Welcome to week four of our Silmarillion read-along! In the month of March, we will read and discuss J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. For an in-depth weekly reading schedule, head over to my announcement post.
Disclaimer: All cited passages were taken from The Silmarillion unless stated otherwise.
Week 4: Hope
As we have briefly discussed last week, hope is a strong and recurring motif in Tolkien’s legendarium. When you first read The Silmarillion, you cannot but notice that hope and despair are closely connected in Middle-earth. Again and again, a lack of hope seems to lead to despair and madness. The hopeless in Middle-earth, as we will see, do not simply give up fighting, they give up on life and want to end it by all means possible. However, hope is even more important for the concept of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe.
Eucatastrophe and Hope
Coined from the Greek ευ- „good“ and καταστροφή „destruction“, Tolkien explained in a letter that eucatastrophe is a „sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears“ (“Letter 89” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). In the chapters for week four, we have encountered a character predicting doom followed by an eucatastrophe:
‘Thus it may come to pass’, [Ulmo] said, ‘that the curse of the Noldor shall find thee [Turgon] too ere the end and trason awake within thy walls. Then they shall be in peril of fire. But if this peril draweth nigh indeed, then even from Nevrast one shall come to warn thee, and from him beyond ruin and fire hope shall be born for Elves and Men (Of the Noldor in Beleriand).
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, hope is defined as “to cherish a desire with anticipation. It is easy to have hope when you know or believe that certain things will turn out well in the end or when you assume that fate ‘works in your favour’. However, to remain hopeful and keep fighting when all seems lost that requires true strength. In other words, while hope cannot exist in Tolkien’s realm without despair, for there are forms of evil and peril, a eucatastrophe will follow if only one perseveres and remains hopeful long enough.
Hopelessness and Leading to Madness
One good example for this hope in a time of hopelessness is in the chapter of “Of the Coming of Men into the West”. When Morgoth sends an orc raid to the people of Haladin, the situation seems dire when many, including strong men, were slain:
Then Haleth held the people together, though they were without hope; and some cast themselves in the rivers and were drowned. But seven days later, as the Orcs made their last assault and had already broken through the stockade, there came suddenly a music of trumpets, and Caranthir with his host came down from the north and drove the Orcs into the rivers (Of the Coming of Men into the West).
If those of Haleth’s people who drowned themselves would have only waited a little longer, would have kept on fighting, they would have survived the onslaught and would have become a part of a great line of men to follow.
Later on in the chapter “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin”, the great Fingolfin finds his end driven by his own despair. After receiving the news of the defeat of Dorthlonion, it is said that “it seemed” to Fongolfin that the ruin of the Noldor was imminent:“…and filled with wrath and despair he mounted upon Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him” (Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin). Fingolfin only assumed that the end was near, but his hopelessness and despair led him to confront Morgoth alone. Thus, by giving in to despair and hopelessness, Fingolfin found his end.
Of course, there are many instances in the book where, despite all hope and fight until the very end, characters still die. From a narratological perspective, eucatastrophe is a fantastic tool to engage the reader with the story and characters. As Tolkien explained, the eucatastrophe “pierces you with a joy that brings tears“ (Letter 89).
My personal favourite moment of utter joy was when I first read „Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad“. Maedhros, Fingon, many men, dwarves, and elves gathered to confront Morgoth. Once again, all seems dire when “a shadow of doubt fell upon Fingon’s heart” and “Maedhros was hindered”. Suddenly “a cry went up” and Turgon came with “an army of ten thousand strong”. Although it is now a long time ago, I can still remember the first time I’ve ever read that passage. I was on my way to school, sitting in a tram reading, when I came to that passage and had to put that book down. Chills went down my spine in a way no book before was able to do so. In that moment, I truly felt Tolkien’s concept of a eucatastrophe. While the battle did not end there, nor successful, that brief moment was the moment I began to love The Silmarillion.
What do you think of Tolkien’s concept of a eucatastrophe?? Which eucatastrohe whas your favourite moment? Any other questions left in regards to the discussed chapters? Leave a comment down below!