The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.1
Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament,but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful,but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.JN 16:20
What happens after the end? While Christian faith remains concerned with this question and with its surprising answer, contemporary fiction has come to disdain both. Until about 1900, the traditional novel in Britain conventionally offered a kind of epilogue, an afterword of sorts in which the ultimate fate of the characters was unveiled in the last fullness of narrative vision: George Eliot gives us a glimpse of that "hidden life" in which Dorothea Brooke pours out her "full nature . . . in channels which had no great name on earth"; David Copperfield's "Last Retrospect" likewise relates the final fortunes of Peggotty and Traddles, Betsey Trotwood and the Old Soldier; Jane Eyre, too, "draws [her tale] to its close" with a "brief glance at the fortunes of those whose names have most frequently recurred in this narrative."2 Pat Rogers recounts the downfall [End Page 66] of such "Parthian ending[s]," noting that "modern discussions of closure deal almost entirely with refusals of closure, imperfect or bogus closure, or those unconvincing final gestures which Barthes sees as 'unmasking' the false sense of repletion in the classic bourgeois text . . . by omission, [suggesting] that novels with a confident, adequate or unambiguous ending are not worth bothering about."3 The Dickensian epilogue has, as Rogers reminds us, all but disappeared from the post-Victorian novel, exiled to the less serious genres of children's and fantasy literature in the company of its equally naive cousin, the happy ending.4 Both have come to be seen as empty literary conventions at best.5 At worst, the idea of the happy ending, patronized by Henry James as an inartistic longing for "a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks,"6 has been chastised either for its escapism or its prostitution of the artistic impulse to such panderers as publishers, editors, and librarians.7 Indeed some of the controversy surrounding the epilogue to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that "Nineteen Years Later" chapter that reunites its now-grown child heroes on Platform 9¾, sending their own children off to Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, may be explained by a robust twentieth-century contempt for the naiveté of both the traditional novel's happy ending and its epilogal effects.8
In both cases, it seems clear, this contempt has to do in part with the desuetude into which ideas of theodicy have fallen. Walter Pape's history of narrative closure sees the noncomedic happy ending as the product of a rationalist Enlightenment perception that "the tangled skeins of human fate, in fiction and reality alike, are not to be unravelled by some unexpected mercy, as is the case in the baroque novel. Rather, reward must be earned."9 It was this sense of reward—of a theodical poetic justice, in which the distribution of prizes justifies the ways of God to man—more than the idea of the happy ending itself, that came into question over the course of the nineteenth century. While such closure remained commonplace [End Page 67] throughout the Victorian period, it was increasingly seen as inauthentic, in contrast to more open-ended structures that seemed to reflect a starker and more random reality compared to which the fairy tale and its ending were but the illusions of childhood.10 Yet as Pape shows, the fairy tale ending continued to serve as "a kind of popular theodicy," undiminished by the emergent pessimism of the late nineteenth century.11
It is in this context, then, of the theodical epilogue that I turn to J. R. R. Tolkien's account of fairy stories, that last refuge of the happy ending that he calls eucatastrophe, and seek to connect the epilogue, that fictional device that tells us what happens after the end, to the Christian answer. From Tolkien forward, the presence of the eucatastrophe—the consolation of the...