Tragic themes and other whatnot

I read two excellent blog posts recently. China Mieville’s one on Tolkien, and James Van Pelt’s one on George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

And, as good posts always do, they got me thinking. And that usually means a long post here, so be warned…

(It also means I will probably end up stating the obvious, or things that everyone else thought of ages ago, so bear with me, smile and nod etc. You can talk about me behind my back later on, ‘k?)
What I ended up thinking about is tragedy.

And whether we shy away from tragedy in our stories. We like our happily ever afters. Our neatly wrapped up Hollywood endings. Our final kiss.

And yet…

So many of the “bigger” stories, for want of a better word, don’t end up that way. Not better stories, I’ll hasten to add. But the sweeping tales, the ones which resonate with us and last. Many of them don’t have that pat ending, that neat wrap up where, as Miss Prism said, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Or if they do, they get there by means of great tragedy and personal sacrifice.

Is it the case that we’re not as geared up for those sort of endings anymore? I don’t think that’s the case, as the end of Game of Thrones and its phenomenal popularity attests.

I’m in a bit of a weird situation in that I write both fantasy and romance. A happy ending is kind of a pre-requisite for a romance. But that to me doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be trials and tribulations in order to get there. On the contrary, the happy ending is all the more sweet if it has taken effort to reach it, if there has been a real sense of “there is no way this can be resolved” before somehow, it is.

Perhaps its coming from Ireland. Tragedy is a major player in Celtic legends, no matter what the source or derivation. Cuchullain, Diarmuid and Grainne, Deirdre and the sons of Usna, Bran and Branwen, Blodeuwedd and Tristan and Isolde. Even Arthur himself. Not a hint of a happy every after among the lot of them.

I like a story that brings me to tears. I like a story that brings me to tears and then makes me feel good again, so that even if the loss is very great indeed there is a small comfort in that it has been for a purpose.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Tragic themes and other whatnot

  1. Hi 🙂
    Another terrific blog.
    I admit I was shocked at the Game of Thrones books and that endeared them to me all the more. Same with Tad Williams Dragonbone series. And Kate Elliott’s Prince of Dogs series. Each of which shocked/surprised me, and stuck with me. Sometimes a “happy ending” is just a cop-out and we, the readers, know it. Sometimes the hero or heroine doesn’t live happily ever after (Frodo had to leave).
    Still, it depends upon the book and what is true to that book.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Love From Canada

  2. Dear R. F.,

    I have also heard the unhappy ending decried by literary agents such as Donald Maas. In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, he pretty much guarantees no book that isn’t happy enough will ever be a bestseller.

    But tragedy can be very moving. I for one could go for some tragic stories over the usual forced happy ending ones if you know what I mean.

  3. On my livejournal, where this is cross-posted, one of my friends (the wonderful Brian Dolton) posted about a “satisfying” ending, rather than a necessarily “happy” ending, with examples from film such as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. I think he makes a good point.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like a happy ending too. But I’d like it to mean something and I find I tend to get more out of them if they are tinged by sorrow.

  4. That’s quite interesting that you blogged about this. Just this morning I posted on mine about how Asian stories never have happy endings. It’s as if in the Asian tradition, death and suffering make people examine the human condition more closely.

    But happiness is a human condition too! Pain just digs deeper and people tend to hold onto it longer – in life and in prose. So a sad ending makes us feel that the characters are unsafe and we continue to worry about them. A happy ending gives us that momentary high, but then we move on. What a downright, dirty trick, plucking at our heart strings that way! 🙂

    1. Great minds think alike! LOL! 🙂

      It had not occured to me, but of course you are right. Very few HEAs in the Asian stories I know.

      Funny, I mentioned King Arthur above and I’m currently watching the 2004 King Arthur film (yes, yes I know but I like it), and they swing it to give Arthur a happy ending. Of course, Lancelot and Tristan end pretty miserably.

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