Sigh. How many children’s stories end with that tired, clichéd tag line? And why do authors pull out that limp excuse for a conclusion? Did they suddenly grow tired of writing? Were they called several times to dinner by an irritated spouse and had to finish the story in a tearing hurry? Couldn’t think of anything more original/provocative?
I ask this because, at my recent book launch, I was asked a number of times (among numerous questions) how many books there would be in the tale of Rhiss (as many as it takes, I replied rather disingenuously --- more on that another time), and if I know how the story begun in Gryphon’s Heir will ultimately end (because I freely admit Gryphon’s Heir does end on something of a cliff-hanger... which one friend in particular was at pains to tell me she hated, although she generously allowed as to understanding why I did that). Yes, I replied much more straight-forwardly, I do know how the story will end. Now, I could have said, annoyingly and pedantically, that, really, our individual stories in this world end only with our ‘shuffling off this mortal coil.’ But that’s not what people want to know. What they’re asking is: will my plucky protagonist achieve his goal? Will he get the girl and all will be well? That’s what people want to know. I may have been a little evasive on my answers. Well, okay, a lot evasive. After all, you can’t tell people the ending before they’ve read the story, even if they are impatient. Don’t ever be one of those Awful People who peep at the book’s end while still only in the middle, he sternly admonished.
But I know why people do that, or ask such questions, or default to the happily-ever-after thing: it’s because we seek resolution, don’t we? We crave surety and shun uncertainty. Uncertainty gives rise to all sorts of fears related to the unknown. And my gosh, most of us are absolutely terrified of the unknown. (Despite the fact that, ironically, we tend to get unutterably bored with too much surety. Well, nobody ever said humans aren’t full of paradoxes... at least, I’ve never said that.) I suppose that, amidst all the vicissitudes, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life, we tend to like stories wrapped up in neat, tidy little boxes with bows on top. But “they all lived happily ever after” is something of a cheat. It sets kids up with all kinds of unrealistic expectations. And it unrealistically implies there is an ending to the tale.
Two stories in particular I use with my classes illustrate this point, and they drive kids absolutely wild: The Lady or the Tiger and its sequel, The Discourager of Hesitancy, by Frank Stockton. These are great short stories, but the source of the frustration for students is that both end on very inconclusive notes, asking readers to make their own conclusions based on individual interpretations of human nature. (After the kids express their outrage over The Lady or the Tiger, I mention innocently that there is a sequel addressing the question left unresolved in the first story, and would they like to hear it? Yes! they invariably respond. But their eager anticipation is swiftly dashed, poor things, when they discover that the closure --- the resolution they so desperately want --- is just not happening, the second story ending just as indeterminately as the first.)
And yet indeterminate endings are not necessarily bad, are they? One of my favourite examples in support of this contention is the 2000 film Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks as a driven, type A FedEx employee whose plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. As the only survivor, Hanks’ character is marooned on a tropical island for several years before he manages to escape and is rescued. Returning to civilization, he is devastated to discover that, inevitably but tragically, the people in his world have had to move on in his absence --- including his fiancée, the love of his life, whose memory sustained him during his years of isolation. She has married someone else and had a child in the time he was gone, and cannot dissolve that union to reunite with him. At the film’s end, Hanks’ character stands at a crossroads --- literally and figuratively. (The imagery is a tad obvious, but we’ll forgive the screenwriter for hitting us over the head with a two by four. Sometimes, obvious is not a bad thing. Sometimes.) If the film’s writer observed the “happily-ever-after” rule, the fiancée would either have cast away (sorry; awful pun) her husband and child to reunite with Hanks’ character, or more sensitively, would not have been hitched and therefore unavailable in the first place. But life isn’t always like that, is it? Life isn’t clean and tidy and simple. It’s full of messy complications, conceits, conundrums and convolutions.
And, of course, the Master doesn’t end with happily-ever-after. (As a friend who should remain anonymous has so kindly pointed out, what’s a blog post of mine without some reference to The Lord of the Rings? Thank you so much. You Know Who You Are.) Frodo saves Middle Earth, but not, as he points out, for him; he’s too badly wounded, physically and spiritually, and the book concludes with him, as Lev Grossman so aptly puts it, ‘skipping town with the elves.’ If Tolkien had done happily-ever-after, Frodo would have married, become Thain of the Shire, been feted, wined and dined endlessly, won all kinds of humanitarian awards, gone on triumphant speaking tours recounting his adventures, and written bestselling books with titles like “Ringing in the New Age.” (Sorry again.) But Tolkien didn’t, and so neither did Frodo, and we were left with a rather weepy ending to both book and film that, I think, many found vaguely unsatisfying... but not altogether unrealistic.
So... where does that leave the protagonist of my story? Does it end well for him? Neatly and tidily? Or messily and untidily?
Well, stay tuned. I’m plotting as fast as I can, you know.