The ‘Journey of the Magi’ was the first of a series of poems T. S. Eliot later grouped together as the 'Ariel Poems' and was published in 1927 shortly after Eliot’s baptism into the Church of England. Critics argue convincingly that this poem reflects Eliot's state of mind as it moved from an old faith in secular modernism to a new Christian faith, paralleling the journey of the ‘Wise men from the East’ towards Christ with Eliot's own spiritual journey.
Told from the point of view of one of the Wise Men, the poem recalls their journey to Bethlehem in search of the infant Christ. Eliot’s elderly speaker has reached the end of adulthood - the same, cynical and world-weary end of the narrators in Eliot’s earlier modernist poems. The physical journey towards Bethlehem parallels the spiritual inner journey; the physical journey culminates in the baby Christ, but the outcome of the inner journey is less certain:
There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different: the Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms.
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
‘Birth’ and ‘death’ are switched: the Magus, (and perhaps Eliot himself) comes to see that a kind of metaphysical ‘death’ can lead to rebirth. The birth of the Christ was the death of the old religions.
We have seen the mode of Myth become a kind of theology, and mythical creatures come to inhabit the works of Romance, while the High Mimetic transmutes these into Platonic ideal forms like Virtue in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. By the time we get to the Low Mimetic world of the novel this same mythic energy has become a natural force. In Irony, we are left with mindless genetics, rolling forward without purpose, and leaving behind them only the hollow philosophy of existentialism. As Northrop Frye says:
The existential projection of irony is, perhaps, existentialism itself; and the return of irony to myth is accompanied… in a later stage, by a widespread interest in sacramental philosophy and dogmatic theology.
Barfield put it another way: humanity had left behind the world of ‘original participation’ and moved into dysfunction and alienation, but there was a possibility of a further stage - human consciousness could evolve to a point at which it regains ‘at-one-ment with the principle of creation, only now in full self-consciousness as a self-contained Ego'.
Barfield called this ‘final participation’: ‘a self conscious rapport with the whole phenomenal world’ or a ‘willed consciousness of [original] participation’.
In simpler terms, adult humanity would become child-like again, but with full adult consciousness. Even in his nineties, Barfield retained the firm faith that ‘the world of final participation will one day sparkle in the light of the eye as it never yet sparkled early one morning in the original light of the sun’.
All of this, including the journey of the Magi, is about going Up: moving away from the dark pole towards the pole of light.
Tolkien had a name for that fundamental shift, though he was thinking specifically of fairy stories at the time:
Eucatastrophe: a neologism coined from the Greek ευ- ‘good’ and καταστροφή ‘destruction’.
I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane…. – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. ― Letter 89
In his famous essay On Fairy-Stories Tolkien described eucatastrophe further:
But the 'consolation' of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): 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 and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. ― On Fairy-Stories
But eucatastrophe applies more broadly than just fairy stories: it is, or could be, the turning from the dark pole which we approached in Irony back towards the light.
Irony isn’t the ‘final mode’ anymore than the cynical meaninglessness of existentialism is the only possible conclusion of the adult; we can move on from disaffection towards a ‘final participation’.
The patterns of Myth apply to us now as they have done all along.
With interesting cultural effects, as we shall see.