Hail fellow fantasy-buffs and gamers!
As a first real post I thought it would be appropriate to start off with this little series I have planned. It has no schedule to follow, but every now and then an article under that name may appear again. In this series I will compare different aspects of the Fantasy genre, including a bit of horror and sci-fi, focusing more on books and movies, but also including any other media, like games, role-playing and much more. The idea is to give my two cents on different topics that are interesting in this bountiful genre that so many share nowadays. In this occasion, I will start with the most obvious part: the ending.
Introduction: setting expectations in a story arc.
When I am confronted about the Harry Potter franchise, that finally is out of the hype it had during the movies, many people wondered why I had never watched the movies until the seventh part II (yup, division makes it look weird). To be honest, I loved the books and all, but after the third part played on the cinema, I lost all interest. But then came the true disaster that smashed any chance that I would watch the other 5 movies: the last book. When I tell people about my distaste of that final chapter in the Harry Potter saga, I usually get negative looks and the basic and most obvious question: why?
“I don’t like the ending” and “I think it was too shallow” is my usual response, which follows a huge explanation on how I view the fantasy genre and its limits. Don’t get me wrong. Many think I am a too exquisite reader and that I expect something similar to one of the greatest sagas up to now when it comes to fictional world creation: The Lord of the Rings. Actually, the answer to my disliking is not this. It would be too simplistic for me to expect for every writer to live up to the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien or even, in our days, G.R.R. Martin. Besides, I myself like to read a lot of novels I like to label “cheap fantasy”, since the stories may not be profound, but they manage to entertain me and to satisfy my need of fantastical conflicts between mythic and faeric creatures (such as the Warhammer 40K novels and the Dragonlance series)
The root of the discomfort lies within the expectations you have towards a story arc. Especially now that many of the writers tend to write long tales and in many tomes, this can be an issue. Nowadays the descriptions are ample and seem almost never to end. This creates two dangers: either you bore your public and create a ton of plot holes or, in maybe the strangest scenario, you do not live up to the expectations of the reader… and thus ruin the story in the worst moment possible: the end.
The importance of the ending… and they lived happily ever after!
The reason I did shun the Harry Potter franchise was precisely this. The ending was terribly unsatisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I still like the first 6 books… it is just the last one I can’t quite grasp as part of the whole. As an example, let us try a little experiment. I hope most of you are familiar with the classic, The Lord of the Rings, written by Tolkien and published between the years 1954 and 1955. Although not an immediate success, the book helped define the way modern fantasy is written and told. The interesting part here is that, while the first two books focus totally on the destruction of the One Ring, the third one only dedicates half of its pages to that purpose… the other half is about the return trip of the hobbits to their homes and the last trip Frodo and Bilbo take to the Undying Lands with the Elves. We even get to read about a revolution in Hobbiton and the death of Saruman who, according to the book, escaped from Isengard and wandered north to join a band of outlaws that had control of many parts of the halfling’s lands.
Let us pretend that part of the book did not exist. As a matter of a fact, let us say what a person that did not read the story would think right now: this last part is unnecessary and it does not fit the tale told so far. Why, even the movies did not include this part in its entirety!
This supposition means that we are facing the following situation: Frodo finally drops the Ring (with a little help, of course), is saved by Gandalf and everyone goes back to his own corner of Middle-Earth while Aragorn assumes his position as the rightful king of Gondor. Literally we have a proverbial “and they lived happily ever after” ending, which is satisfactory, since everyone got what they wanted. Tolkien could have chosen to stop writing that moment, still he persisted on writing and expanding on the consequences of what is known as the War of the Ring.
First off we have Frodo, the bearer of the Ring. In his travels he was literally stabbed by strange creatures (one of them being nothing less than a Ringwratih), he almost lost sanity a few times, suffered hunger, thirst, poisoning and even lost a finger in a fistfight (you know what I mean!). This whole situation must have left a terrible mark on him as a halfling. If the story would have ended with the “good ending”, all this suffering would have left a small impression. After all, he was allowed through the sacrifice to live on. But that would have made him a mediocre character. Instead the whole experience swells inside of him. In the book he becomes a leader, a person sure of himself, but he also acquires a wisdom beyond any hobbit in the Shire. On the negative side he grows weary: he is not part of his own world anymore, and the only solution to this problem is leaving Middle-Earth, as one of those fantastical creatures that are dying at the dawn of the fourth age.
Suddenly, you start to wonder if that sacrifice was worth the effort. He saved a world, but he is not the proverbial hero that will be praised for the rest of his life. And, above all, the experience leaves traces in his psychology, giving us a much more fleshed out character than we could have imagined. The Lord of the Rings has a happy ending… but it is not for all, or at least not as some people would expect it. I would even call this part of the story the real closure to the Ring; with the last vestige of its existence gone (Frodo and Bilbo), there is no more influence of it.
Second we have the Saruman problem. The movies, despite being a great adaptation (except for Faramir!!!), do the mistake of mentioning a few things despite the holes it leaves in the consistency, but not the plot. We see in the extended edition that Saruman has some leaves from one of the Farthings in Hobbinton… but no one explains why. While this may be overlooked by many moviegoers, the fans of the books most surely noticed the absence of the explanation of the existence of the leaf in Isengard. Worse yet, Saruman AND Grima are shot down by Legolas, thus eliminating any hope of explaining the apparition Merry and Pippin enjoy while waiting for Aragorn and friends. In the book, we discover that Saruman, thanks to Gandalf’s investigations, has infiltrated the Shire, where he built a small army of outlaws and also made a great deal of wealth by selling the leaf and other products the Shire had to offer, even the workforce of the Hobbits. Saruman here appears not as a person frustrated on just bending the Horselords into sumission, but also as a cunning and planning man, who had the vision to try to enslave all of Middle-Earth. The Shire seems to be his “Phase Two” in his plan. Also, his death comes not by the righteous, but it is brought by his own man, Wormtounge, who after being “forced” to eat a hobbit and admit it publicly turns on his own boss and kills him. This leads to two conclusions: that evils turns on itself and that epic scene where the spirit of Saruman can not return to the west as it is blown away by a gust of wind.
This is maybe the strongest missing scene regarding Saruman’s death. Rememeber that Gandalf, as a fellow mage and spirit of the white wizard, returns to Middle Earth after defeating the Balrog and dying. In the movie Saruman… just *thunks* against a spike on a wheel… (whoopie…). This death in the book equals Saruman to Gandalf in power, but strongly remarks his fall as a force of good as he is not permitted to go where Gandalf goes after man is left to his own business in the world. It also reinforces the feeling of the magic present in Middle-Earth, of which Saruman was part until his fall.
Finally, but not the least is the Shire. This place, although it seems like secure place, turns out to be overrun by enemies once the hobbits return from their voyage. This, again, reminds us that there are consequences to all that is happening to the world, and even the peace-loving halflings are affected by what happens around them.
The whole last part of the third book fleshes out a world even deeper than imagined. It is clear that the war was not just something bound to the south, but something threatening to cover all of Middle-Earth. And, above all, it tells us that there are consequences. Just because you beat one force of evil it does not mean that all is dead and done… and that makes the story seem whole, not just an unbelievable fairytale. This written part may seem superfluous, but this was a masterstroke by Tolkien. This way, he showed us that all of the world was connected in the War, no matter how and at what moment. And to us it gave us the answer on what happened to the “angelic” force of Saruman the White and the hobbits who had not only achieved their immediate goal, but literally and metaphorically grown as characters.
The topic is far from over. Just for the sake of trying to maintain an already long post short, I will interrupt the analysis here, but we still have to return the Harry Potter issue and to other thoughts I have. For now we have analyzed the importance of making clear that a grand event needs a consequence. I still miss open endings, since they can be a powerful storytelling tool too, as long as they are used correctly. But for now I will live this matter open for the next time I return to this series.
I hope that you have enjoyed this little rant and analysis. Feel free to comment on this if there is something on your mind, but let me remind you that this is not yet done. For the moment I will just say fare well!
May they smile upon your way!