Eucatastrophe in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

First, let me say that I’d love some constructive feedback on this post. This is a sort of companion piece to my last post, in which I examined Coleridge’s influence on J. R. R. Tolkien’s conception of the imagination and its pivotal role in the creation of fantastic literature. But my long-term plan for my dissertation entails developing a critical theory of fantastic fiction (a loaded term in and of itself, I realize) from Longinus’s conception of the sublime as it relates to language and rhetoric, Romantic ideas about the imagination, and higher-order “big picture” ideas about the role of fantasy from Tolkien and, to a lesser extent, C. S. Lewis.

Since the Romantic conceit of the imagination, expressed most fully in Coleridge but also glimpsed in Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” as a unifying force, is so central to this emerging critical framework, it seems only fitting that I should try to turn this interpretive lens on a Romantic masterwork: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

One of Tolkien’s chief pillars in his conception of fantasy is the notion of consolation, or the happy ending, or, as he puts it, the eucatastrophe:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any faiy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscaustrophe, 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. (OFS 75)

Hopefully some connections between this definition of eucatastrophe and Coleridge’s long poem spring immediately to mind. But wait, there’s more! Tolkien, a devout Catholic, nevertheless usually felt that the religious elements in his work should be obscured and abstracted, and should not interfere with the world created by his words. He differs in this respect from the obvious allegorical patterns in C. S. Lewis’s work. But the presence of evangelium in the above passage suggests that this idea of eucatastrophe is of crucial importance not only to his work, but to his personal construction of faith. This is made explicit in the essay’s epilogue:

But this story has entered History and the primary wodd; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Binh of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. (OFS 78)

Up until this point, eucatastrophe might well have been read as merely another name for deus ex machine, a miraculous unlooked-for turn of events. But by intertwining the term with the evangelium or good news of “History,” it takes on a distinctly spiritual importance as well.

Coleridge’s epic story fits into this description of eucatastrophe almost as neatly as, if I may be so bold, the Gospel story itself. And of course, this is no accident; far better scholars than I have pointed out the parallels between The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the death and resurrection of Christ. So why introduce Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe at all into the mix? For me, the value of what Tolkien does in “On Fairy-Stories,” and what I am attempting to do, is that by theorizing the narrative and linguistic components of a text, it allows us to explore and appreciate this phenomenon outside of its religious context. This context is there for Tolkien, of course, but it need not be for us as scholars of imaginative, fantastic literature.

And finally, if you’re still not convinced of the presence of eucatastrophe in Coleridge’s poem, I’ll make a brief case. First, there’s obviously the presence of dyscatastrophe, the bad kind of catastrophe we’re all familiar with, in spades. Indeed, the inciting action, the Mariner shooting the albatross, is a prime example. Like eucatastrophe, this event appears from nowhere, introduced suddenly by a pair of dashes in line 81 (of the 1834 edition), splintering it from the rest of the stanza. The act is out of the blue and unlooked-for.

The coexistence of dyscatastrophe and eucatastrophe is symbolically represented beautifully by the dice game between Death and Life-in-Death in Part III. Few icons could better reveal the presence and operation of grace than a game of chance, and the ramifications of the game play out almost immediately.

And then, of course, there is the joy unlooked-for that befalls the Mariner when he finds the power to bless the sea-snakes, and so begin the long climb back to the world of the living. There are other instances also: the sinking of the ship, and even the appearance of the Mariner at the wedding feast, perhaps the most important example of all.

Again, I would very much appreciate any feedback on this post. As you can probably tell, I’m still very much in the early stages of working through these ideas. But I devote so much time and effort to these tangled thorny questions because I think the role of Romanticism in the formation of fantasy as a genre has been under-represented in scholarship, and I would like to facilitate a two-way conversation, if you will, between past and present fantasists.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Eds. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Print.

—. Tolkien on Fairy-Stories. Eds. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.

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