Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 4: Incarnation as Eucatastrophe

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. – Tolkien

For me, the last section of Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories makes the slog that is the first half quite worth it. Tolkien’s exposition of eucatastrophe, “the happy turn” in a story, is unforgettable, an idea that has been expounded in countless places by numerous writers. Eucatastrophe is Tolkienian through-and-through. Not only is it a beautiful idea, but it’s a beautiful word as well.

Man’s Destiny

Things get really wonderful when Tolkien speaks of the Birth of Christ – the Incarnation – as “the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.” Why does he say this? Tolkien was obsessed with the hopelessness and darkness of mankind’s case in the ancient world, something he probably picked up from his deep interest in mythology. In the Incarnation, man is re-directed towards his ultimate destiny as the benevolent viceroy of the cosmos, the blessed bridge between the heaven and earth.

Incarnation of Jesus, Piero di Cosimo

The Incarnation is eucatastrophe because it is a surprise; like the appearance of the Eagles in various eucatastrophic moments of the Third Age, Christ first comes amid a desperate situation. Yes, the Jews hoped for a Messiah, but every indication is that they were looking for a great prophet and a warrior-king, one who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its Davidic pinnacle. Who would have thought that God would choose to draw so near to us as to become like us “in every way except sin,” indeed to renounce all of His rights as God in order to show us the beauty and triumph of the way of humility?

Eucatastrophe in Action

It seems that Tolkien was so intent on this idea that he worked it into The Lord of the Rings, for it is on March 25th, the traditional date of the Annunciation [1], that the One Ring is destroyed. And this is important: the One Ring is not finally destroyed by any Man, nor indeed by any hobbit, but by the invisible hand of the storyteller at work behind the scenes. Tolkien sets things up so that none of the three figures present [2] can claim credit for its destruction in the final analysis. No, the creature cannot save himself, not without divine aid, and though the great soul of the lowly hobbit is a sign of the greatness of humility itself, we see here that the hobbit is not even capable of finally putting the greatest of evils to death, of plunging the knife into its very heart.

Thus, we can see how fitting it is that Eagles are frequent instruments of eucatastrophe, for they represent the power and will of Manwë, the greatest of the angelic Valar. Their coming from the clouds is as the descent of a supernatural power.

Ask any Christian you know that has spent time dwelling upon it: the Incarnation is magical as a fairy-tale, and all the more so because we believe it to be as true as the fall of Rome. It is the wondrous event at the heart of everything, and yes, we mean everything. It is a thing wonderful to behold and to ponder. I get all misty-eyed when I think about it, and for good reason, for in it, we glimpse the mysterious ways of God Himself, saving and surprising us despite ourselves, drawing us ever closer to the deepness of a love vast as the cosmos.


1 – Subtract 9 months from December 25th and what do you get? More here.

2 – Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. While Gollum is ultimately responsible on an operative level of destroying the One Ring, he certainly does not will its destruction.



7 thoughts on “Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 4: Incarnation as Eucatastrophe

  1. I’ve just read Sauron Defeated, volume IX of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, and it is fascinating to see (in Part I) Tolkien working out – or ‘discovering’ – both the acts of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum involved in the destroying of the One Ring, and the chronology of events with respect to its falling upon 25 March.

    Interestingly, 15 August is also a date noted: when “Treebeard releases Saruman” (ch. VIII, note 13). I can’t immediately see any very striking connection with the Assumption…

    Spans of eight days also keep turning up in various contexts – though, again, I can’t see emphatic connections with traditional considerations of ‘the Day beyond the seven days of Creation’, and so on. (For example, at one point, Sam and Frodo only awake again on “the eighth of April”: but what significance might the 15 days from 25 March to 8 April have?)


    1. Interesting questions! Given Tolkien’s meticulous planning and Catholic outlook, I could see someone writing a fascinating piece on the liturgical calendar and typological significance of timespans in Lord of the Rings.

      BTW, this bit points to a special significance for April 8 that I was not aware of before.

      It would seem he was quite literal about that “consciously Catholic in the revision” comment…


      1. Wow! I was not aware of that idea of April Easter Sunday fixing, either! I have an old table of Easter dates from 1904 through 1953, and the only years Easter in fact fell on 8 April were 1917 and 1928 (whether any specific references are implicit there, I don’t know!).

        I forgot to note a couple possibly significant dates: it is on All Hallows’ Eve that the hobbits arrive for what will turn out to be “The Scouring of the Shire”, and so, All Saints’ when they are arrested at Frogmorton, and All Soul’s when they reach Bywater. (In reaching these final dates, Tolkien in fact arranges things so that nothing falls on “Guy Faulks’ Night”, while the Fifth of November had been involved in the drafts – for whatever reason.)


      2. I have just learned, in catching up on Fr. John Hunwicke’s blog, that “After S Pius X, the Feast of the Relics settled, most appropriately, onto a day within the Octave of All Saints, November 5, where it was observed by papal indult in certain places (often as a Greater Double), including here in Oxford.” If this was annually part of Tolkien’s life for decades, it may have helped color his imaginative work, as well:


  2. I see that someone sharing my first name has made an interesting observation in a comment to the post by A Clerk of Oxford on “The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Oriens, O Earendel”:

    It may be worth noting that Tolkien was very intentional about his use of ‘symbolic’ dates. The Fellowship leaves Rivendell on December 25, beginning the Quest; and on March 25 the Ring is destroyed, completing it.

    [Likewise the Council of Elrond takes place on October 25 and Aragorn finds the sapling of the White Tree on June 25.]

    Bearing in mind that the Crist reference to Earendel is usually considered Tolkien’s jumping off point in terms of creating stories of his own, it is striking to see this relationship with the solstices and equinoxes (or the traditional dates for them, at least) running all the way through his work.

    I’ll add that it may also be worth noting that in the everyday Christian (not liturgical) calendar, the year was popularly divided into four seasons using the equinoxes and solstices to fix the middle of each season – more or less ( the Venerable Bede tried to do it pretty exactly, with spring beginning on 7 February, summer on 9 May, autumn on 7 August, and winter on 7 November, while St. Isidore of Seville had put each beginning more than a fortnight later: 22 Feb., 24 May, 23 Aug., 23 Nov., which in the later Middle Ages tended to get adjusted to the Feasts of St. Peter in Cathedra (22 Feb.), St. Urban (25 May), St. Bartholomew (24 August), and St. Clement (23 Nov.).


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