I was chatting today with some writers and explaining how I rate a book. It’s different than the way I think most people do it.
I can find something good in almost any story. All stories have value. I hate giving out bad reviews and honestly? I have been a coward and have not given out honest reviews because I didn’t want to hurt the author’s feelings. I admit it. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t do that because a bad review when given honestly can be a springboard to better work. I know that. But as I said…coward. I’m doing better with this now. But it has been a real struggle.
But part of my struggle has been because of the way I rate books. I didn’t really feel it was fair to hold people to the standard I have. Especially in fantasy. Because in fantasy, I bow to the greatness of Tolkien.
I can’t even believe this is controversial. But it is. It seems these days that the farther one gets from the tropes Tolkien put forth, the higher rated a book is. So if that is your view, you may not like what I’m going to say. But my view really has nothing to do with “is the setting European” or “is it about the farmboy Chosen One.” That doesn’t matter a whit. The thing I’m speaking of is the standard Tolkien put forth regarding fantasy in his excellent essay “On Fairy-Stories.”
In the essay Tolkien identifies three major components of a fantasy. They are Comfort, Escape and Eucatastrophe. He talks a lot about sub-creation and that is fine. But when he speaks of Comfort, he is speaking of the effect upon the reader. Is the reader uplifted?
Now we have a whole subgenre devoted to the opposite of uplifting. Grimdark doesn’t want the reader uplifted at all. But to me, the point of fantasy is to uplift. I’m not a big fan of grimdark. If you are, that’s great. I just don’t get it at all. I can appreciate the effort a grimdark writer puts in, but I don’t personally like it.
Escape… does the reader genuinely believe in the subcreation of the author? is there any discord that jars them out of their willing suspension of belief?
and the third thing is the thing I strive for the most. It’s very very very hard to do. Eucatastrophe. I like Susan Cooper’s take on it. She said it was “a catch of the breath.”
Oxford said this:
eucatastrophe: A sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending.
‘Tolkien called the gospel account the ‘eucatastrophe’, the happiest of all tragedies, because it satisfies the human heart’s deepest yearnings, including the desire for an epic mythology.’
Tolkien actually coined the phrase. It comes from eu- + catastrophe.
It isn’t really enough to have a happy ending though. It has to be a happy ending in spite of impossible or nearly impossible odds, is the idea. It’s a joyous ending. An ending which makes you feel complete and surprises you in its perfection.
And when all three are there, then you have a really good fantasy book. But that is why I said I don’t give a completely honest review. It’s almost impossible to find a story that has all three things these days.
Even among Christian Fantasy (which should know better) I don’t see it. My two Masters are CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. They both agreed on the points laid out in Tolkien’s essay. But whereas Tolkien viewed his sub-creation itself as an act of worship, CS Lewis saw his writing as an opportunity to teach. Tolkien was not didactic.
I don’t think one needs to be didactic. I think in my own work, I can get that way! LOL. But I too, write as a form of worship. I hope one does not have to be a Christian to enjoy my work. But whether you are or are not a Christian, is immaterial.
My main audience is God.
Now of course, we have writers like Terry Pratchett and Doug Adams who are writing humorous tales. Those won’t have a great moment of eucatastrophe in them. But they will have happy endings.
Tolkien wasn’t writing about the fantasy genre when he wrote his essay. It didn’t really exist in the form we see today. He was writing about Fairy Stories. Those do tend to end “and they lived happily ever after.” I think at minimum for me to like a story I need a happy ending. I don’t like Romeo and Juliet. Don’t ask me to like your grand sweeping tale of betrayal and murder. I won’t. I might appreciate it. But I won’t like it.
Today we have the opposite. We have the anti-Tolkien, George RR Martin. Yet I think no matter how much such writers are lauded, there is built in to most humans, a love for fantasy the way Tolkien defined it. I think even when the story isn’t truly happy, it can be great, a la the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. The story doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses. But it must have that turn. The catch of the breath.
I think there is an idea that people who love “classic” fantasy are old curmudgeons and good vs evil is terribly old-fashioned. But I’ll submit to you that it isn’t the case at all. The “classic” fantasy is different. But the newer fantasy that rejects good vs evil and uplifting and comfort and eucatastrophe, simply has a different audience. “Classic” fantasy isn’t outmoded.
Robert McKee talks a lot about “the turn” in his masterwork on Story. The turns from positive to negative and how they hold the reader. A eucatastrophe is one of those.
The best-known and most fully realized eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work occurs in the climax of The Lord of the Rings. Though victory seems assured for Sauron, the One Ring is permanently destroyed as a result of Gollum‘s waylaying of Frodo at Mount Doom. Frodo essentially fails his impossible quest at its very end, claiming the Ring for himself – however, at this moment, Gollum suddenly appears, steals the ring, and in his ecstatic gloating falls into the fire. If not for Frodo’s previous mercy in sparing Gollum’s life (a great risk due to Gollum’s obvious treachery, met with bitter protest by Sam), and if not for the Ring’s own corruptive influence on Gollum, Sauron would surely have reclaimed it. Thus, Evil is inadvertently and unforeseeably defeated through a small act of kindness and through its own corruptive machinations.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucatastrophe
Wikipedia also says
Eucatastrophe has been labelled by some as a form of deus ex machina, due to both sharing an impossible problem being suddenly resolved. However, differences between the two have also been noted, such as its inherent connection to an optimistic view on the unfolding of events in the narrative of the world. In Tolkien’s view, eucatastrophe can also occur without the use of a deus ex machina.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucatastrophe
The problem with that criticism is that God does work in some stories. If your story has a god or Gods or a pantheon in it and they are characters, having them resolve an issue isn’t a too-convenient device. It’s a Thing He/They Would Do. To do otherwise would not be believable. That’s the reason I think that people don’t use gods more in their fantasy.
The line is very fine.
Just some thoughts. I wanted to explain myself because I use the word “eucatastrophe” a lot. I figured I had better define it.