September 5th 2009
Happily Ever After…
The first book I ever had published was a collection of three fairy tales* of the Oscar Wilde-ian kind – the sort in which there is a thread of sadness, even tragedy, weaving through the story and there is no scene where the Prince and the Princess are left in a rosy glow at their wedding feast waiting for Ever After to come and get them.
A good friend phoned me, after having finished these stories, and said somewhat irately, “Haven’t you ever HEARD of a happy ending?”
The truth of it is… I’ve HEARD of them. But I learned early to question them. In order for someone to win, somebody else usually has to lose – and then it becomes a question of WHOSE happy ending we are talking about, why is that person’s happy ending more important than this other person’s (who might have lost something that can never be regained by virtue of the fact that the first person has achieved their own goals) – and from there it’s one short step to learning the grown-up lesson that history is always written by the winners of the battles and the losers have to step back and either endure a version of their lives/culture/history which is incompatible with their own perceptions (and often have to cope with being forgotten by the future in the process) or else fight against this, and get obliterated for real as the winners (who cannot afford to have their own version of events questioned) take care of the squeaky wheel, as it were.
I don’t really believe in the happy ending. In my early reading, few of the old myths had them; when I graduated to fairy tales I tended to prefer Hans Christian Andersen’s dystopias than ache to be in Cinderella’s wedding party – I might have cried bitter tears at the fate of the Little Mermaid (the ORIGINAL Little Mermaid, not Disney’s red-haired sea princess with a chorus of singing sea slugs) but somehow I had more in common with her than I ever had with Sleeping Beauty. I mean, I might not have grown up with a spindle in my hand either, but I think I could be kind of trusted to see a damned sharp point if one came under my hand, and I would like to think (faery curses aside) that I would have the motherwit not to impale myself on one.
Both kind of fairy tale endings hinge on a sort of fate or destiny – Maleficent’s curse or the Little Mermaid’s desire to walk on dry land no matter what the cost – but the difference in my head between the Sleeping Beauty tale and that of the Little Mermaid is that Sleeping Beauty almost literally sleepwalks her way through her life (the curse is something that WILL HAPPEN, no matter what she does or thinks about it) and the Little Mermaid makes her own choices, lives with her own pain, and finally turns her back on the dearly-bought salvation that her sisters have paid for because it is not her OWN choice, her OWN destiny. One of these protagonists is in control of her own life. The other is not. I saw the difference.
Yes, I grew up on Disney, like everyone else. My childhood was shaped by the animated versions of Aurora and of Snow White and of Cinders. But when I grew up… I began to ask for more. And when I grew up enough to read “Snow, Glass, Apples” (Neil Gaiman’s version of “Snow White”) I knew that I had understood the fairy tale lesson, a long time ago.
There is no such thing as a happy ending. Tolkien knew this – a writer who had not understood this concept could not have ended “Lord of the Rings” with such a terrifyingly truthful story like the Scouring of the Shire (and Jackson’s adaptation of the book into the saccharinely-ended movie shows that he has NOT understood this fact at all). Ursula Le Guin understands this perfectly (for an outstanding example, go re-read “The ones who walk away from Omelas”).
The best we can hope for is a resolution, and perhaps an epiphany – and, yes, love of good people along the way. But gaining that love should not, CANNOT, be the be-all and the end-all of a relationship. The wedding, in real life, is not the end of a story. It’s the beginning of one. When the night falls on the festivities of the wedding celebration, there is a dawn coming – the first day of the MARRIAGE. And the rest of one’s life is always more hard work than the glitter of a royal wedding can ever prepare you for.
Tragedy and comedy are both equal partners in the storyteller’s life. They are the two masks depicted as Theatre; the same coin, two different faces, and they nearly always go hand in hand. Sometimes the smile that comes through the tears – the more hardily won – is the far more treasured one than the simple grin that comes from simple pleasures.
What can be a happy ending? The knowledge that you have done what had to be done, what needed to be done, and that although sometimes the price of this can be high that you were strong enough to pay it. The knowledge that sometimes there is nothing that you can do at all – but you are left with the fact that you know that you have tried. Sometimes the happy ending is not one of coming together, but one of letting go – and often this is hard to wrap one’s head around. Sometimes the happy ending is choosing to walk away, knowing that things will become more difficult because of that choice, but having a clean and shining place in one’s spirit because of that leaving, something that you would never have known about – or, worse, would have had to consciously abandon – if you had chosen to stay.
In the end the happiest of all endings is to get to know yourself and what sort of road you are travelling on.
When it comes to writing, and characters, this is an important thing to know. Sometimes it’s an easy out to let a character “settle” for something, and perhaps think that he or she is happy – but a truly self-aware character would have at least a suspicion that when something isn’t “the end” then it can’t be a happy ending and most stories go on around their protagonists, before AND after the reader comes on board, and the best we can do is manage a happy ending to a segment of a life, a nice sunset at the tail end of a tale, the curtains drawn over a wild celebration (but with a glimpse that there is more living to come after this). And a truly happy ending is never won easily – these come expensive, and the characters, in order to value them, have to know that there will be a price on all this somewhere, sometime. There is always a piper, and he will always have to be paid in the end. Perhaps the only possible happy ending there could possibly be is that when that time comes you (or your characters in this instance) will have what it takes to pay for that slice of happiness – and pay that price willingly, in full knowledge and appreciation of what it has purchased.
The past is a memory. The future is often an uncertain dream, and “happily ever after” is a nebulous concept; “forever” gets shorter every day. But there is always the now – this moment, this particular drop of sun on this particular day, a time and a place to snatch at happiness for at least a little while.
Be happy – right now. There’s a happy ending.
* The book is called “The Dolphin’s Daughter and Other Stories”, published by Longman when I was still Alma Hromic; you can see the cover <a href=”http://www.almaalexander.com/biblio.php”>here</a>, and it’s occasionally available from Amazon.com, and certainly from Amazon.co.uk, if you’re interested in taking a look…
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Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.
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