Keeping an authentically hopeful perspective on life is hard…
“Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.” –C.S. Lewis, quoted by Corey Lotta
For a while, I’ve been wrestling with how to make sense of the COVID-19 crisis and how to relate helpfully to others during this time. I’ve been trying to avoid approaches that fall into glib optimism at one extreme or hopeless despair at the other.
Looking back at Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, I was reminded by his “Success at Work” chapter that always just promoting optimism isn’t the best approach for relating well to people who are going through adversity. Beyond modern psychology, I’ve been thinking about the ways that great authors authentically engage in adverse experiences through their fiction.
Having used high school and college level literary texts for a few decades, I often hear my students express concern about how much intense negativity makes its way into traditional literature. Perhaps, I say, that’s because these writers often tackle the topics that we like to ignore and avoid in the midst of our busy lives and entertainment-focused culture.
Not too long ago, we were reading through Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and I shared how relevant the story seems to be with China’s experience of the Coronavirus. The symbolic character Prince Prospero, with all his prosperity, attempts to distance himself from the Red Death (likely a fictional blend of the Bubonic plague and Tuberculosis) that has fatally afflicted nearby inhabitants. A victim of the Red Death would perish painfully and in isolation because the quarantine practices “shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.” Prince Prospero attempts to distance himself from the problem and to just party with his affluent friends in his kingdom until the crisis ends. By the end of the tale, the personified Red Death crashes Prospero’s party and quickly kills everyone, despite their attempts to fight back.
Bleak, indeed. In such samplings from Poe’s writings, we can see him exploring a fairy-tale view of life that can’t adequately face the catastrophes of lived experiences (also found in his poems such as “Annabel Lee”). The literary and lifeview of tragedy overtake Poe’s texts with an overwhelming sense of loss and hopelessness. Sadly, Poe’s own life was filled with loss, tragedy, sickness, and loneliness that he never seemed to overcome.
A compelling contrast can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s overall approach to stories and to life. His work is saturated with a fairy-tale view of life and literature (or “fairy-story” in his phrasing and in his discussion in “On Fairy-Stories” found in The Tolkien Reader). Here, the notion of fairy-tale has nothing to do with popular Disney-like versions of fairy-tales. Instead, it entails a strangely realistic and intense approach to putting encounters of extreme adversity into the context of a larger vision of reality.
Tolkein’s approach to fairy-tales tends to follow the deep and earnest struggles of characters who seek to survive and to flourish, working through the challenges of catastrophic events and against life-destroying forces. The outcome of a Tolkienesque fairy-tale approach to life and literature is one in which the ultimate good mysteriously works to redirect and engulf loss and disaster, aiming at a greater overall outcome that’s strangely richer than a mere happy ending. Realistically, there are still traces of grief and sadness, but they do not dominate the story or its ending.
Tolkien coined a term for this aim and approach: eucatastrophe (a good catastrophe). He asserts that the “eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function,” and many characters in Tolkien’s tales eventually encounter a higher joy, or at least a glimpse of this joy in their quests, all of which puts catastrophes in a larger context of hope, perseverance, and meaningfulness (Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader 68). There is so much to be said about this thick view of pursuing happiness that one could dedicate an entire blog site to it. Suffice it to say, for now, Tolkien sees this sort of storytelling not as escapism but as a better angle from which to understand life and thereby empower hope in the face of adversity. That’s the sort of encouragement we need for living and for flouishing.
In the Two Towers, Samwise Gamgee asks a question of Frodo Baggins that relates to us too: “How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?” Sam answers his own question: “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing…this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
Sam’s attitude is eucatastrophic in ways that are more than mere optimism. He’s constantly wondering about greater stories that can give a more meaningful context to their trials. The friendship between Sam and Frodo is a timely example for us. Often, we don’t really feel that “We’re all in this together.” What we most need is a good friend or two to remind us of eucatastrophic visions and of great tales. We need at least one Samwise character who will aptly respond to our claim that we feel like we’re going through our life alone: “Of course you are, and I’m going through it with you!”
Tolkien’s own creativity, character, and sense of hopefulness did not grow in isolation. Collaboration with others was both a benefit to him and a contribution to others. I’ve dabbled a bit in accounts of Tolkien’s collaboration with others, especially the group called the Inklings, with the well-known inclusion of C.S. Lewis. The name of the group is a delightful and intentional pun on both writing and incomplete understanding.
Also in the Two Towers, Sam shares a question that applies well to the Inklings–much like a mission statement in question form: “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” That mixed sense of struggle, weariness, curiosity, and hope can serve us well too. The Inklings started small, and small can be very good for us–even with just one other person. We can find our Inklings and be thankful that even with social distancing, we can call, email, and video conference with others. It’s a time to share our writings, musings, stories, plans, failings, foibles, fears, struggles, and hopes. That sharing is healthy for humans as well as Hobbits.
In terms of great stories and eucatastrophes, it’s an opportune time this week to consider the meaning of the upcoming days of Good Friday and Easter: Did you know that story-wise they involve something vastly more significant than the quests for chocolate bunnies and colored eggs? Exploring this eucatastrophic story from an ancient but still relevant time might reveal some surprising encouragement for journeys through catastrophic times–and back again.
Invitation to Reflect:
- Does literature have to be tragic and depressing to be great? Does a commitment to realism in literature and life require that we become cynical?
- Have you ever found writing to be helpful for times that you get fed up with life?
- How do you navigate the twin challenges of glib optimism and despair when relating to people about extreme adversity? What are some ways that you might encourage others in these times?
- Do you have at least one friend like Samwise Gamgee? Or, do you have a group of Inklings to meet with? What might you need to change in your life to help you find them?
- Have you considered ways that the Easter story resonates with great epics and Tolkien’s notion of a eucatastrophe?
For Further Reading and Reflection:
- The Tolkien Reader, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing…, by Corey Lotta
- Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, by Diana Pavlac Glyer and James A. Owen
- The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
- Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner
- ”10 of the Best Easter Poems Everyone Should Read,” by Dr. Oliver Tearle