Like the deer that browse front lawns in my neighborhood, that’s how I make use of my woefully disorganized library. When I’m working on something, I collect a stack of random titles that seem to just beg to be let down off the shelf, and once or twice a day, I’m leafing through a chapter while waiting for the clothes to dry or frozen lasagna to heat up, until a connection between even the most disparate subjects is made clear. In that way, my library has become a sort of amorphous divining rod, full of cledons, waiting for the right story to make themselves known. I use songs and films the same way, even if I’ve seen or sung them a hundred times. And don’t get me started on the blue holes I go down on Wikipedia or YouTube. I’ve disappeared for weeks at a time, deep-diving looking for literal sunken treasure or the origin of a conspiracy theory when I started out doing research on something to do with swamp vegetation. (True story)

Today’s selection came from a textbook we used in a class where I once fancied myself getting a second Master’s in folklore and dreamt I’d be an anthropologist/folklorist like my she-ro Zora Neale Hurston.. Jack in Two Worlds traces the storytellers of ‘Jack Tales,’ which are oral stories that originated in Europe and landed in Appalachia. Jack is a trickster, just like Br’er Rabbit. (In fact, remind me some time to treat you all to my theory of how before Pangea split, Appalachia and West Africa were kissing cousins). You can hear a popularized version of a Jack Tale in the Charlie Daniels Band song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” where the protagonist is named Johnny (which makes sense since the names John and Jack are often conflated), who is challenged to a duel of fiddles with the Devil. If Johnny wins, he gets a solid gold fiddle. If the Devil wins, he gets Johnny’s soul. Of course, in this version, it’s not entirely a true Jack Tale because Johnny straightforwardly beats the Devil with his fiddling skills. By contrast, customarily, Jack outsmarts his opponents with his own personal brand of irreducible rascality which I mentioned in a recent blog entry. The essay I read today included a Jack Tale that has Scottish roots where Jack and his brothers (Tom and Will who are usual fixtures in Jack Tales), tell stories to a dying king in the hopes to marry his daughter and receive all the fixins that come with marrying a princess. The first person in the kingdom who can make the king say, “That’s not true!” wins. Naturally, Jack won, but not the way you’d think. This version was wonderful even on the page, and I wish I could have seen it told live by a master storyteller.

Reading it made me think about the behemoth work I’m trying to hogtie down currently. Sometimes, even if the plot is there, the characters are there, the dialogue and intrigue and all of that is present and accounted for, knowing why you want to tell a story is just as important (art is a conversation, you see), as well as who your audience is. If you don’t know who’s doing the hearing, you don’t know what tone to use, what jokes to include, what heartstrings to tug on. But if you don’t know why? Then your story might as well be a monologue where the audience is your reflection in the mirror. Because stories are how humans make sense of the world and our role in it, all good stories should impart information, entertain, solve a problem, fill a chink, or make a claim, not just break the ice. As any screenwriter worth their salt has probably heard, Aristotle teaches this in his seminal work, Poetics, “the faculty of saying what is possible or pertinent in given circumstances.” 

My favorite stories are wonder tales.

‘Wonder tale’ is kind of like the layman term for “speculative fiction,” which is not relegated to sci fi or fantasy or horror, but can include parallel histories, superheroes, and so on. I like ‘wonder tale’ though, because that encompasses fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and of course Jack Tales. A wonder tale also makes a kind of pledge to the audience that they will be amazed at the outcome. Wonder tales also feel alive. They evolve with each retelling and passed down generation after generation, wonder tales are like heirlooms, each teller adding a hint of this and a dash of that to make it good and relevant to any contemporary ears that care to hear. The wonder tale can serve the needs of the teller and the teller serves the needs of the crowd. Some, of course, are timeless, like, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or “Leda and the Swan.” In addition to a protagonist that is an obsessed seeker, an enchanted animal, a magical mentor, and a night journey, one element that most wonder tales seem to encompass is the eucatastrophe.

Tolkien coined this word in his 1947 essay, “On Fairy Stories:”

“But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy- story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.”

In literature, the eucatastrophe is an event that very much like a Deux ex Machina moment, serves as the plot point that resolves the story’s climax and precipitates the denouement. The difference is that a eucatastrophe seems to be already seeded earlier into the plot as opposed to a lightning bolt on a clear day. For instance, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione’s time-turner is introduced early on to help Hermione get to all of her classes since she over-loaded that year. She swore not to tell any of her classmates about it, so we just sort of saw her popping up places she shouldn’t have been. By the end, when Harry needs to literally turn back time to save the reputation of a friend and the life of another (which happens to be a hippogriff), hey presto! Hermione just so happens to have a literal app for that.

I also really enjoyed burrowing this morning for the etymology of the word. “Eu” in Ancient Greek, translates to “well” or “good,” as in there is a form of stress called “eustress” that is stimulating and healthy for the body and brain (like the jitters you get before a performance that ratchet up your senses and make you super alert). With regard to “catastrophe,” the Ancient Greeks had a much more benign definition of the word than our 21st century understanding which usually means certain doom. Re: Greek tragedies, a catastrophe was simply a turn of events. Coincidentally, catastrophe theory? Is a principle that surmises that the quality of an outcome can change irreversibly by a tiny tweak of the conditions surrounding it. It’s related to something called “bifurcation,” which essentially means something that branches into parts. (I told you, lol…I go H.A.M. when I’m onto something that probably has nothing to do with anything until it does).

Speaking of Ancient Greek tragedies, for people who remember their high-school English class, the strophe (“a turn”) is the first part of an ode delivered by the chorus which sets up the plot. It is physically embodied by the chorus moving from the right to left/east to west onstage. The antistrophe (meaning “turning back”) is the second part of the ode where they—wait for it—move back. This time left to right/west to east. During the epode, the chorus moves to centerstage and thusly concludes the ode.

To return to Tolkien, one of the more notable moments in LOTR that we see a eucatastrophe in action is where Gandalf the Gray is being held captive by Saruman at Isengard. In Tolkein’s version of calling an Uber, Gandalf is rescued by a giant eagle, name of “Gwaihir the Wind Lord.” (Side note: Does anyone know if those giant eagles were based off of the roc?”). Now, in the books, we know that Gandalf has been working with his boy, Radagast the Brown, to rally allies of all walks to fight Sauron, and that’s how Gwaihir finds him. In the film, though, I argue that the eucatastrophe moment wasn’t the eagle showing up. The eucatastrophe moment was Gandalf whispering to a moth, which went, I guess, and summoned Gwaihir.

To me, eucatastrophes aren’t typically huge chasms in the time/space continuum where entropy abounds. I feel like they are smaller, humbler moments, that could go almost unnoticed—hinges between the phenomenal and the mundane, usually there the whole time…y’know…like Dorothy’s slippers or Gulliver’s Lilliputian sheep. The extraordinary is nested somewhere in the ordinary, which means it could be anywhere. Anywhere! And not unlike a magic trick’s three acts (the pledge, the turn, the prestige), the eucatastrophe as a device doesn’t work unless the audience believes it possible. If something in a person doesn’t long, on some level, to witness the phenomenal in the everyday, it can’t work. Because what is magic, if it’s not the willingness to believe? I can’t remember if I’ve said this already on this blog (I’ve been known to be repetitive—too many years in front of a classroom), but it warrants saying again. 98% of the battle was in Arthur’s head. The other 2% was magic. If he didn’t believe it was his destiny to pull Excalibur from stone, Merlin’s magic wouldn’t have worked. So, too, it is with stories. What a sad, gray world this would be indeed without a little fairy dust, a little uncertainty, a little “Can I even pull this off? Only one way to find out!”, a little glamour, and more than a little wonder.

And now, for some inappropriate memes…