“At that moment, with a crunch, the boat ran aground. The water was too shallow now for it. 'This,' said Reepicheep, 'is where I go on alone.’ They did not even try to stop him, for everything now felt as if it had been fated or had happened before. They helped him to lower his little coracle. Then he took off his sword ('I shall need it no more,' he said) and flung it far away across the lilied sea. Where it fell it stood upright with the hilt above the surface. Then he bade them good-bye, trying to be sad for their sakes; but he was quivering with happiness.”
This was Reepicheep, in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was entering “Aslan’s Country,” a clear reference to the afterlife.
He was dying. He was leaving this earth to go somewhere else, to be with Aslan.
George MacDonald (a writer Lewis loved) wrote this, in his book Phantastes:
“My soul was like a summer evening, after a heavy fall of rain, when the drops are yet glistening on the trees in the last rays of the down-going sun, and the wind of the twilight has begun to blow. The hot fever of life had gone by, and I breathed the clear mountain-air of the land of Death.”
What comes to mind when you think of death? It’s most certainly not raindrops glistening in trees and clear mountain air. We view death as dark and terrifying. If it’s not a picture of gloomy wastelands, it’s simply nothing.
But Lewis and MacDonald had a different picture. Death, to them, is not the storm, but the calm that comes after. It’s beautiful, something to be entered into with glee, somewhat sad for the people left behind.
Why would they have this picture? Why would they view death as something good?
A concept from J.R.R Tolkien explains this odd outlook. He, too, had this philosophy of Good Death. And it came from a concept he called eucatastrophe.
The prefix “eu” meaning “good,” eucatastrophe would then be a “good catastrophe.”*
Eucatastrophe is a concept foreign to modern man. If our goal in life is happiness or comfort, any sort of event that prohibits our ability to feel those things is going to be an affront to our lives. It’s going to be avoided at all cost.
To the modern man, eucatastrophe is oxymoronic.
Tolkien's picture of eucatastrophe hinges on one particular eucatastrophe — the cross. The cross of Christ was a horrifying event. The Son of God was brutally beaten, and hung on a tree — a symbol Jews believed meant he was cursed. But God used this catastrophe to save the world, making it good.
Through the death of Christ, and resurrection a couple days later, Death itself was defeated. God, through Christ, won the victory over it.
This good death brings new light to all other death. We have hope in it, because resurrection is what comes next. Death is no longer a terrifying wasteland, but mountainside shortly after the rain.
We can now be like Reepicheep, wandering into it with excitement, hope, and a bit of sadness for those we're leaving behind. Even before we reach that point, all of our tragedies and our pain can seen through this lens of eucatastrophe, allowing us to hope, seeing the light on the other side.
*I do need to note that euthanasia also comes from this root. "Thanasia" actually meaning "death," those promoting euthanasia used the word to put a spin on the practice, calling it "good death." This is far from what I, Tolkien, Lewis, and the others mentioned are talking about. Euthanasia, no matter where the person ends up, is most certainly not good.