Sunday, 6 May 2018

Ghosts, tropes and eucatastrophes by Philippa Linton

Light breaking through ... Pixabay
I read a ghost story recently.

I used to shun such things – indeed, I used to be terrified of anything to do with ghosts, until a friend challenged me.  ‘I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘why any Christian would be scared of stories or films to do with the paranormal, when Christ is so much stronger than the forces of darkness.’   This gave me serious pause. He had a point. 

Of course I understand the principle of choosing not to dwell on dark subjects because we are following Paul’s counsel in Philippians 4: 8: ‘ whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ 

But to be scared of the powers of darkness, especially when portrayed in fictionalised form?   My friend was right: no Christian need succumb to primal, pagan fears if we are children of the light, dwelling in the love of Jesus and walking in step with His Spirit.  

Back to the ghost story.  It was a page turner, and kept me guessing until the end.  It didn’t frighten me: I am much harder to frighten these days.  I did find myself getting irritated by a trope the author was using, that time-honoured cliché of the local people refusing to discuss the eerie goings-on at the haunted house even though that’s where the hero/heroine is headed, and even when some of their predecessors ended up dead.  But what irritated me more was the ending: despite a climactic battle near the end between two opposing forces – one evil, one good – the evil spirit ended up winning, and the cycle of fear wasn’t broken after all.

Ah, no, that isn’t right.  I know this is a common enough ending in this genre, but what a let-down.  I was deflated.  Why had I bothered reading this?    Of course when one reads a ghost story, one expects to be competently chilled by the author, but the truth is that I really don’t want evil to win.

I don’t have a problem with dark material per se.  I enjoy a well-written police procedural or psychological thriller because an intelligent, compassionate crime drama can say a lot about the human condition.  But I only really enjoy a thriller, through all the twists and turns of the plot, if there is satisfying pay-off at the end – if justice wins out somehow, even if it’s in a way I didn’t expect.   If we’re going to plumb the depths, plunge into the worst excesses of our fallen nature, then we need light to break through at the end.  We need to see justice done, not in a simplistic way, but achieved on a profound level.  We need hope.  We need assurance that our suffering isn’t meaningless in an uncaring universe. |

J.R.R. Tolkien invented a word to describe such an ending: ‘eucatastrophe’, meaning the sudden joyous turn of events in a story ensuring that the hero/heroine is saved from impending doom, indeed ensuring that the world itself is saved.  When I read about the mighty walls and battlements of Mordor falling and crumbling into dust, it’s profoundly satisfying because it also feels like a precursor to the final triumph at the end of time itself, when evil in the universe will be defeated forever.  Eucatastrophe obviously works well in myth, fantasy and imaginative fiction: a fantasy author can get away with using ‘deus ex machina’ if they succeed in suspending our disbelief.  ‘Deux ex machina’ is also more forgivable in a world where magic is common – although a good fantasy writer will ensure that even magic makes sense.  I enjoy any amount of fictional magic as long as it follows the rules of that particular imaginary world.

But Tolkien also meant something deeper than fiction: he connected his literary principle of eucatastrophe directly to the gospel.  He saw the incarnation of Jesus as the eucatastrophe – the sudden, joyous turn – of human history, and the resurrection of Jesus as the eucatastrophe – the sudden, ecstatic, unexpected turn of events – of His incarnation.  ‘There is no tale ever told,’ Tolkien wrote in his 1939 essay On Fairy Stories, ‘that men would rather find was true’.

There is in all of us a deep yearning for true resolution, ultimate hope, the un-making of all that is bad and the triumph of all that is good.  To quote Sam Gamgee’s speech in The Return of the King, 'I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!'

In literary terms, our heroes and heroines can battle with evil spirits and dark impulses.  But the battle – whatever form it takes, internal or external – will only be truly satisfying if there is pay-off at the end: a sign of hope, a strong streak of redemption.


  1. Not meaning to be in marketing mode - honestly - but would you like to try my novel, The Ghost of Erraid? I hope you’ll find that a lot of the things you object to are handled better and by a writer (me!) who is a committed Christian. Let me know if you do read it. See my website for details:

  2. Fran, I'd be happy to try it. Thanks for the recommendation. ☺

    1. Thanks, Philippa. Let me know what you think of it. My email is

  3. That's very insightful. It really gets to the heart of the Christian contrasted with secular view of fiction. At the back of our writing there is bound to be that commitment to ultimate goodness - ultimate in time and in reality.