The Tolkien Tarot Spread II: Patterns of Action

Click here for the previous post in this series: The Function of Fiction.

Patterns of Plot, Patterns of Life

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
The old that is strong does not wither;
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.


One way in which fiction influences our subconscious thinking is in its very structure, its plot. Different authors and different works have different plot styles and devices, sometimes woven carefully and consciously (The Quincunx), other times written on the fly with almost no forethought (Louis L’Amour). These patterns of plot can influence the way we, as readers, try to organize our own experiences — the way we make sense of our own stories. We come to expect our lives to unfold in the same way that our favorite fiction does.

For example, most people are familiar with Star Wars, which has a very formulaic and predictable plot structure — both for each movie, and for the story arcs of the movies overall:

  • Each movie has three main acts or plot lines, each of which takes place at a different setting (e.g. Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant for The Phantom Menace, and Tatooine, Dagobah, and Cloud City for The Empire Strikes Back, etc.).
  • The overall storyline echoes the mythic structure outlined by Joseph Campbell, from the miraculous birth of Anakin Skywalker to Luke’s confrontation with his father.
  • Setting the standard for action films, the plot alternates between chasing, fighting, comic bantering, fighting while chasing, chasing while bantering, etc., with the (very) occasional quiet, serious scene. (Don’t get me wrong — I love these movies!)
  • Frequently, one good guy is sent on a solitary mission, while the others go in a group, and the fate of one determines the fate of the other.
  • Almost always, the plot crescendos towards some kind of infiltration — an attempt by the heroes to get into some fortified area and (usually) blow something up.
  • And of course, someone’s hand gets chopped off in the meantime.

I don’t know how intentional these plot similarities are, but they lend the series coherence. They also, I’d argue, influence the viewer’s expectations about patterns of events in real life. I’m not saying that if you watch too much Star Wars, you’re going to start wearing titanium wrist guards. But you may find yourself thinking of your life more frequently in terms of episodic conflicts, semi-mythic conflicts between family members, and mighty struggles of good vs. evil.

Tolkien’s Trope

Tolkien does the same thing in The Lord of the Rings. Again and again, Tolkien uses a simple plot structure which moves his story along. You can see it from when Frodo first sets out, repeated with variations all the way to Mount Doom; and in fact it is reflected in the larger structure of the whole novel. The structure is this:

  • Set out from a place of safety
  • Go on a bumbling journey, during which danger increases
  • Terrible peril, at which all is nearly lost
  • Saved at the last minute by forces largely beyond the control of the characters
  • Return to safety
  • Overall, a sense that seemingly random or chance events are guided by external forces

Probably the most obvious place to see this structure is while the four hobbits are traveling from Bag End to Rivendell.

  • They set out from Bag End, bumble their way through the woods, are almost found out by Black Riders, and are saved by elves.
  • Then they go through the woods again, are almost attacked by Farmer Maggot’s dogs, and then are saved by the farmer himself.
  • Then they are followed by Riders to the Ferry, only to be saved by Merry.
  • Then they bumble their way through the Old Forest, are almost destroyed by the Willow, and are saved by Tom Bombadil.
  • Then they bumble their way over the Barrow-Downs, are almost killed by a wight, and are saved by Bombadil again…
  • And even with Strider leading them, they bumble across the Trollshaws until they’re almost at Rivendell, and are saved at the last minute by Elrond’s flooding river.

This is quite different than the usual fairy-tale structure, where the hero sets out, lays waste to a series of challenges, and then takes home the prize. Partly, of course, this is due to the fact that Tolkien’s main heroes are hobbits, and they’re not the swashbuckling hero types, but you can see it to a lesser extent with the other heroes too. For example, the entire Moria sequence can be seen as a bumbling journey, in which the company is saved only barely by the sacrifice of Gandalf, closely followed by the safety of Lorien.

Probably the most remarkable and unique thing about Tolkien’s structure is that while the heroes display fortitude, strength of will, and determination, they almost never defeat their enemies without a huge amount of outside help at the last minute. This actually reflects Tolkien’s Christian worldview — especially his concept of eucatastrophe.

The Eucatastrophe

The Wikipedia article does a great job explaining the concept; but briefly, eucatastrophe (pronounced you-catastrophe) is similar to a deus ex machina, except that in eucatastrophe, the sudden unexpected change in fortune is consistent with the established framework of the story.

For Tolkien, the arrival of Jesus was a eucatastrophe for human history, and his resurrection was a eucatastrophe in the story of the incarnation itself. In Tolkien’s view, humans are, after all, fallen; and for God to forgive us for our sins, to offer redemption in the form of Christ, is a sudden reversal of fortune indeed — but one which is not wholly unexpected or outside the framework of the sweep of human history. Tolkien wove this narrative structure (intentionally, I am sure) into every level of plot in The Lord of the Rings, making it a deeply Christian work. Compare this, for example, to the Norse cycle, in which no last-minute savior is offered to forestall Ragnarok; or to the Greek myths, in which deep character flaws or dire prophecies pretty much always lead to disaster (except, of course, in the case of deus ex machina). (I can’t think of a good example of eucatastrophe in pagan literature, but I’d be very interested to hear of any.)

Tolkien’s story structure, then, arises from his own belief system, permeates his work, and almost certainly influences the beliefs of those who love and read his works. Read enough Tolkien, I’d say, and you start to look for eucatastrophies in the patterns of your own life. Certainly I can testify to any number of last-minute scrapes in my own life that could easily be described as eucatastrophic.

And now it is just a short step to use Tolkien’s story structure for a Tarot spread, which I’ll describe and motivate in the next (and final) post of this series.

14 responses to “The Tolkien Tarot Spread II: Patterns of Action”

  1. […] Interview With a Weather Witch II The Tolkien Tarot Spread II: Patterns of Action […]


  2. I’ve been enjoying your blog immensely these past couple of months, and am especially intrigued by this series.

    I’m very much looking forward to Part III, and excited about the prospect of connecting this great work of literature to my own life in a concrete and practical way.

    Keep up the great writing!


  3. Hey, thanks for commenting, JD! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog, it’s a joy to write and a joy to hear from you. I look forward to hearing how you like the Tarot spread. 🙂


  4. I’m really looking forward to the Tarot spread–it sounds like just the thing for a novice Tarot reader and amateur novelist! Now, too, I’m wondering what the equivalent of eucatastrophe in my own worldview might be… and wondering if Tolkien’s heavy use of it might be part of the reason The Lord of the Rings didn’t do much for me.


  5. Those are fascinating things to wonder about, Clare. What kind of fiction do you prefer? And as an amateur novelist, I wonder if you have plot patterns that you find yourself returning to again and again?…


  6. […] spread uses Tolkien’s favorite six-part plot pattern, which I explain in detail in the previous post; it underlies most of the action of The Lord of the Rings, as well as the overall arc of the novel […]


  7. Tolkein served at the Battle of the Somme. The trope that you’ve described certainly suits the WWI battlefields and the chancy, gruesome character of WWI combat. and the contrast with the posh security of WWI higher HQs.

    I believe that this WWI experience made a powerful impression on Tolkein and his literary imagination.


  8. Neat observation, Pitch313! I’d heard of Tolkien’s war experiences influencing his fiction, but never in quite this way. I wonder to what extent it influenced his Catholicism, as well?


  9. Eucatastrophe is a new one on me.

    I can think of a couple of possible Eucatastrophes in myth. The first from the Hinduism of the 10 great avatars of Vishnu, whose incarnations save mankind.

    Also the arrival of Lugh at Tara, who emancipates the gods of the tribe of Danu from the servitude of the Formorians, and leads the tribe to defeat against the Fomorians in the second battle on the Plane of Pillars (Mag Tured/Moytura).

    Another example related to the hero’s journey that I’ve recently come across in Navajo myth seems to fit the model. During the mythological age of heroes, adventures and warriors would often transgress boundaries, which would inevitably result in their suffering. It is in these desperate moments that the Holy People show up, teach them the chants that restore cosmic harmony. Then the heroes return with this ceremonial knowledge, sharing it with the people, before returning to live with the Holy People for ever, which reminds me of Frodo, unable to remain in the Shire and sails to the Gray Heavens, never to return.


  10. The Lugh example is definitely eucatastrophe, that’s a great example! I’m not sure about the other two — are you sure they’re not just deus ex machina? It depends on whether the sudden reversal of fortune is part of the natural unfolding of the story, or if it just suddenly happens without any proper buildup. I don’t know enough about them to tell. In the case of Lugh, there’s a nice buildup, because the story of him growing up and training for his future role is part of the mythic cycle.

    Regardless, the Navajo myth in particular is very moving.


  11. I think when looking at the individual myths of Vishnu’s incarnations they could be interpreted as Eucatastrophe, but when you pull back and look at the bigger picture, it all becomes very numerical and mechanical, and more deus ex machina. There are traditionally 10 different great Vishnu incarnations, each with their own separate myths. I’m not 100% familiar with every incarnation, apart from the dwarf and boar incarnations. But if Lugh qualifies, I think they should too 😀 Lugh, after all, appears out of nowhere, but it is the sequence of events that follow, rather than precede, his arrival that makes his coming a natural part of the story. Like Jesus it becomes his story.

    The tenth and final Vishnu incarnation (Kalki mounted on a white horse brandishing a sword) is destined to appear at the end of the current (and morally corrupt) world cycle to restore the golden age, much like future Saoshyant in Zoroastrian eschatology, or the second coming of Jesus in the guise of a warrior on a white horse in Revelation. These examples strike me as more deus ex machina, than the eucatastrophe/incarnation of Jesus.

    I’ve not read any of the Navajo hero myths myself, so I cannot be certain if the Holy People appear as deus ex machina or not. I think what is interesting is that the hero[es], winds up in trouble through his or her own ignorance of underlying spiritual/life-generating principles, rather than being willfully defiant of the ‘will of the gods,’ like, say, the culture bringer Prometheus. Those who try to defy or control (without respect) the divine unfathomable order of things (often with a head full of religious misinformation) may well end up crushed and devoured (not only hurting themselves but those around them. I know because I’ve been there myself), whereas the hero-fool, who transgresses boundaries, breaks taboos, geisa, etc, in ignorance (the innocent type), is looked upon by the gods with eyes of compassion, and the painful chaotic journey (which is also the life-journey of everyone in the modern world who lives with or without an cosmic or divinely ordained set of inadequate rules), becomes a journey of healing and knowledge. The eucatastrophic event, then, is a kind of course correction in the life path of an individual. A lesson grounded in spiritual/divine/holy compassion and imbued with magical knowledge for the past, present, and future. Disorder, imbalance and imperfections of every kind are an integral part of life, and are paradoxically vehicles toward cosmic and microcosmic order/balance/perfection. This is pretty much how I view the cosmos, as a kind of alchemical process…on the way toward what exactly, I have no idea. But I believe it must be pretty beautiful.


  12. Maybe we aren’t looking at the same version of the Lugh myth. 🙂 The one I have has a big long section about how he was spirited away from Ireland, and brought up outside of Ireland, about the character of his foster father, and everything that Lugh was taught and trained for, and how he returned to Ireland in triumph. To the Tuatha, Lugh’s arrival was a complete surprise, but in the version I have, the arrival is shown from Lugh’s point of view, and the reader isn’t surprised at all.

    Note that in order to really take Jesus’s incarnation as eucatastrophe, you have to take seriously the claims that the Jewish prophets in the Old Testament really were foretelling his coming, which frankly always seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. Not that I’m an expert on the matter.

    “A kind of alchemical process…” Your description is beautiful itself! I agree… I think the beauty in this disorderly, chaotic mess of life is precisely parallel with the disorder and chaos of nature, which creates emergent beauty and a delicate (yet resilient) order.

    Just yesterday I had a similar conversation with some Jehovah’s Witnesses who dropped by. They talked about how Christianity promises an end to sickness, death, and pain, and I explained that my religion sees these things as essential parts of the natural order. They gave me some literature and left, but they expressed appreciation for talking with someone who had given these matters some thought. 🙂 Maybe when they come back, I’ll give them some of my literature…


  13. You know what, I’m not familar with Lugh’s early years. I’m not even sure where to look. I’ve read about stories of Lugh’s birth, which I think comes from fairly recent oral traditions, and that’s about it. The impression I got from reading about Lugh turning up at Tara was that he was a mysterious stranger, even to the reader (or listener). I’ve been meaning to re-read the myth for a month or so now, but never seem to get around to it. I’ll have to make the effort this week sometime 😀

    About the Christian view of an end to all forms of suffering. I kind of lean that way myself, but in a slightly different way. I’ll save it for a post rather that go on about it here though.

    This series has given me a lot to think about , Jeff. One think that amazes me is that how our different ideas and concepts and ways of looking at the world, that at first appear to be disconnected are really connected.

    I enjoyed the final part of the series. I learned what a tarot spread is for one thing. I’m hoping to buy a deck this weekend, If I can find a place that sells them 🙂


  14. […] wrote a series of posts titled The Tolkien Tarot Spread (the Function of Fiction: part one, Patterns of Action: part two and Fiction and Divination: part three), that took a look at the structure and function of fiction, […]


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