I tell a lot of stories to my classes–it is one of the ways that I feel like I connect with my students. They write me their stories, I tell them my stories, and by the end of the year, we know each other pretty well. One of the stories I enjoy telling is about a time that I was coaching a junior high basketball team when I was still teaching in Seattle.
The story goes that my team and I were away at a basketball game one afternoon. The final few minutes of the end of the game were a back and forth battle with the other team. They would go up by one and then they would go up by one. Up by two. Down by one. Tied. Back and forth for a solid five minutes–an ulcer the size of a grapefruit growing in my stomach the entire time.
With 9 seconds left, we were down by one and our team had the ball on the opposite end of the court. 9 seconds is a lifetime in basketball. Peace treaties have been signed and government handbooks have been rewritten in those 9 seconds. Unfortunately, as a coach, 9 seconds doesn’t seem nearly long enough when you are down by one point.
We inbounded the ball, passed the ball up to half court on the right side, and then proceeded to pass it back and forth looking for an open shot. Finally, right before the buzzer rang and my heart burst open, one of the players “chucked” up a three-point shot…and it went it!
The crowd went wild, the players celebrated, and I downed two Zantac.
When we got back to the school everyone was still excited. I made sure all the players were picked up by their parents, and then I went to park the 15 passenger van. As I walked back to the school, I realized that I had left my car keys (and subsequently, my school keys) in my classroom. It was February…it was cold…and I was hungry. After a full hour of banging on the windows and doors to get the janitors attention–who happened to be listening to AC/DC–I got my keys and was headed home. Needless to say, I was no longer excited about the win. My mountaintop experience had been drowned out by an Angus Young riff from Hell’s Bells–except my temperature wasn’t so hot.
This story is the opposite of “Happily Ever After,” but there are some similarities. Instead of ending well, my story started well and ended hungrily…I mean poorly.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, some people don’t like the fairy tale ending. Whether for overuse or abstractness, they just don’t like it. Now, far be it from me to infringe upon individual tastes. I can’t give you a reason why I don’t like brussel sprouts, but I still don’t like them. I do know that they are the devil’s vegetable, so I’m assuming that’s reason enough. Possibly disliking “happily ever after” doesn’t need an explanation…possibly.
The reason that I write about this though is far beyond personal taste. I do believe that to dislike “happily ever after,” and probably disliking fairy tales as a whole, leads to cynicism and a stout case of narcism. Now, I’m not saying that every Cinderella-loving child will grow up to be a compassionate philanthropist because of the ending, but I do believe that by accepting this style of ending in a fairy tale ultimately shows a person more open to transcendence than not. In fact, liking “happily ever after” has less to do with the genre of fairy tales and more to do with understanding that the world is greater than we are. Let me explain.
Many of the oppositions that I hear are based on readers being dissatisfied because the actions of the happily ever after fairy tale don’t come to fruition in their own lives (i.e. “Prince Charming is not coming to sweep me off my feet”). Many notable authors (Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, Le Guin) have written about the universal truths should be followed in fantasy and fairy tales, but none of them has ever advocated (as far as I know) selling your last cow to get some magic beans. It is the virtues of characters-not the actions of the characters–that should be emulated. The fantastical land of fairy tales operates on a completely different set of principles, so we simply can’t determine these stories to be true based on the principles of our world. Instead, we must insert ourselves into these stories to look around–to feel what is true and just and right. Happily ever after isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t work in the real world. Or does it?
Tolkien called the Gospel (literally the “God Spell”) of the Bible the great Eucatastrophe; in other words, the great Happily Ever After. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” Tolkien writes. The “turn” at the end of a story, the happy ending of a fairy tale, if written well, is the great Christian joy according to Tolkien; a “sudden and miraculous grace.” Tolkien believed that fairy tales are able to both fully understand the “dycatastrophe of sorrow and failure,” but not be overcome with cynicism because they also embrace the “joy of deliverance.”
To believe in happily ever after means to believe that there is someone or something that will come to your rescue. That even in the darkest of nights and the bleakest of situations, not to grow bitter and hopeless, because there will be salvation. I know no better explanation of the Gospel.
I want to end with a scene from The Two Towers that I think epitomizes the concept of Eucatastrophe. Enjoy!