Jun 28, 2011

Two Hearts: My Views on Perfect Endings

It isn't a secret that I adore The Last Unicorn beyond all rational and sane levels of adoration. This is the book on which I formed my ideals of what a good story should be. It gave me the idea that bad things bring good things, that what seem like endings are actually beginnings, that it's never too late to see your unicorn, and generally inspired a lot of artwork and hero worship. If I were to select one book that is the most personal to me, this would be it.

So when I say that I only just now got around to reading the sequel, Two Hearts, I don't want you to think that I'm a liar about my love of the story. I bought it years ago, meaning to read it right away. Only... I couldn't bring myself too do it. You see, TLU is my definition of a perfect ending. There is victorious triumph and glorious heartbreaking sorrow all wrapped into a perfect moment and given life within perfect dialogue. And so I couldn't bring myself to read the 'what happened next' bit. What if it was the happy ending that ruined the whole point of the original story? Even if I disliked it enough to deny to myself that it was a part of the story, I could never un-read it. It would be forever in my head, potentially destroying something that meant so much to me.

But at last I gathered up courage and turned the page.

I still can't call it an ending to Amalthea's story. How can you end the story of something eternal? Her quest was over when she turned to go back to her forest, I think. There is no more ending that she requires. I could call it the end of Lir's story, but I think perhaps that too happened already by the time this story is told. And this feels much larger than the end of something as simple as the story of a character whose great victories and tragedies have already been told.

In many of the longer fantasy series, there is a progression of ages. Ages of prosperity and ancient magic give way to ages of heroes overcoming great challenges that in turn give way to more mundane ages where simpler heroes hang on to magic and legends past - fighting for their return or simply using them as a means to defeat whatever trial is threatening the age they inhabit. And so on. But the change from one age to the next is seldom ever shown in fiction. Oh, Tolkien added it into footnotes if you know where to look, though he was never an overly emotional writer (however lovely his words), and C.S. Lewis included only the briefest hint of characters from one age expressing shock at the changes in the next, but even then it is glazed over as unimportant. In fact, the only time I have ever read about the moments that turn a world from one age to another are the ones that start ages of restoration. The moments that are themselves the triumphs of the story. The turning from ages of heroes to ages of ordinary life when great quests are forgotten as anything other than tales for children is never shown. One assumes that they are so simple and so gradual as to have no defining moment whatsoever.

Two Hearts is, I think, a story that proves this assumption wrong. I don't wish to give too much of the story away, but it is only fair to warn you that this ending is utterly and entirely heartbreaking. I managed to read it through and place the book gently aside before starting my twenty minutes of quiet sobbing, but I think it was managed by the great fear of water damage on the pages that only a former librarian can muster. It was utterly devastating. And utterly, completely, unbelievably perfect.

The story is written through the eyes of a character new to readers of the original book. A trick which made the tale possible to tell, I think. There is a single moment - appropriately resting on a unicorn's decision - which feels, to me, like the final bell rung at the death of some great and wonderful age. And the birth of another. Because this single, perfect, soul-rending moment where the reader understands is not the end of the story. Efforts to hold back tears and not cover pages in salty wrinkles and snot subside into a small flickering of hope for what will come - whether it's something that will ever be written or not is absolutely unimportant. If there are no happy endings because nothing ends, then there are no sad endings for the same reason.

So, yes, in the end I am glad to know the way the story continues. It was not, perhaps, what many were hoping for. I know many, many people that believe very firmly that happy endings are the only way to end such a tale. But for me, this is so very right that it's hard to describe. It is perfect because it is an ending - not to one thing or even one story, but to many things and many stories - that hurts. That means something. That will be, can be, must be held and cherished and pondered and pulled out to be studied on a personal and individual level. But it is also right for not being an ending at all but a beginning to... something. And perhaps it's right that the readers are left, for now at least, to imagine on their own what that something might be. That is the happy ending for me - the promise of beginning that overshadows pain.

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