Academic journal article Mythlore

Grief Poignant as Joy: Dyscatastrophe and Eucatastrophe in A Song of Ice and Fire

Academic journal article Mythlore

Grief Poignant as Joy: Dyscatastrophe and Eucatastrophe in A Song of Ice and Fire

Article excerpt

The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

G.K. Chesterton, "The Red Angel."

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' [...] is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories."

WHEN J.R.R. TOLKIEN IDENTIFIED "the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function," as eucatastrophe, "the joy of deliverance," he gave a local habitation and a name to the satisfaction of this "sudden joyous 'turn'" characteristic of epic fantasy ("On Fairy-Stories" [OFS] 75). But he named also its heart-breaking opposite, dyscatastrophe, that "sorrow and failure" (OFS 75) in which we see again "that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die" (Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" ["Monsters"] 23). Valar morghulis, say George R.R. Martin's Bravosi; all men must die (A Storm of Swords [SoS] 308). By Tolkien's reading, then, and by Chesterton's, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, at least to date (1) is very far indeed from the eucatastrophic story which Tolkien proposed as the apotheosis of the genre in "On Fairy-stories," the essay which first laid out the generic demands of what he termed the fairy tale and we call fantasy. High-couraged and banner-waving St. Georges haunt Martin's Westeros, it is true, but this haunting is literal, for--from Joffrey's execution of Ned Stark and Khal Drogo's fatal infection to the Red Wedding--they have fallen, one by one, to the dragons, and nothing remains but their shades. Even Jon's apparent but ambiguous fate at the close of A Dance with Dragons [DwD], "[w]hen the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades" and "he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow" (913), shadows forth not joy but sorrow.

I want to examine these moments of sorrow and failure, of dyscatastrophe, when defeat seems sure and the lowering clouds of winter overshadow the hearts of men, moving us to ask, with Yeats, "is there is any comfort to be found?" (l.41) or if we are presented here with a form of fantasy "how fallen! how changed" (Milton I.l.84). If it is so changed, I think, the first and clearest sign of this change is the death of Eddard Stark, whose point of view and story arc initially seem to promise salvation, of a kind at least, for a diminished and decaying realm, a counterweight of honor and duty to the king's disdain for the ordinary work of peace, order, and good government. His death, then, shocking to us as it is to his eldest daughter, Sansa (A Game of Thrones [GoT] 60-67; 620), is, in the Tolkienian view, more than a twist in the tale; it is a chill premonition of what Tolkien calls "universal final defeat" (OFS 75). Dark winds, dark wings, dark words: "Winter is coming," as the words of House Stark say (GoT 19-20), and the Lord of Winter will not be there to meet it. Not by accident is the coming of winter in these books associated with nightfall, with the darkening of the world. Yet I propose, in what follows, that it is through dyscatastrophe that George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire restores the sudden joyous turn of the eucatastrophe, and in so doing, rekindles the hope that Tolkien saw at the heart of fantasy. This illumination turns, as I will show, on a critique of chivalric honor and on its remaking in keeping with Tolkien's own.

Tolkien's term of art, dyscatastrophe, appears for the first time in "On Fairy-stories," the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture revised and expanded for publication in 1947's Essays Presented to Charles Williams, but as Verlyn Flieger points out, it is the 1936 lecture, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," which more fully expresses the ineluctable sadness of the dyscatastrophic defeat (Flieger 11-13). …

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