Eucatastrophe, Discatastrophe and the destruction of the Ring

The concept of the eucatastrophe, and conversely the discatastrophe, is central to J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of fantasy literature or the Fairy-Story.  Eucatastrophe, as defined by Tolkien in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” is the “good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…it is a sudden and miraculous grace…a fleeting glimpse of Joy” (On Fairy-Stories 153). Going further, it is a moment of Evengelium, referencing the greatest moment of eucatastrophe in human history: the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a myth in which “Legend and History have met and fused” (On Fairy-Stories 156). Eucatastrophe was not just a literary tool for Tolkien, but an opportunity to elicit Truth and therefore explore the nature of Providence. It is through the mechanism of eucatastrophe, sudden miracle, that The Lord of the Rings becomes a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letter 142).

Just as light is unperceivable without darkness, so too is eucatastrophe meaningless without the presence of discatastrophe or “sorrow and failure” (On Fairy-Stories 153).  This duality of light and dark, hope and despair, victory and defeat is an integral part of Tolkien’s subcreated world.  It is subconsciously present upon the first reading, but is revealed in rereading.  The sudden joyous turn “reflects a glory backwards,” revealing the Truths, and unnoticed eucatastrophic moments along the way (On Fairy-Stories 154). In this sense eucatastrophe becomes Tolkein’s greatest vehicle for applicability.

One of the recurring questions surrounding The Lord of the Rings is whether Frodo fails in his quest.  The quest is achieved, though not explicitly by Frodo, but through the entrance of Grace in the final struggle at Sammath Naur.  However, having experienced the Joy of this moment, upon further thought it is necessary to reflect that final moment of glory backwards on all preceding events.

The manner in which Tolkien begins The Lord of the Rings is of utmost importance.  It is essentially a small primer in the nature of eucatastrophe and discatastrophe, which begins this great theme that unites the whole work and foreshadows the final mechanism of victory.  Tolkien begins with two fire-side scenarios, one with Bilbo and one with Frodo, which are in many ways identical and yet at the same time polar opposites.

Bilbo Baggins is not a central figure in The Lord of the Rings and yet without him, the quest would have failed before it began.  The tale begins with the Long Expected Party, in which Bilbo, following Shire custom, gives many gifts and performs his great “joke” in hopes of making the sacrifice of the Ring easier.  It is obvious this is not the trinket of The Hobbit, it has a true and strong hold on Bilbo.

Following his joke, Bilbo returns to Bag End, packs his things and places the Ring in an envelope for Frodo, and “at first he put it on the mantel piece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck in his pocket” (LotR 31). The use of the word suddenly implies subconscious, instinctual or outside motives.  This is reinforced when Bilbo doesn’t even remember the act when asked by Gandalf.  He says: “’There it is on the mantelpiece. Well, no! Here it is in my pocket!’…’Isn’t it odd now?’…’Yet after all, why not? Why shouldn’t it stay there?’” (LotR 32). This moment, and the many similar which follow, demonstrate the holding power of the Ring. Bilbo at first registers shock upon discovering his subconscious action, but later affirms and appropriates that action and its motives to himself.

Gandalf repeatedly has to urge Bilbo to relinquish the Ring and move on with his life (LotR 33-34). After no less than six entreaties and reminders by Gandalf, Bilbo finally gives in:

“Bilbo took out the envelope, but just as he was about to set it by the clock, his hand jerked back, and the packet fell on the floor. Before he could pick it up, the wizard stooped and seized it and set it in its place. A spasm of anger passed swiftly over the hobbit’s face again. Suddenly it gave way to a look of relief and a laugh.” (LotR 34)

And so ends the first eucatastrophic moment of The Lord of the Rings.  It is a moment of great hope, often overshadowed by the darkness to follow, but should also be seen as instructive in the nature of grace in Middle Earth. Gandalf later tells Frodo:

“’A Ring of Power looks after itself…It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care…Bilbo alone in history has…gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too.” (LotR 54)

Bilbo does not leave the Ring purely through his own power; it is due to the presence and perseverance of Gandalf that he succeeds.  Gandalf or Olorin is a maiar and therefore a representative of the Valars’ and ultimately Iluvatar’s will in Middle Earth.  He is a divine or angelic entity, and so a tangible agent of Grace, helping to bring about this first moment of eucatastrophe and set the stage for the intangible entrance Grace at the Cracks of Doom.

The second “fire-side episode” is a moment of discatastrophe, mirroring the first, and casting the entire quest in doubt. It reinforces the impossibility of the quest and the necessity for providential aid, while the first episode reveals the real chance of success and the seed of hope.

Seventeen years pass between the Long Expected Party and the second fire-side episode. In that time Gandalf has discovered the history of Ring and has only one last trial to perform to prove it to be the One Ring to rule them all: fire.  Gandalf relates the long history of the Ring to Frodo, and asks him for the Ring:

“[Frodo] unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it…To Frodo’s astonishment and distress the wizard threw it suddenly into the middle of a glowing corner of the fire. Frodo gave a cry and groped for the tongs; but Gandalf held him back.” (LotR 48)

A short time later, Gandalf removes the Ring from the fire, and hands it to Frodo, finding it cool to the touch.  This fact is crucial to an understanding of what happens next.  Here follows the rest of this episode:

“’But why not destroy it, as you say should have been done long ago?’ cried Frodo again. ‘If you had warned me, or even sent me a message, I would have done away with it.’

‘Would you? How would you do that? Have you ever tried?’

‘No. But I suppose one could hammer it or melt it.’

‘Try!’ said Gandalf. ‘Try now!’

Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without a mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forced himself to remember all that Gandalf told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away – but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.

Gandalf laughed grimly. ‘You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it…Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold. This Ring has already passed through it unscathed, and even unheated.” (LotR 59)

As Gandalf notes, Frodo has already witnessed the Ring pass through the fire unharmed, but what is important about this moment is Frodo’s intention to do harm to the Ring, not whether the attempted act would succeed.  It is also noteworthy that Gandalf urges Frodo to attempt to harm the Ring and is unsurprised by the resulting failure.  The quest appears doomed to failure even before it is formed.

However, Gandalf is an agent of Grace, and though limited in his foreknowledge has reason to hope, and that hope lies in Providence.  When they come to the time of the Ring with Gollum, Frodo expresses disgust and wishes for his death. Gandalf responds:

“Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many-yours not the least.”(LotR 58)

Though it is open to interpretation, Gandalf’s intuition here taken with the reflected glory of the final eucatastrophic moment reveals the hope for the future.

The two fire-side episodes highlight both the hope of success in Grace and the doom to failure without it.  The apparent conclusion is that Frodo cannot destroy the Ring. If this is the case, what grounds are there for hope? Why would Gandalf and the wise encourage this quest? The answer lies at the heart of faith, hope and eucatastrophe.

As Bilbo cannot free himself of the Ring’s power without Gandalf’s help, Frodo also requires aid beyond himself in order to achieve his quest. While the accomplishment of the quest may take but single moment, in Truth it is the culmination of a series of eucatastrophic moments through which the final outcome is determined.

On the edge of the Dead Marshes, Gollum catches up with Frodo and Sam and they capture him. Upon seeing him in his sorry state, Frodo has a change of heart, saying “’for now that I see him, I do pity him’” and offers him a path to redemption (LotR 601). Gollum at first tries to escape, but is recaptured, and to avoid the elvish rope begs to swear by the Precious. Frodo responds harshly, “’On the Precious? How dare you?’…’Think! One Ring to Rule them all and in the Darkness bind them. Would you commit your promise to that, Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!’” (LotR 604). Gollum subsequently swears to “be…good…never to let Him have it…[and to] serve the master of the Prescious” (LotR 604). During this scene, Gollum ceases to be “My Precious” or the solely onomatopoeic “Gollum,” but rediscovers his sense of self referring to himself as Sméagol. Henceforth Frodo treats Sméagol with mercy and dignity, as an ancient and tortured hobbit and refuses to let any other harm him.

A key part of the nature of eucatastrophe is the idea of Evangelium, or the revelation of Truth.  The notion of mercy and charity is central to The Lord of the Rings, just as it is central to Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith.  Christians are called to treat others as Christ, just as they are called to be Christ-like:

“’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Just as Gandalf is the agent of Grace in the first fire-side episode, so too is Frodo an agent of Grace in his mercy towards Gollum, cementing the final outcome of the quest. It is Frodo’s pity that saves Gollum, and allows him to be reborn as Sméagol, if for a short time. It is also Frodo’s pity which guides Gollum to his fateful oath. It is well established that the Ring can twist the bearer’s words or deeds, and so achieve its own ends. However, here it may be the powers of Providence working through Frodo to use the machinations of the Ring against itself.

In the penultimate confrontation on the side of Mount Doom, Frodo and Gollum grapple with each other before Frodo flings him to the ground. And then Sam sees a curious vision. It should be noted that Sam has worn the Ring, and therefore some of its powers to see beyond the veil may have been conferred on him.

“Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’” (LotR 922)

The description of Frodo here highly resembles Frodo’s vision of Glorfindel while wearing the Ring at the Ford of Bruinen, where he sees “a shining figure of white light” (LotR 209). This vision is a reflection of the elf’s true nature; a reflection of the glory of Valinor he at one time beheld.  So too is this raiment of white a veiled reference to the Transfiguration, and ultimately symbolic of holiness or wisdom, marred only by the fire of the Ring.

In the final throws of the Ring’s corruption, Frodo’s part in the quest essentially ends.  His role as the conduit of Providence is transferred to Sam, who after this confrontation is left to face Gollum, of whom he has never had any liking or trust, yet even he finds his heart filled with pity and empathy:

“Deep in his heart there was something restraining him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.” (LotR 923)

Sam lets Gollum go. In all of their dealings with Gollum since the stair of Cirith Ungol, it should be noted how Gollum refers to himself. He is no longer Sméagol, and his few uses of the first person are long gone. He is no longer anything but a shell wholly enthralled by the Ring and in essence become the Ring, or “My Precious.” The creature before Sam is utterly destroyed by the Ring, and it seems only just that one so tortured by its machinations would bring about its destruction.

Here at the brink, particular attention must be paid to the words sworn by or enforced by the Ring. Gollum’s oath is two-fold: to keep the Ring from Sauron and to serve the master of the Ring. As stated by Gandalf, following the Council of Elrond, there is only one master of the Ring, and that is Sauron (LotR 220). In following Frodo, and attempting to prevent the destruction of the Ring, might Gollum be serving Sauron? Yet at the same time, he has sworn to keep the Ring from Sauron, and the Ring will hold him to that as well as to Frodo’s last warning.

When Frodo claims the Ring for his own, “the Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him…[and]…at his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom” (LotR 925). Gollum swore to keep the Ring from Sauron, the Ring holds him to that oath, and so he succeeds in gaining the Ring only to fall over the edge into the fire, thus fulfilling both his oath and the command of Frodo.

This is the final and greatest moment of eucatastrophe in The Lord of the Rings, a tale which is united by a string of miraculous events which presuppose the final victory. The will of Ilúvatar is present throughout, though he is never named. As he states in the Music of the Ainur, “’no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined”’ (Silmarillion 17). This is another example where Tolkien’s faith was woven within the fabric of Middle Earth. In this manner do all the peoples in the War of the Ring take part in the final eucatastrophe, building steps along the way to the final moment of glory.

            It is the virtue of mercy and pity which is the ultimate defeat of the Ring, first by Bilbo, then by Frodo and finally by Sam. Without pity, that fateful oath would never have been uttered. Without continued patience and mercy, it would never have been fulfilled.

2 thoughts on “Eucatastrophe, Discatastrophe and the destruction of the Ring

  1. I am going to think of this piece every time I find myself short on compassion. Grey Havens is honored that your work will be part of our first publication. We have an editorial board meeting tomorrow and are working hard to get the book in print!

    • Thank you! I am glad to find a Tolkien community to take part in and share with. Let me know if you need anything from me to help with Mithlond!

      I think that is the key to it all. Compassion. Mercy. Ordinary virtues taken to extraordinary extremes.

      Tracing the power of the Ring is what ultimately led me here. In many ways it is one of my obsessions when reading LotR. As I’ve read more of Tolkien’s other work and other analyses I’ve been able to piece more and more of the puzzle together (at least for my own applicability). I could develop this thought much more, and with time maybe I will, because in this theory of “eucatastrophic stepping stones” that I’ve hit upon here, I think, lies the basis of the grand plan for the entire novel…and if it can be taken so far of the entire continuing tale that LotR is just the end of. It will be food for thought that’s for sure.

      I thought about revising this entry ever since reading Verlyn Fleiger’s Splintered Light…as she claims Frodo’s failure to destroy the ring is a moment of Discatastrophe, which I obviously do not agree with…at least in part. Ultimately, thinking it through it’s a whole other argument which I plan to post on next with my review of her book.

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