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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  1. 1. Tim of Angle

    Well said.

  2. 2. Jenn S.

    Indeed, very well said. Happy endings always bug me a little. I like the way you put it: “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.”

    That’s the kind of story I like to read. I’ll have to check out your work.

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    And that simply doesn’t work for me. If I want an unhappy ending I read non-fiction. I don’t look to fiction to reflect the world through a perfect mirror. History or the news can give me that without even the need to suspend disbelief. I look to fiction to create a better world than the one in which we live. The truly happy ending, the impossible success, the perfect moment, these are the things that draw me into the world of fiction _because_ they’re not found nearly often enough in reality.

  4. 4. Hayley E. Lavik

    Incredibly well put, you’ve absolutely summed it up for me. I actually find the happy endings hardest to believe in fairy tales, because they’re often so removed from reality, it really does feel like it ends there. A little bitter with the sweet makes a story linger all the more, and makes it memorable.

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    Tim, Jenn – Thanks!

    Kelly – we’ll just have to agree to differ on that one. I am NOT saying I want apocalyptic fiction and nothing else, that everything has to be dark and dreary and dingy – I like love and light and laughter just as much as the next human being.

    It just doesn’t spell “the end” to me.

    When I’m reading fairy tales, and they’re identified as such, then fine, because they invented the happily-ever-after. But in “fiction”, in general, using the wide brush with which you have used in your comment and which includes non-fairy-tale stories – if it’s to be real and true to me it’s got to live by certain rules, and while I don’t mind those rules WEIGHTING to the light and lovely the only reason the ending of a book should be all about pink unicorns is if you’ve really truly set up that as the basis of your story – that achievement of pink unicorns is the be-all and the end-all of the tale. And that… just doesn’t have the drama and the complexity that I crave from a book.

    I need something that FEELS true, even if we’re talking fiction. And by “true” I mean something that casts a shadow when it steps into the light. The knowledge that there is always a shadow. And the courage to turn and look into it, if that is necessary.

  6. 6. simon@kins

    Surely the story should dictate the character of the ending. There are “Happily Ever After” narratives, after all. There are those stories that tell the truth, but put a flower on it. As a reader, I enjoy audacious ideas; I enjoy not being able to classify and predict a story’s path after reading the first paragraph.
    =S=

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    Alma, I chose a wide brush because of this: “There is no such thing as a happy ending. Tolkien knew this…” which reads as a pretty absolute statement to me. I am perfectly okay with the idea that some fiction can be dark and depressing and that’s wonderful. I am much less okay with the idea that anything that has a happy ending can’t be a true story. It’s a statement that puts happy ending fiction in the box of the lesser as an absolute value and I am simply incapable of letting that pass unchallenged.

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    I think that happily ever after works so well for so many people because it does feel emotionally true to a lot of people even if it is a great rarity in the real world. I don’t think that people would get so much joy out of the happy ending if they felt that they simply aren’t possible.

    I’m sorry if I came on too strong there. I have no problem with the descriptive statement “happy endings don’t work/feel true to me.” It is the proscriptive statement “happy endings don’t work/aren’t true” and the implication that real writers don’t do that that induces in me a strong negative response, and that is how I read a good bit of your post. If that was not your intention, I must apologize again.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Also, I’m not sure that the true cost-free happy ending exists in any quantity in modern fiction. I may be wrong and there may be a zillion examples I’ve never read, but looking quickly over the 1000+ titles in my f&sf library—the vast majority of which—are happy ending books, I’m not seeing a single one that is cost-free or that implies that the words the end mean the screen fades to black. Is this really a phenomena that you run into a lot?

  10. 10. glenda larke

    I think where I weigh in on this one is somewhere in between. I don’t necessarily write a happy or a tragic ending. I’ve done both. What I do write is an ending that offers hope, that is somehow upbeat – my tragedies are never all-encompassing. I am with Alma in that I don’t like the unrealistic happy-happy ever-after. That to me is not hopeful at all – it is too unlikely.

    There is so much that is sad and wretched in our real world, I think we – as readers – need to be served a slice of hope, of the upbeat, a feeling that there are good places to be out there, ones the characters – at least the ones that are there at the end of the book! – can strive for and succeed in attaining.

  11. 11. Liane Merciel

    I only see true happy-happy endings these days in romance, where it’s a near-ironclad requirement of the genre that the hero and heroine must end up together and happy at the end. Those do, sometimes, veer into the saccharine: secondary characters also end up in lovebird pairs, a heroine who pined for children turns out not to be infertile after all, a secondary love interest manages to knock him-/herself out of the running by secretly being a Bad Person and not a worthy rival at all, etc. Stack enough of those improbable flukes together and it gets pretty implausible.

    But I don’t see a lot of pure happy endings elsewhere, and even in romance, the modern trend is to at least nod toward the costs of achieving the main characters’ happy endings. So, while I agree with the general sentiment expressed in this post, the happy-happy ending seems like a bit of a strawman as applied to current fiction. As Kelly pointed out, it’s just not something you see very often anymore.

  12. 12. Alma Alexander

    Liane (and Kelly) – I”m not particularly railing about the idea in CURRENT FICTION. Just against the general IDEA. But for the record this particular post was written after I read a recent (very recent – I read an ARC for review purposes) book which I really liked except for the ending which felt oddly contrived – I believe the way I put it in the review is that the ending felt like something that Disney would tack on after they had bought the movie rights. So yeah, it still happens sometimes. I’m not saying it happens all the time – but if I trip on it hard enough to fall and hurt myself, then yes, I’ll squawk.

    I’m not saying at all that hey, since everything is already dark and dank and dreary and unpleasant in the Real World (TM) then of course it has to be so in fiction. But happy happy joy joy endings really DO belong in fairy tales (and romances, okay, which are the modern equivalent thereof anyway) and if there isn’t a bit of shadow in the overwhelming glowing light of a book’s joyous finale I… miss its presence. Shadows make light brighter for me, NOT the other way around.

  13. 13. glenda larke

    That last point of yours is a great comment. Shadows do make the rest look brighter. In life, too.

  14. 14. Elias McClellan

    Shadows make the light brighter and I believe the ‘happy’ is subjective. My real world is not 100% blighted and ugly and it’s not 100% happy-happy, joy-joy. My real world is overwhelmingly mundane with little insults, injuries, and pleasures.

    I look for a balance in the work I read and the work I attempt to produce. A good beginning is imparative to a story. But the ending cannot short-change the reader with a tack-on, happy conclusion, (Hannibal anyone) or a tack-on ‘poignant’ conclusion. KS Robinson’s ‘Years of Rice and Salt’ comes immediately to mind but there are so many authors that have gotten me invested in a story/character to end it ‘sadly’ for the sake of realism.

    I’ve just come across the counter with my hard earned jack. Based on your premiss, I’ve suspended disbelief. I’ve tolerated redundancy, plot-holes, and insults to my feeble intelegence. And now, at the end, you want to be ‘real.’ If I wanted real, I would read newspapers, while they’re still around. Or watch CNN and wonder how much is influenced by sponsors.

    In short, I’m stocked-up on real. I want to think and learn and be entertained, thoughtfully.

  15. 15. Rachel Heston Davis

    I don’t think happy endings (particularly in fantasy or fairy stories) are supposed to be a reflection of HOW LIFE GOES FOR MOST PEOPLE. I think they’re a reflection of what people want to believe about THE ULTIMATE OUTCOME OF LIFE. In other words, they’re a symbolic picture what we think life should mean at the end of the day.

    Ideas of Western culture have been vastly shaped for the last two thousand years by the story of Christianity. Christianity asserts that in the end there will be a great battle (i.e. the “cost” or the “climax”) followed by good winning out over evil once and for all, and the new heaven and new earth reinstating an ideal existence. Thus, Western stories tend to favor a model in which the good guys fight a terrible battle but then, in the end, bad stuff really is gone for good.

    Most people believe at least some version of this general idea about life, which is why we crave happy endings.

    Rachel Heston Davis
    Up and Writing
    http://www.rachelhestondavis.wordpress.com

  16. 16. Alma Alexander

    Elias – I think I need another couple of cups of coffee before I can function as a fully sentient human, but I can’t quite figure out if you’re agreeing with what I said or beating me upside the head with a clue bat. Taking your post as a reference, yes, I dislike “tacked on” endings of EITHER kind (and I read “Years of Rice and Salt” quite a while ago so I don’t recall details but I do seem to remember that whereof you speak – although I had more problems with that book than just the ending…) Yes, “entertaining thoughtfully” is what I aim for when I write my own stories… but for ME, that “thoughtfully” has to include a dose of verisimilitude. No, we don’t need “reality” in a fantasy story, not the one we ourselves live in, I won’t be mentioning our current wars or environmental tragedies or cultural dramas. But for and within the context of the story, there has to be darkness with the light… INTERNAL truth, INTERNAL reality, intrinsic to the story itself. That’s what makes it a thoughtful ending, for me. Thank you for your comment.

    Rachel – I don’t possess sufficient hubris to even pretend to be writing about the “ultimate outcome of life”. I am writing about a specific little slice of that life, a period of days, weeks, months, possibly years – occasionally (in epic fantasies) writers will deal with a stretch of centuries – but then life goes on, before that slice of life of which we write, and after it. So there is nothing “ultimate” about it at all. And perhaps it IS just that I am Eastern-born – Eastern Europe, that is – and that’s enough to make me respond in different ways to a “happy end” mandate hammered out by, as you say, the West. Out where my own ancestors’ bones are buried, we don’t trust happily-ever-after. We’ve never known it.

  17. 17. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Alexander, I think I need a cup from your pot. Please, please, please forgive me if I ever gave the impression that I had a clue, much less a clue bat.

    I see both sides of the coin/mask. I’m from TX. I’m obsessed with good vs bad and who gets to assign. So I’m conflicted and a little punchy about everything related. So of course (again) I’m frustrated with tack-ons of any sort. I loved the fact that Frank Herbert wasn’t ever going to give me a happy ending in any Dune novel. I loathe that the hacks, I mean, Mr Anderson and Mr Herbert, the younger, are determined to do nothing else.

    My contention is that the punishment should fit the crime. A protagonist/antagonist should end the journey/story profoundly changed. There should be gains as well as loses proportionate to their journey if not their deeds. None of this should come at the expense of the story and NEVER at the expense of the reader who invests money, time, and (in my immature case) emotion in these characters.

    For that matter, the worst of all offenses is the trailed off, ran out of gas, couldn’t miss another deadline ending a la KS Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I prefer a flawed but declarative (Hannibal and Clarice on the Beach) ending to an ‘eh, what the hell,’ (does anyone remember Blue Mars?) ending.

  18. 18. Alma Alexander

    Elias – here’s a cup of virtual coffee on me [grin]

    And I agree with everything you’re saying.

  19. 19. Rachel Heston Davis

    Alma, you make a very good point. I think most fiction writers are looking to write about a piece of life, not the overall outcome of life in general. I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that every fiction writer is trying to write a meta-narrative about the meaning of life.

    I’m just saying that people tend to interpret stories through the lens of what they believe about life overall. A Westerner raised in a heritage of happy-ending life theology is more likely to accept a happy ending story as true. As you point out, people of Eastern descent who have a different worldview might see the ending as cheesy. It’s not that the writer is writing about a comprehensive worldview, it’s that the reader’s worldview colors everything they read.

    This has got to be the most thought-provoking discussion on the issue I’ve read in awhile.

    Rachel

  20. 20. Frances Hunter

    Alma, thanks for your great thoughts. I totally agree about happy endings! I admit I don’t like a bleak and hopeless ending.The great endings are those in which the characters win a great prize: love, wisdom, peace, hope, faith. And that great prize comes at a great price.

  21. 21. peacerenity

    I have to take issue with your comment about Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings, and urge you to take an alternate view of the scouring of the shire. true, the scouring of the shire shows us that there is no such thing as a happy ending, that evil will always persist in the world. this is part of the reason why many people have interpreted tolkien’s work as an allegory for world war ii, even though tolkien himself stated that he hated allegories: the downfall of hitler did not lead to the end of all wars, as we know. but on the other hand, the scouring of the shire is DREADFULLY anti-climactic from a storytelling point of view. the climax of the book is the destroying of the ring; to do as tolkien did, and go meander for another hundred pages may be illuminating, but it destroys the pacing of the story.

    peter jackson made a very controversial decision to cut out two entire books out of the trilogy: the one involving tom bombadil and the one involving the scouring of the shire. he did this because he believed, quite correctly, that audiences, especially ones who hadn’t read tolkien, would react with “wtf?” to this kind of long, protracted, anti-climactic ending.

    as for happy endings, i suppose that’s a matter of opinion. i think most people read to be entertained: they’re not interested in the author’s pedestrian views on the meaning of life, or even a particular aspect of it. to me, the purposeful insertion of an author’s or a director’s personal views has only one purpose: to inflate the author’s ego by spouting their viewpoint in a soapbox they’ve constructed. and a big part of being entertained by fiction is indulging in something that doesn’t always exist in real life: the assurance of a happy ending emerging from the darkness. people know that real life isn’t like that, that’s part of why they are living a vicarious life through fiction to begin with. to have an unhappy ending in fiction is, as a general rule, not artistic or realistic, but obnoxious and ultimately unfulfilling.

    so i guess the main question is whether or not you write for yourself or you write for your readers.

  22. 22. Alma Alexander

    peacerenity: Thanks for the comment – the fact that this discussion is still alive and kicking is amazing, and there’s ALWAYS room for more ideas.

    You may choose to take issue with me on Jackson, and that’s perfectly fine – but I don’t think that the Scouring is “dreadfully anticlimactic” at all, on any level. You may notice that I am not saying, and have NEVER said, a word on Jackson’s decision to drop Bombadil – even in a literary sense, in the books, I found him a distraction and a detour and that is when he wasn’t annoying me in other ways (I tend to think of him, post-StarWars ep 1, as the Jar Jar Binks of Tolkien;s universe). He was barely defensible in the books, despite Tolkien’s outspoken affection for him, and he was definitely not movie material. But the ending that Jackson DID choose for his movies – Frodo’s departing for the West – makes full sense only in the context of that Scouring (“The Shire has been saved, Sam, but not for me.”) If Jackson wanted to skip the Scouring then he should have ended the movies at the classic insipit “and they lived happily ever after” royal wedding in Gondor, and faded to black gracefully as the cheers for the King and Queen still echoed off the screen. But no, he chose to go down the deeper pjilosophical part of the story… leaving out the depth. All we got out of that tearful farewell was a grafted-on invitation to shed a few crocodile tears at the final parting of ways.

    But I need a better reason to cry than that. Even healing tears.

    I am not advocating that everything has to end in tragedy – not by a long shot. But LOTR was a deeply complex book (set of books?), and Jackson’s interpretation of the work made like a skipping stone thrown by a skillful hand across a still pond. It hit the water – hit the high points – bounced a respectable number of times, enough to command acknowledgment – but never EVER “got” the deeper story at all. The movies were very pretty… and they had lost all of Tolkien’s soul.

    I did not demand a happy ending – but for THOSE movies I would have almost preferred to be left at the wedding feast. Because Jackson never quite managed to make me believe that I was doing more than watching pretty pictures.

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Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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