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March 4, 2016

The Fairytale Ending

by Chris

The Redemption of Erath

Without giving too much away, I’d like to share with you the last few lines of my first fantasy novel, The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation. I don’t feel they give away the story, and they lead well into the sequel (I suppose technically then it’s not an ‘ending’). They do, however, summarize the mood of the book, and more importantly the fate of our main character.
And so it was with a lighter heart that Brandyé Dui-Erâth began to walk away from the river and away from all he knew. And so it was that, unknown to him, Darkness followed behind and laughed.

 What would you guess happened from that ending? What about what’s yet to come? And why is that important?

Endings are, naturally, one of the most fundamental parts of a story. (Stephen King’s Dark Tower series may be an exception.) We’re taught from preschool that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Later, we’re taught to structure it, with introductions, topic sentences, rising action and climaxes, but ultimately every story must come to a conclusion of some sort. It’s somewhat inescapable.

And as such, they are supremely important. The ending, being usually the last bit we read, is most often the bit that stays with us the longest. A great beginning hooks us, and a great middle keeps our interest, but it’s the ending that impacts our lives. It’s the ending that makes us laugh, or cry. If I was bored by a book throughout most of it, but it really picked up at the end and left me with ‘feels’, I would rate that book better than one whose ending left me with nothing.

The Disney Version

It is impressed upon us from an early age that endings—the good ones, anyway—are happy. It’s the happily-ever-after scenario, played out in countless stories, books and movies. The hero doesn’t die, the knight always rescues the damsel in distress, and the poor girl finds her Prince Charming. I see it often in the slightly nauseating Hallmark movies my wife sometimes watches. The world has even developed tropes and clichés around it—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, for example.

There is a certain value in this kind of ending, of course—it often makes us feel good. Humans tend to be good empaths, and when we see someone else happy, we tend to feel happy too. And who doesn’t like to feel happy? If their happiness is destined to last the rest of their lives—it’s all we could hope for in life! This feel-good factor can be important to many of us, precisely because our own lives aren’t always so perfect and filled with delight. Perhaps this is why stories started in the first place—a chance for our prehistoric ancestors to forget about the tigers trying to eat them all day and pretend that dying of disease at twenty-four wasn’t really so bad.

We are also often sensitive to the delicate sensibilities of our children. Children devour stories. Few of us read as adults the way we did as children; I remember being a voracious reader, grasping every new book I could find, and re-reading the old ones when I couldn’t. At first, of course, the stories are tame: the rabbit gets lost, but finds his way home again; the hobbit faces a dragon but makes it back safe and sound. Later, the dangers become more real, and the endings are sometimes bittersweet: Bridge to Terabithia was the first book to genuinely make me cry, but I was smiling by the end. It was a difficult journey, but one with a satisfying ending.

I think perhaps we don’t give children enough credit; most are tough little creatures, and can handle a great deal more than we might expect. This isn’t to say we should terrify children wantonly (though the Brothers Grimm might disagree), but nor do we need to shield them from life’s reality.

A wonderful example of this is the story of the Little Mermaid. We are, most of us, intimately familiar with the story of the princess mermaid who falls in love with the human prince, giving up that which is most precious to her—her voice—for the chance to be with the man she loves. We recognize that this is naturally doomed to failure, since it was her voice that Eric loved, but we hope for a reconciliation. And of course, we get it. Just as the sea witch is about to enforce her rule over all the sea, Eric the prince saves the day and kills her. Ariel’s father finally recognizes their true love, and allows the two to marry, drifting off into the sunset. It is one of the most satisfying, perfect happily-ever-after moments in film history.

The Real Fairytale

But what if I told you the original story was not quite so delightful? Many of us have—as we grew older, mind you—become familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale of betrayal, loss and tragedy. Let’s start with the transformation: the little mermaid doesn’t simply exchange her voice for legs, but is forced to endure agonizing pain, and has her tongue cut wholly from her mouth. Put yourself in the place of a child, imagining your own tongue being carved out, and picture the terror. And of course, the poor mermaid doesn’t end up with the prince at all; not only does the prince never recognize her as the one who saved him from drowning, he falls in love with another woman entirely—and marries her.

The little mermaid is then tasked with killing the man she loves, in order to return to the sea! In the end, of course, she can’t, and turns to foam in the sea. We are given a glimpse of redemption in the possibility of eternal life in heaven, but this is far from a happy ending. (For that matter, some have even questioned the parable-like nature of this ending, as it contradicts quite strongly with the message of the rest of the story.)

The real fairytale is a story of heartbreak and tragedy; one where the prince doesn’t win the princess, and they don’t live happily ever after. And I believe this is one of the points Andersen may have been trying to make: life is full of real horror and fear, and try as you might things will not always end happily. Bear in mind this was in Victorian Denmark, where a child could die from an infected cut; the only happily-ever-after they could put any faith in was eternal life in heaven, since their life on earth was unlikely to be joyful by any measure.

Today, of course, we tend to aspire to happiness in the life we have; some might blame a loss of religious faith, or a rise in materialism; some might say that happiness is a human right, something we all deserve. The sad truth is that, often, in our pursuit for a final happiness, we neglect the things that could have brought us joy long the way. We all want the perfect husband, the dream job, the bigger house … satisfaction in our day-to-day. And there could be something to be learned from these old fairytales, even today.

The ugly truth of the world is that as much bad as good happens. Often we dismiss those who recognize this as pessimists, and praise those who refuse to accept it as optimists. And whilst in many ways we create our own realities, believing only what we allow ourselves to perceive, the world goes on around us regardless, and will write you out of it if it chooses to.

Great Expectations

In December of 1860, Charles Dickens began to publish serially what is perhaps my favorite book of all time. Great Expectations is in my mind the greatest tragic romance ever written—superior even to Romeo and Juliet, as buried in the public consciousness as that other tale is. Our hero, Pip, falls in love with Estella at a young age, and for more than just beauty; he loves her for her haughtiness, her intelligence, her nobility—and despite it all, for her cruelty. And while the story winds on and centers around Pip’s life as an apprentice, the reappearance of the convict and the subsequent tragedy there, Pip’s love for Estella never wanes in the slightest. He shows no interest in marriage, or in finding love anywhere else.

The great tragedy, of course, is that Estella could never love him back. Raised from birth to destroy men and break hearts, the kindest thing she can do for him is to stay away from him for most of his life. It takes most of the novel for Pip to recognize this, and even when she marries another, he never stops loving her. Only in the final pages, after a lifetime of sorrow and separation, are they finally united without enmity.

The surprising thing is that Dickens originally wrote a substantially different ending. As it was first published, Pip briefly meets Estella in London, only to find she has remarried after the death of her first, abusive husband, and we are led to presume that Pip will bear his heartbreak to the grave. In this, we are given no respite from the overall tone of sorrow, and taught that love alone cannot triumph over all. Pip is forced to be happy for her happiness, and neglect his own for the rest of his life.

It’s a curious change, and transforms the story from tragedy to romance. What worse fate could there be in the world to bear your love, unknown, unto the ending of your life? And what greater reward than to finally win cold Estella’s heart, after a lifetime of growth and longing? I have, curiously, no preference for either ending—I would argue it depends on the mood I’m in at the time. As a rather melancholy sort, though, I suppose I would see the original ending through more often than not.

Our Own Endings

In most stories, of course, we don’t have the luxury of choosing our ending. The author, for better or for worse, chose the path to take, and we walk down it whether we like it or not. One of the most dissatisfying endings I can think of is to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. After spending four books building up our hero, Arthur Dent, tormenting him and finally allowing him some respite, he spends the fifth book ripping it all away from him, leaving him with nothing until his whole planet ends up demolished … again. I didn’t laugh much while reading Mostly Harmless.

But what of our own endings? Are we in charge of our own stories? How do our decisions influence the course of our lives? I was talking about this recently with a friend, and she postulated that while the past is written in stone, the future is still fluid and undefined. I tend to disagree—not only can the past be rewritten (I am a writer, after all!), but it also affects everything we do, today and far ahead. I could spend my life revisiting the what-ifs of my past, imagining and wondering, and allowing them to cloud my judgement today.

And if there is to be a happily-ever-after, where does it begin, and where does it end? When the prince marries the princess and drift off into the sunset, what happens the next day? The next year? What happens when they grow old? Eventually one of them is going to die, leaving the other with grief and despair. Happily-ever-after, then, is a matter of where you leave off, for no story truly ends until the final bell tolls.

And this is where we turn back to stories, because nobody wants to face that ending. From birth, we’re taught that we’ll ride off into the sunset one day, and never taught what happens when the sun rises again. Because it will—with or without us. So we escape into the only world where there is a happy ending: that of fiction. There is always truth in fiction, of course; every tale, no matter how far-fetched, is drawn from the teller’s own life and experiences. Into those stories go our joys and sorrows, our failures and triumphs, but in those stories, we choose where they end. We’re in charge of our own stories.

So where do we leave off? When do we turn the last page, close the book, and shelf it again? And can our story live on after us? At the end of The Return of the King, Sam praises Frodo for finally finishing the story of the ring. Frodo’s response? “The last pages are for you.” Can we hand over the ending of our story to someone else?

Ultimately, I believe we are both in charge of our destinies and powerless against our fate. We are the tellers of our own stories, true or fiction. We tell of our lives, and all that we are. Is The Redemption of Erâth fiction? Undoubtably. Is it based on my own experiences? Absolutely. The stories have become my way of rewriting the past, and plotting out the future. Where I go from here is anyone’s guess, yet entirely in my own hands.

But one day, the ink will run out. The last page will arrive. And unlike books, there will be no re-reading it, except in memory. So I would urge you to consider: what do you want your ending to be?

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