Friday, June 3, 2011

A 'Happy' Ending

Almost everybody remembers some story that they thought was really good until it ended. Perhaps the hero didn't get everything he deserved, or one of the villains got off too easy. Maybe, after a really good story, the ending was just dull. Or it might have simply been the fact that the story was fun, and it ended too soon. Some readers feel slighted by this; after all, they put time into reading or listening to the story, and it might seem like poor compensation for their time if the end is unsatisfactory. They might think that the story had a ‘bad ending’. And this leads to a question that I really hadn’t thought much about until this last class: who really owns the story in the first place? While it might seem natural that the author would know his story best, his readers are also giving something up for the story. Given that some authors are better than others, it stands to reason that some people reading the story have a better sense of how it should have ended than the author actually did.

But when it comes to a story that is as heavily steeped in symbolism and meaning as any of Tolkien’s works, it can become confusing who owes whom. While it probably takes most readers a while to get through The Lord of the Rings, it arguably took Tolkien’s whole life to create Middle Earth. What he did was far more than make a story; he constructed an alternate universe of a depth that could not be expressed in a single story (and given Christopher’s extensive work, a single lifetime). So it comes off as arrogant for a reader to judge a story that he read in a couple weeks, when it took its creator years to get the characters and setting just right. Criticizing Tom Bombadil as uninteresting and unimportant to the plot ignores the stories that were written before that featured him, or the creation story he tells the hobbits that first-time readers probably miss. While a reader might have better writing skills than Tolkien did, he almost certainly does not have the same grasp of Middle-Earth and its inhabitants that Tolkien did. So who really gets to judge the moves Tolkien decided to make, or what meaning his stories have?

I think the answer is that judgement belongs to the reader, but there is a good chance that a reader simply doesn’t try hard enough to appreciate a story. Superficially, a story is meant to entertain whoever is reading it. And many stories are meant to do just that. Troubling enough, this mentality seems to be held especially strongly in relation to fairy tales, which we usually hear at a young age when we don’t look for anything more. In Whistling Woman, a group of children object to a story on precisely these grounds. The ending of the story they hear isn’t a ‘good’ ending, to them. This message is further amplified by the beginning when the storyteller tries to decided whether or not her listeners are old enough for the story in the first place.

But some stories (especially fairy tales, Tolkien might argue) do not exist solely for entertainment. When it comes the judging Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings, the standard should not be how interesting or entertaining he was, but how the role he played fit with the rest of the story. Tolkien had definite messages and themes that he wanted to convey, and some of those were at the expense of entertainment. There is nothing that exhibits this more clearly than The Silmarillion. I believe most readers would agree that, when comparing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, the former is much more gripping and exciting. One might even consider parts of The Silmarillion to be *shudder* dull. So it is clear that Tolkien knew how to write an exciting story. That simply wasn’t what he set out to accomplish. Before judging his works, one must understand what the work is supposed to be in the first place. While this will make the story no more exciting, it will help to provide a metric by which to judge.

Which brings me back to the matter of endings. After re-reading the end of The Lord of the Rings, it struck me how early the fairy-tale ‘end’ occurs. The final battle with enemy forces doesn’t even start in the last book (and I mean book, not volume), and the Ring is destroyed three chapters into the final one. The remaining two-thirds of the last book are occupied with what, in most other stories, would be unimportant resolution where the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys get their just desserts. But Tolkien wasn’t writing just one story, and it shows in his endings. While the main events of the story are over, Tolkien’s characters never get a break from their lives. Aragorn grows into the king he was meant to be, and wrestles with the daunting task of rebuilding Gondor. The hobbits realize that The Shire is not always safe, and even they must deal with corruption, from the inside and out. And Frodo, who has been expressing a desire to go home since the beginning of his journey, realizes that he is not meant for it any longer, and says goodbye to his hobbit friends. These events keep the characters and the setting alive and moving. While the story has ended, Middle-Earth has not. When we think of The Lord of the Rings, or any story, we must think of these other things that the story seeks to accomplish. And I think that if a story has succeeded, these will be evident most clearly in the end. That is, after all, an author’s final words to his reader.



  1. You ask a very good question here: to whom does a story belong: the one who has the idea and puts the sweat and effort into creating it (as "incarnation" necessarily entails), or the ones who are affected by it as readers? In Sayers' Trinitarian terms, the answer would clearly have to be "both": a story needs an audience as well as a teller. But if Tolkien was not writing purely for entertainment (and I agree with you about the difference between the Silmarillion and the LotR), then why was he writing? You raise this question but I don't think you fully answer it. Yes, we should judge Tolkien by what he meant to accomplish as well as by the effect that his stories have on us, but what do you think now, at the end of the course, that purpose was?