Aristotle and Tolkien agree, fairy tales should do far more than entertain us. They are also supposed to teach us. All good stories are composed with the artistic craft and genius of literature such that the reader can learn from the characters and events of the story about how to be brave, to endure suffering, and to pursue true love. In a particular way, I find the last chapter of a book to be especially powerful.
For example, I was pricked with a sudden twinge of sorrow as I concluded my reading of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Until last year I had only read one of the seven volumes in this fairytale masterpiece, so I decided to rectify this gap on my bookshelf. As I finally turned the page to the sixteenth and last chapter of The Last Battle, “Farewell to Shadowlands,” I thought to myself, ‘Finally, I’m almost done.’ And immediately my gut twisted.
I didn’t want to say goodbye.
I didn’t want to put away the characters and events with which Lewis had created the world of Narnia, a world into which I had been drawn like the Pevensies themselves. Part of me wanted to put the book down without reading the last pages in order to evade the sorrow of separation. I knew, on the other hand, that the conclusion of this epic narrative might actually provide a sort of resolution; Lewis did not disappoint. There was sorrow, but there was also joy. A good author is able to compose a story, even a fantasy, that still rings true and so provides a meaning that can satisfy and console the reader.
“The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” …. [In] the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”
– JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
This summer I have been reading pages from a very different book, and it’s anything but fantasy. For the past month I have been helping at Rosary Hill Home, a palliative care facility for terminally-ill cancer patients run by the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters. In this ministry I have the opportunity to visit with the residents, to pray with them, and even to tend to certain physical needs. Part of making visits to these patients involves addressing the topic of death and dying. Diagnosed with incurable cancer, this home is the last chapter for the residents who come to die here.
As I walk into the rooms, I sometimes get an anxious feeling about discussing their illness or death, something like my feeling when beginning the last chapter of The Last Battle. But I have learned something from my reading: a happy ending can only come from perseverance. We need to say goodbye.
Discussions about death and dying can actually be a source of relief for persons as they prepare themselves. For many, coming to this home has given them a striking sense of peace. It offers them an opportunity to conclude their story with the joy and consolation Tolkien attributes to fantasy, the “far-off gleam or echo” of the Gospel in their own lives. The sorrow of death encounters the joy of hope, the joy of eternal life, the joy of the Gospel. The Author of Life is writing a tale of mercy in the lives of the patients. In the charity of the sisters and staff at Rosary Hill Home, their lives come to a close truly aware of the love of God. This joy doesn’t stop the pain or prevent death, but it strengthens them to be brave, to endure their suffering, and to pursue the one True Love.
Image by Jilbert Ebrahimi