. Her exhortation to Delysia (Amy Adams) mark one of the strongest, saddest parts of the movie. “We’re going to war, aren’t we?” says Delysia. Miss Pettigrew answers: “Yes, we are. And that is why you must not waste a second of this precious life. Listen to me. Once I too had ambitions. Not your grand ones. Simple ambitions. Marriage, children, and a house of our own. He died, in the mud in France. A good, solid man. You would call him dull, no doubt, but he smiled whenever he saw me and we could’ve built a life on that.”
After this and more (so many ups and downs, so many sparkly parties, so many sober foreshadowings), all it takes are a few words from Joe to seal the quiet climax in a train station where Miss Pettigrew is, as she was at the beginning of the film, all alone. “I’ve been looking for you all night,” he says; “and, I believe, all of my life.”
8. The Fellowship of the Ring: When Boromir (Sean Bean) charges up the hill to save Merry and Pippin. Of course, the rescue doesn’t last long, but the most important rescue is that of Boromir himself. The terrific fight (one of Peter Jackon’s best scenes in all the Tolkien movies) is the climax of his redemption, so it’s a noble ending for Boromir’s personal journey.
7. Black Hawk Down: The rescue of the U.S. soldiers who have been trapped in Mogadishu all night. At this point, victory is out of the question. The original mission has almost completely failed. The best the Rangers can hope for now is to get out alive—and to bring the bodies of their fallen brothers with them. With air support firing from above, the Delta team (led by Eric Bana, coolest and baddest of them all) turns on the enemy with their own guns and the Rangers race beside the Humvees all five miles back to base because there’s no room for them inside with the casualties. Everyone gets out, dead or alive—even the pilots who perished in the crash and the soldiers who gave their last breath trying to protect them. In the end, leaving no man behind is victory enough. (The scene’s success depends largely on the music, which isn’t on the official soundtrack but which you can listen to on YouTube.)
6. Braveheart: The victory of Bannockburn. Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace knew what they were doing when they cut straight from Braveheart’s brutal torture and execution in 1305 to the decisive battle of Bannockburn in 1314. When William Wallace dies, all seems hopeless; the Scots have just lost their leader, the only man who could keep them from fighting each other long enough to fight the English. But in memoriam of Wallace, riding unexpectedly nine years later, comes the smashing victory that he had been preparing them for all along. It’s one of the fiercest, grimmest happy moments in film history.
5. 127 Hours: When Aaron (James Franco) cuts off his arm. I can’t think of any movie that has made me feel more like a prisoner (unless it’s the fitfully talented Count of Monte Cristo, because there’s just something about lonely dungeon cells that I can’t stand). You might think that watching James Franco grind a dull knife through skin and bone and tendons and nerve after shrieking nerve would leave you feeling sick and abused, but by the time he finally decides to go for it, you’re completely ready. It’s time to cut this thing off and be done. Get free.
4. The Impossible: When the family finds each other again. To be honest, I laughed and cried at the same time. The whole movie is such a stomach-turning maelstrom of fear and agony that when the brothers and then the dad tumble into a hug on the dirty streets outside the hospital where their mom is dying, it’s just too much. You will find yourself grateful for the people in your life like never before.
3. The Shawshank Redemption: When Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) climbs out through the sewer, kneeling in the mud beneath the lashing rain, face upturned, arms wide, free at last. Just like Tolkien said, the setup to the turn is key to the emotional success of the turn itself: “It depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn.” And the whole story of The Shawshank Redemption is the perfect setting for this turn, perfect in its horribleness. Extremely difficult to watch (yet without being wholly obscene), the prison hell Andy endures makes his personal Easter all the more cathartic.
2. Gravity: The whole thing. From the opening 17-minute shot straight to the end credits, Gravity (one of a kind for so many reasons) is the only film whose entire plot is one eucatastrophe after the next in an exhausting, relentless buildup. Never do we feel safe in assuming that Sanda Bullock will actually survive. I’ve seen it three times and I love it (really, I do), but I still don’t enjoy it.
1. The Sea Hawk: When Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) leads the escape from the Spanish galley. This was the first and is still the the most thrilling eucatastrophe I’ve ever experienced. Besides reminding us that eucatastrophe isn’t simply the arrival of victory (true victory for the English sailors is still a long ways off), the scene where the whipped and bleeding slaves break their chains, take over the ship, and burst into song (an all-male hurrah reminiscent of the most rousing WWII anthems) as they row home to England gives the end of Act II a magnificent spike and captures everything eucatastrophe means: jubilant relief and painful, exultant gratitude that for the faithful, the tomb never stays closed for long. The whole dashing, romantic, heroic, glamorous, swashbuckling film is one of my favorites.