Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happily ever after?, part three

Part one is here and part two is here.

An interesting counterpoint to these examples—one that, I think, ultimately supports my thinking—is The Lord of the Rings. If ever there were a saga for which a neat, finalizing ending would be appropriate, it surely would be Tolkien's epic. After all, it's built around a quest and a war: complete the quest and win the war, and the saga is surely concluded. Tolkien gives us what we want, a big, dramatic ending followed by the crowning of Aragorn. The story should end there . . . but Tolkien seems to chafe at that idea. Evil, after all, is never vanquished, good never eternally triumphant, because as Crowley and Powell would surely agree, life—even in this fantasy world—still has to go on.

So instead of The End, Tolkien gives us The Scouring of the Shire. I don't think it's a successful chapter; it's a bit goofy and awkward after all the grand heroics. But it leads directly into what I think is one of Tolkien's most inspired ideas, the sailing of the heroes to the Grey Havens: after some years back at home, attempting to live an ordinary life, Frodo is called away across the sea to a place out of time and—more important—out of the story. For in the course of his adventures he was irrevocably changed, becoming, in a sense, infected with magic, poisoned by the realization that he was a character in a story that has now run its course. Made into a hero, he finds that with his quest over he cannot return to the continuing life of the world:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. . . . You will . . . keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on.
Tolkien’s writing here in keeping with the mythical tradition that requires the death of magic in order for the new, modern world to be born; in addition, it's plausible that he's writing from personal experience about war and the difficulty of a return to normal life. But I think he’s also writing about the vacuum that any fulfilled purpose can leave: having realized what one is to do and done it can leave ordinary life itself feeling like an insurmountable struggle. Tolkien thus manages to satisfy our deep-rooted desire for a saga to have a clear ending while at the same time reminding us that few stories can be so neat. In Middle-Earth, the Grey Havens await those whose stories have run their course, but such rest is not available to the other characters, nor to us: our stories having no clear end, we will simply go on living them.

Even as they divide fans, I think all of these examples argue strongly for the open-ended and indefinite. Perhaps it's just a product of my childhood of reading comic books—surely at this point the longest-running open-ended narrative form—with their eternal promise of a new chapter of the story every month, but I think Aegypt, Dance, and (I imagine, sight unseen) The Sopranos are all surely richer for their creators' willingness to abjure the clarity of a definite ending.

I do realize that this openness is just another storytelling technique. It's as much an illusion as perfect closure would be--but I wholeheartedly prefer it nonetheless, finding it at least a shade closer to true. Plato distrusted art in part because he worried that we would get wrapped up in its illusions and let them blind us to reality. This particular illusion seems the opposite of blinding—I have a hard time believing that any illusion designed to return our thoughts to the inexplicable continuity and multiplicity of real life can ever do anything but deepen, widen, and strengthen our appreciation of the world. What better use could be made of the imagination?

So in lieu of an end, I'll leave you with some Robert Burton, the passage from The Anatomy of Melancholy that Powell makes for Nick Jenkins a sort of key and touchstone:
Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, tomorrow of some great men deposed, and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh: he thrives, his neighbour turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c. This I daily hear, and such like, both private and public news, amidst the gallantry and misery of the world; jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour and integrity, mutually mixed and offering themselves.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful series of posts! And you end on Burton — another of my favorites! (But maybe: People who like Burton also like Powell??)