I’m going to run a risk and admit something in public that I’ve hitherto just bandied in private conversations. I do this understanding that I may be marched out to the middle of the hollow square and have my Catholic author’s buttons off and my stripes cut away, but that’s the price sometimes. Here’s the admission: I’m not a big fan of what many consider the exemplary Catholic authors of our time, especially Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh.
There. I said it.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate their mastery of style. If I improve my writing for the rest of my life, I might hope to be half the literary artist that O’Connor was, and there’s no question that Greene can bring characters to life. I just don’t like the characters. Or the story lines. Or the outcomes.
I say this knowing that in the eyes of some, this brands me as an immature appreciator of literature, possibly merely a common reader. “Don’t like?” some Clever might sniff. “What kind of plebeian criterion is that? You’re supposed to find literature startling, or challenging, or provocative. It’s supposed to be edgy or tantalizing or shocking. It’s not a matter of how much you like it.” That may be how some people determine what they read, but not me. Though I can take edginess or shock, I’m sure not going to waste precious reading time on something I don’t like. I’ll give any book a chance, but if it doesn’t give me its own reason to keep reading, I’m going to move onto something I enjoy. I’m not going to keep reading a book I don’t like just because someone said I should for some reason – even if it was a Catholic someone, and the reason was that it was “Catholic fiction.”
This especially applies to the characters. No matter how true-to-life, no matter how well-portrayed, if some character is a scumbag who I wouldn’t waste time around, I’m sure not going to waste time reading about how he stumbles around ruining his life and the lives of those around him. Even if the character (or the author) is in some distant way related to Catholicism.
I was gratified to see some agreement on this matter from the insightful and erudite Holly Ordway in a post on the ipnovels.com blog site. In her post Good Catastrophes and Renewing Catholic Literature, Dr. Ordway comes right out and says it: “Eucatastrophe: in a word, this is what we need today, for a renewed, vibrant, and compelling Catholic literature.” She specifically names some of these leading Catholic authors as being “more dyscatastrophic than eucatastrophic.” These terms she draws from J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous work On Fairy Stories, wherein Prof. Tolkien creates the term “eucatastrophe” to describe not just a happy ending, but an unexpected and joyous ending, especially after dire developments and even the loss of all hope. Indeed, a eucatastrophe could be defined as something about which it could be said, “When hope was all but gone, this happened…”
From what I can see, the most significant and influential Catholic author of the 20th century was J.R.R. Tolkien, and precisely for the reason that he not only defined but demonstrated the eucatastrophe in his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. Also in the running would be C. S. Lewis, who I would consider a Catholic author despite his Anglican profession because he wrote from a medieval mindset, which was distinctively Catholic. I consider Lewis’ best eucatastrophic works to be The Silver Chair and The Last Battle. From these examples, I would suggest that a eucatastrophe is much more than simply “a happy ending”. A eucatastrophe involves, at some level, an encounter with death, and hope beyond it. For me, a eucatastrophe is more than just things “going badly” before they take a turn for the better. Things “go badly” at Totleigh Towers before Jeeves presents the solution, but that does not a eucatastrophe make. But when Aragorn has to travel the Paths of the Dead, or Puddleglum has to grind his foot into the Witch’s fire, then you’re facing death. When Aragorn emerges on the dawn to turn the tide of the battle, or when the Witch’s enchantment is broken, that’s eucatastrophe.
In answer to Dr. Ordway’s call for more eucatastrophic literature to enliven the world of Catholic literature, I would offer two recent examples, both published by Ignatius Press. One is Tobit’s Dog by Michael Richard, and the other is Iota by T.M. Doran. I offer my own reviews of these works elsewhere, which I will not recap here, but I want to briefly explicate how these works demonstrate eucatastrophe.
Tobit’s Dog is based on the Old Testament book of Tobit, so if you know that story, you know that it is a eucatastrophe in its own right. Tobit’s blinding is the giveaway. These days we’d consider that a severe but manageable health problem. In ancient times, such a severe loss of health was considered, for all intents, death (and, if you think about it, that makes sense under those conditions of care.) Furthermore, when young Tobias marries Sarah he essentially accepts a death sentence, so much so that his father-in-law digs his grave on his wedding night. Only the heavenly assistance brought by the angel brings hope beyond death. Richard preserves the spirit of this story in a personal, engaging modernization. There’s nothing Pollyanna about the tale – it has darkness and grief aplenty – but the hope-rich resolution is nothing short of eucatastrophic.
Iota is another – gritty, bleak, and dismal, this stunningly written tale is one where you almost have to grub about to find flecks of hope. In truth, it seems more of a straight-up “catastrophe”, until the abrupt and surprising ending. Death is there: the cages in the story are, effectively, graves, and the inmates therein walking dead men. The final denouement is clearly a eucatastrophe, but sprinkled throughout the story are small echoes – wherever the prisoners struggle against the dehumanization being imposed on them, there is a glint of hope beyond death.
I enthusiastically echo Dr.. Ordway’s desire to see more eucatastrophe in Catholic literature – because ultimately, the story of our faith is a eucatastrophe, hope beyond death. I think these two stories are an encouraging sign of the direction things are taking, and I hope to see (and possibly contribute) more.