Friday, June 2, 2017

Tales as old as Time

What makes an ending. A story can be fantastical, freeing, driven, wonderful, but in the end, it comes down to “the end”. A story has to end, like everything, and thus it stays with the reader for better or worse. This begs the question: what goes into an ending? What makes an ending good or bad?

The first key consideration is author's intention. In Whistling Women, Agatha defends her ending by saying, “that is where I always meant [my story] to end” (Byatt 12). A good end must be intended. It is the accumulation of all the actions and events of the novel, the last opportunity to tie up loose threads. An ending that is not planned runs into problems because it feels purposeless. A great example of this is The Walking Dead an ongoing series written by Robert Kirkman. When discussing the origin of his story he stated, “I’ve always loved zombie movies but I hated how they ended, and so I wanted to do the zombie movie that never ends”. His strategy for coping with “the end” was to simply not plan for one. The world he created could expand, fill itself with new characters and antagonists, but there was no direction. The ideas began to recycle. Without an overarching conflict or villain, the story began to repeat itself. The story was about survival and simply that “to survive”. The main problem with ending a story whose purpose is to depict the ongoing struggle to survive is that any form of ending will only be abrupt. Without an end goal in sight, the story will either fizzle out or cut off.

A return to Tolkien’s “Fairy Stories” provides insight on the ending problem. The three vital ingredients of fairy stories are recovery, escape, and consolation. While these are all features of fairy stories, much still applies to stories in general. Readers still look to stories either as a way of recovering what once was or to escape from the misfortunes present in life. It is the third feature, consolation, that comes at the end of the story. In the moment when the characters face their “ultimate final defeat”, they become aware of a “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tolkien 86). According to Tolkien, it is only with imminent defeat, the moment of eucatastrophe, that the characters within the story become aware of the true meaning of life, the appreciation of life and this world. To recognize the joy behind things one must acknowledge that there is an intended joy. Tolkien says that “we ask HOW, perceive patterns and ask WHY, and this implies reasons and motives and a MIND. Only a Mind can have purpose” (Letter 310). If one sees some “Joy” behind the world, they have to recognize there was an intended joy. The ending, the consolation of the story, puts the characters in a position where they simultaneously face their own mortality and recognize that there exists a mind much greater than their own. An intrinsic part of the end is the author’s intention to depict a greater purpose separate from the characters within the story.

It is for this very reason that a good ending must be intended. The Walking Dead cannot have a satisfactory ending because it is only about survival. It would require an answer to the question “Why survive? Why should we fight to live?”, questions that can only be answered in a moment of consolation, when the darkness is at the height of its power. As the story has no ultimate power, only a chaotic mass of the undead, there is no moment of ultimate defeat and no way of reaching the moment of eucatastrophe. An author must have a moment of consolation in mind if their characters are to become fully realized. A purposeful ending is a product of an intentional ending.

Agatha’s story has an intentional ending, yet the children deem that “there are good endings and this isn’t one” (Byatt 13). This indicates that a successful ending requires some additional criterion. The last paragraph of Agatha’s story may offer insight on what her ending lacks.

He repeated, “You are safe in this city.”
And for the first time since they set out, fear left the cave in the back of their minds, and they felt what he said was true. They were safe in his city.
(Byatt 11).

The main difference between this ending and The Lord of the Rings is the condition the main characters are left in. In Agatha’s story, Artegall and his companions make it to their destination, in a similar way to Frodo and Sam who successfully climb Mount Doom. Both characters complete their quest, yet Mount Doom was not the end of Frodo and Sam’s story. To use Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the Hero’s Journey has three main steps: Departure, Initiation, and the Return. In both tales, Artegall and Frodo depart their homes and familiarity, in the unknown, they grow and change with each trial they face. Both stories have a completed departure and initiation of our heroes, yet Artegall lacks a return. Without a return, the end leaves the attentive children without satisfaction. The return is when the hero, now fully initiated, brings back the knowledge of the unknown to the starting point. This closes the cycle and allows a new hero to depart. Indeed, when Federica is pondering on what makes a real ending she thinks about “reunions of parents and children, separated by danger. The ending of Peter Pan, when the children flew back into the nursery and the real world” (Byatt 13). Without a reunion, if the children never returned to the nursery, there would be no story to tell.

The true significance of a monomyth is that stories have an inherent form, or in other words a mindful purpose. Therefore, a good ending is an ending that is true to the story form. If this is to be believed, then stories maintain a level of autonomy separate from the author. Even if the author has an intended ending in mind, the monomyth implies that the hero must return. The journey ends not when the hero gets there, but when the hero gets back again.

The great stories always return to form. For stories to be continuously told, they must retain a coherent structure allowing new stories to arise after each one completes itself. As Byatt puts it, “The reasons for the truth of the tales is that human truths reiterate plainly” (Byatt 129). While the setting, characters, and specific trials within the story may differ, the same narrative form is present. All heroes undergo the same process of departure, initiation, and the eventual return. In Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium “The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside” (Byatt 129). On the surface, a story may appear to change, but the narrative is the true heart of the tale. In “From Efland to Poughkeepsie” Le Guin mentions that good fantasy differs from mediocre fantasy based on style. Even if the style changes with the author, the core elements are always present. An individual may fall in love with the style and become engrossed in the story, but everyone can tell whether an ending is a real ending. A good ending is a real ending; it is when the story is true to form. The hero returns initiated, with a new perspective on the world.

In closing, the great stories inform us of our own endings. We may not all face the great evil in the world, the dragon, the Great War, fear incarnate, but we may live vicariously through the hero. The consolation of the story is the reader’s consolation as much as the hero. All tales reiterate for a reason. Stories offer truths about the world, and it is good endings that bring those truths to light.

In the words of Dream, Neil Gaiman’s masterful character:

Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgot. (Gaiman issue 19).

Byatt, A. S. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000. Print.
Byatt, A. S. A Whistling Woman. New York: Vintage, 2004. Print.
Gaiman, Neil, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, and Malcolm Jones. The Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 2012. Print.
K., Le Guin Ursula, and Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York, NY: Berkley, 1985. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.
Webster, Michael. "The Hero's Three-Part Journey." The Hero's Three-Part Journey. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2017.


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--Eli Harter

1 comment:

  1. Lovely meditation on the way in which endings satisfy--or don't. I think you explain well why the children find Agatha's ending unsatisfying: the hero needs to return in order for the story to feel complete according to its mythical structure. It would be interesting to test The Lord of the Rings in these terms: Sam returns, which makes him the full hero, whereas Frodo returns but without saving knowledge. Which of the other characters complete the arc? Merry, Pippin, Faramir, Gandalf, definitely. Is it enough that Sam completes the journey? How many of the other characters need to complete the journey? RLFB

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