Welcome to my little corner of the Internet. Every Sunday I will post an update related to reading and writing, tending towards fantasy and the lighter side of science fiction, sometimes veering off into history and historical fiction.
I’ve decided to start this blog with some thoughts on endings. This Tuesday past was Veteran’s Day in the United States, so that’s been on my mind, and I was also thinking about how people choose to begin and end stories. Epic stories in particular. The bigger the story, the bigger the need for a good ending–even more than a good beginning. So the two came together, of course.
And being keyed into epic fantasy in particular, my mind arrived at J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The author imagined it as one huge, long epic, originally a sequel to The Hobbit, but as he explained the “story grew in the telling.” Frodo Baggins, the nephew and adopted heir of the previous story’s hero Bilbo Baggins, sets off on an adventure at the behest of the wizard Gandalf the Grey, eventually destroying the magical ring that his uncle acquired under suspicious circumstances some decades earlier.
In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, hobbits preferred a certain story structure. Being notorious homebodies, they told tales in which some poor hapless fellow went off on an adventure, missed a great many second breakfasts (hobbits prefer two, and why not?), and then went home again, somewhat the wiser. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in this form (he also pioneered the “found footage” trope, but that’s another story for another day), with the subtitle There and Back Again.
With that in mind, we should pay attention to the epilogue that he wrote to The Lord of the Rings, the final chapter that he called “The Scouring of the Shire.” It’s a longish chapter, well in step with the rest of the epic, and tells us what happened to the four hobbits Sam, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin after Aragorn, the prophesied lost heir, reclaimed his ancestral throne (well, thrones if you want to get technical).
Some of his readers, film director Peter Jackson among them, have dismissed this final chapter as mere whimsy. Jackson’s film trilogy ends with Aragorn’s coronation–the third volume in the trilogy is called The Return of the King” after all. Who wants to see the hobbits’ beloved Shire trashed and Saruman, played by Christopher Lee, lord over the Small Folk?
But “when the King comes back” is alluded to earlier in the story, as a hobbit saying similar to “when Hell freezes over.” But after all is said and done, the hobbits Sam, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin get their coming home story. It’s much more epic than Bilbo’s at the end of The Hobbit–we do deserve an epic denouement after such a long yarn–and it amounts to the four hobbits who embarked on this great quest and saved the world from the Big Bad Sauron setting things right in their own Shire. In their absence, the defeated and broken-down wizard Saruman and his lackey Grima Wormtongue have taken things over.
The four returning hobbits then rally their countrymen and take back the Shire from Saruman’s small army of ruffians. They use the knowledge that they gained in their journey to set things right.
So what does all this have to do with Veteran’s Day? After a long journey, through war and loss, you can go home again, but both you and home have changed, and not in all ways for the better. The hero of Tolkien’s epic, Samwise Gamgee, formerly gardener of Hobbiton, is faced with the task of putting his life back together. He marries his childhood sweetheart, and in scenes that the author left to our imagination, starts a family. There is a hobbit baby boom after the War of the Ring is over, and many of the children have golden-colored hair. For hobbits, it is important that a story go full-circle, and that’s what the author does, on purpose. And through the ending, Tolkien encapsulates what the whole damn thing was all for–both for the hobbits and for his readers.
Without it, the story is still about the defeat of Sauron, sure, but with the final chapter being what it is, we are focused again on the hobbits, that this is their story, the story of “little hands” who do great things in the world then return home to do great things. The King returns as prophesy said he would, but the point Tolkien seems to be making is what all this big stuff means to the ordinary people who went off to face it then came back again, to find themselves and the places and people they left behind changed.
As for you aspiring fantasy writers out there, epilogues are sometimes the forgotten twin to the much discussed prologue. Tolkien does not mark the last chapter in his story under that sign. It’s simply “Chapter 18: The Scouring of the Shire.” Whether you do call the last chapter “Epilogue”–or for that matter call the first one “Prologue”–it’s important to consider how you’re beginning and ending the story. For starters, it depends whether the end of the present book is the end of the story you are telling or not.
An epilogue can reveal important information, maybe from a secondary character’s point-of-view. Effective epilogues that I’ve read lately include those appearing in Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga#1) and Jim Butcher’s Academ’s Fury (Codex Alera#2). Two excellent works of epic fantasy made stronger by epilogues of the revealing sort: a secondary character makes a subtle yet profound reveal. In effect, the author is saying “I’m going to let you in on a little secret, dear reader. Don’t tell the hero but . . .” Cue dramatic music and end credits.
But if the book is the only one in a series or it’s all over, the epilogue needs to wrap things up nicely, taking in whatever loose threads still fly about in the narrative wind. Of course leaving a question or three open is not a bad strategy if one wants to leave the door open for more stories. I’ve heard that putting a baby in there somewhere towards the end helps . . .
So the question, to sum it up, fellow writers: how does the ending of your story, whether you call it the last chapter or epilogue or by some other name, bring your readers some closure–about what it was all for, the dreaded “so what?” question–and entice them to want more? Here’s where you reinforce the big ideas–love triumphs over evil (Harry Potter) or finish what you started (Codex Alera).
Of course, that’s assuming you want your reader to feel like a hobbit come home again, safe in her hobbit hole, tucking into second breakfast. You might just want to leave them feeling that they’ve just experienced some great adventure then drop them off on the side of the road to sort out what it means (if anything!) all on their own. Your call.