Happy Endings Analyzed by a Master

I’ve been thinking once again about happy endings since I’ve been spending a bit of time over on the BioWare Social Network where the grief over the end of Mass Effect 3 is still prevalent now that we have reached the one year anniversary.  Somebody said something about Tolkien talking about “illusion” so I went looking and found his essay on fairy stories.  It’s fascinating reading, and some of it went right over my head, but toward the end he talked about happy endings.  I’m going to quote a bit here because while I tried to voice my belief that they are under-appreciated, I think Professor Tolkien summed it up rather beautifully.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) (H): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

I found the entire essay here it anyone would like to read it in it’s entirety.  Tolkien_On_Fairy_Stories.htm

4 Responses to Happy Endings Analyzed by a Master

  • The entire essay is definitely worth reading, and worth linking. I read it back around 1965, not long after LotR came out in mass market paperback, when all of Tolkien’s writing was gaining a larger audience; I’ve reread it many times since.

    I think that the “happy ending” effect is a specific case (and an important one) of what could be called the poetically right ending—sometimes called “poetic justice,” but that gets interpreted moralistically, which is not what I’m thinking of. There is a passage in one of Steven Brust’s novels where a character who has lived for battle and heroism dies fighting to protect the other characters; and of course that’s a sad ending, not a “happy” one. But it’s a right ending for that character; it ends the character’s life in the most fitting way imaginable, in a way that sums up everything we’ve seen of the character previously.

    From that viewpoint, perhaps the great fault in an ending would be arbitrariness: That it’s not a natural conclusion for the character’s life and personality, but one imposed on them externally. Of course things do happen arbitrarily in many people’s lives! But I think maybe we go to art partly to see a world without that kind of arbitrariness.

  • Jenn says:

    Ah, very interesting link, bookmarked for future study. Always fascinating (to me) to read how authors themselves reason and think.

    And I concur with the ending should be both fitting but also fulfilling, within its own story. Even a sad ending can be that, but when creating fiction, why not give us that spark of happiness all too many stories in real life lack?

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    My feelings exactly. Life is hard enough without making even our fiction and entertainment bleak. As I told a class of young film students on Wednesday night — writing dark is easy. It’s where most young writers go. A happy ending requires more careful plotting and crafting, and a comedy — oh my god, those are the hardest of all to pull off.

    I’ve heard producers talk about how when they really need a great actor in a part they often go to a comic in the casting process because it’s so hard to have that comedic timing and often comic actors have a wider range then other actors.

    • Jenn says:

      Ah yes, so very true — writing dark is easy. It is like many of the X-files episodes, in my opinion, where they never explained anything. Even I could do that and I’m no author (I just like to write a bit for myself). Maybe that is why I gave up on that show fairly early…

      Interesting point about comedies — perhaps that is why so many of them, in the public eye, fail, but those that are good are indeed good. Never thought about that. Thanks for that thought too, always nice to learn and become aware of more things! 🙂

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