In One of Tolkien’s widely recognized essays “On fairy stories” he emphasized that the happy ending, the “eucatastrophe”, is an essential element of Fantasy, necessary for it to fulfill its major functions: Recovery, Escape, Consolation. It is ironic then, that fantasy finds it’s roots deep in mythology. The themes in the two genre’s are distinctly different.
While Fantasy is optimistically uplifting, mythology is largely tragic and filled with themes like, unrequited love, revenge and the triumph of deception. The gods of Rome and Greece were as greedy and spiteful as any human could be. The heros of Celtic myths often died horrible and tragic deaths. These tales of oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation, resulted in a corruption of the original story – biased by the times and circumstances of the teller. As texts began to appear in place of oral tradition and an authors tale was safe from corruption. Heroes like Ulysses were born.
This does not mean that all fantasy is true love and avenged wrongs. The idea of the tragic hero is still very much alive. Russian tales are still very dark and Asian stories are full of martyrs and unrequited love. Japan thrives on fantasy and science fiction. Their Manga and Anime reflect uncertain and even tragic endings of unfulfilled dreams and incomplete quests.
There may be a connection between the happy ending and the history of the country the tale evolves from. In Great Britain, during an uncertain outlook on the future, with the scars of WWI barely healed and the horrors of WWII haunting him, Tolkien created the Lord of the Rings. There’s no real ending in it at all. The uncertainty of the nation reflected in his conclusion – hopeful, but not happy. It’s for this reason I can never put LOTR in my top ten. Even with the appendices it feels unfinished.
American film and book publishers alike are more likely to demand a happy ending before funding can even be considered. It is not unusual to find the popular fantasy media reflect the same expectations of the consumers. People around the world call American’s arrogant, but perhaps they are not so arrogant as people think. I believe they are “blissfully optimistic.” It reflects in their media. Bestselling novels, top ten movies, number one t.v. show proliferate in this atmosphere. Where the “American dream” is not only possible but expected we see optimistically happy and even comedic Fantasy like Xanth and Shanarra. David Eddings Belgariad had a very similar theme and context as LOTR, with a history almost as complete and complex, but in Belgariad we end with a wedding, not a parting. It feels right that the hero should not only enjoy the fruits of his labors, but that the story end on a happy note. Not an ending… but a new and *hopeful* beginning.
To want a happy endings in movies or novels reflects the desire for it in ones own life. Man is forever seeking for signs of hope in his future. It is natural that he would continue to seek hope out in other venues. This is what draws fantasy fans into the genre.
I like fantasy fans. Which makes sense since I am one. There is something eternally optimistic in the genre that appeals to me and the thousands of fans like me. It’s the “happily ever after” we all crave in real life that makes us come back again and again to fantasy novels. The uplifting themes like: true love conquers all, is what we crave. We live in the real world. We know there is injustice and corruption. We know there is evil. What we want from fantasy is what we want from the real world, true love, justice, integrity and good.
There is something so incomplete in an “unfinished” or tragic ending. It’s not the fact that happy endings breed sequels that makes us love them, it’s that “ahhhhh” feeling that lets you sleep at night. Disney has a song: “It’s a great big beautiful tommorow.” That attitude shaped Disney’s classic flims, based entirely on fairy tales and legends. It allowed the studio to outsell any competing movie ten to one and made Disney a name no one in the world can escape. Personally – I’m glad the Little Mermaid gets her prince in the end. Their optomistic view is something Fantasy fans share.
I like happy endings that make you smile wide and toothy while you are finishing the last paragraph in the book or watching the closing credits in a movie. And that is what makes me a fantasy fan.
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