Monday, January 14, 2013

Part 2, Only in a Fairy Tale

Only in a Fairy Tale:

Discerning the Form through the Art of Illustration

Part 2

“Eucatastrophe”: Sudden and Miraculous Grace

Almost anything can happen in a fairy tale.  Main characters are murdered, blinded and banished.  Characters often start out weak, and must venture through an unknown forest, facing their fears and battling enemies. And when all hope seems lost, some miracle takes place and the main character comes out on top and all is well in the kingdom again leading to their “happily ever after”.  Some may complain that this is not realistic, but that is the point, fairy tales are not supposed to be about our reality, they live in their own reality and play by different rules.  Moreover, this form of story gives its readers hope, that as difficult and seemingly impossible the world may seem, the fairy tale always gets you out of it and your problems are resolved.

J.R.R.Tolkien has probably described this literary phenomenon the best.  He refers to this fairy tale happy ending propensity as “eucatastrophe”.  He coined this term from Greek: ευ- "good" and καταστροφή "destruction".  In his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien states:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending… or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”: 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 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…”

In his illustration for Rapunzel, Zelinsky gives us the moment following the eucatastrophe. Readers have just finished witnessing the almost religious miracle that changes the lives of Rapunzel and her beloved, the healing power of her tears to cure his blindness. Playing into this religiosity, Zelinsky ends his tale with this icon or Renaissance-style religious composition, showing that all is well, their happy ending is real, and Rapunzel, like the grace-giving Virgin herself, is the deliverer and stands at the center of their family’s world.


  1. Very interesting! And, I was thinking that the illustration looked more like Renaissance religious art then a fairy tale. Now I know why!

    1. Thanks! I was so excited when I found this scan online during my research for this final project! I'd always seen the cover of Zelinsky's Rapunzel but never had a chance to read it. And I cannot tell you how awesome it was to find this specific image, because it really does look like a Renaissance religious painting :)