All the Best Stories Are Endings

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

“Closing Time,” Semisonic

“There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

Sometimes, someone articulates an idea that has been rattling around in your brain with such simple clarity, that it unlocks a new way of looking at familiar things. That’s what Darren Mooney did in The Escapist Magazine when he said that all of The Lord of the Rings is one big ending.

There is an apocalyptic, or at least fin de siècle, mood I find in my favorite fantasy and science fiction stories. There was a time before the story–an age of legends, of miracles–suffused with an air of wonder and long-lost magic. Much of that era is lost. The time period of the current story is one in decline, and even under threat. But heroism and sacrifice can change the trajectory toward a new Golden Age. To extend on Mooney’s claim, perhaps all stories are endings. And all stories are beginnings, too.

The Lord of the Rings referenced the bygone glories for elves, dwarves, men, and Ents, and subsequent (and posthumous) texts elaborated on this history. When the original Star Wars trilogy came out, the Jedi of the Republic and the Clone Wars were only tantalizing references. The Wheel of Time teased readers with a prologue set millennia in the past, and littered the landscape with artifacts of history-that-became-myth. A Song of Ice and Fire referenced a past age of heroes, magic, fae folk, and dragons, when magic was strong. In all these stories, there is a hope that by bringing the current, moribund Age to an end, there will be new possibilities for wonder in the future–even if the main characters won’t be there to see it. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but it was for Joshua to bring them into Canaan. Frodo boarded a ship in the Grey Havens to sail into the West, but baby Eleanor inherited the new pastoral paradise of the Shire.

In an article for the fan site Dragonmount, I wrote about how various stories used prologues and epilogues–the stories around the main story–to enrich the world and give the readers and viewers a place to imagine around the periphery, to collaborate on the world-building.

Most of the past and future glories of these stories exist in the audience’s imagination alone. (Or they did, before franchise expansion filled every gap.) These contextual stories were crafted as “head canon” (as opposed to written canon) through just enough detail for the engaged mind to fill in the gaps. The story never really ends so long as there is opportunity for headcanon. And, as The Wheel of Time contends, there is no one beginning either. Stories are only windows into a world, and the worlds we love convince us that there is more to see beyond the borders of the window pane. (My biggest gripe with Star Wars VII-IX was that it overturned The Return of the Jedi’s ostensible end-of-an-era. The First Order was no different from the Empire in any way that mattered. Luke’s victory and Vader’s redemption didn’t matter at all.)

I wrote an experimental short story, “Epilogue to a Lost Epic,” around the notion that a story–in its entirety–can be but an ending. It is written as an epilogue. Its preceding epic is unwritten, but the story drops enough tropes and details to let its readers construct a headcanon, and provides hints of the future epic. In this way, it’s also a prologue. The story itself is a liminal stretch–but to its protagonist, this is the story that’s important. It’s his closure, even if the world goes on. I wrote another story, “The Old Ones, Great and Small” published in Diabolical Plots, where the backstory was a war against Lovecraftian monsters–a war that humanity won. Now, the monsters are in a zoo, and the protagonist is an old man who remembers what it was like when there was terror–and the flip-side of that coin, wonder–in the world. Another epilogue to an unwritten epic.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Every story is ultimately a decision about boundaries on a boundless timeline. How we view the same story can change as we grow older, and assume responsibilities for the next generation. Are we Frodo or Bilbo? Or Gandalf? Luke, or Obi-Wan, or Rey? Rand or Moiraine (or Tam)? Neo or Morpheus? The best stories reward multiple perspectives, and grow with us. Beginnings. Endings. It all depends on which way you look next.

Local Hero (Full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 1,200 words)

This story originally appeared in Dream of Shadows issue 2.

The shield rested atop a pedestal behind a cordon of Elvish rope. Angled for display, it was dented, blackened, and completely melted around the edges. It was beautiful. Garga yearned to touch it. But the Elf guard standing to the side had a long, curved blade at his belt–the enchanted, Orc-killing kind. Garga kept his hands at his sides.

Orcs milled about the gallery’s length, between the shield and the great statue of Borag at the other end. This part of the museum was free to enter, and the Men, Elves, and Dwarves visiting or settling the Black Land favored the other galleries that displayed the trophies of their own people from the war against the Dark Lord. This place was for Orcs. No longer was there an army, nor lash, nor much of anything for Orc-folk to do. Without the army, the clans were assigned no lands, and forbidden weapons, there was no way to lay claim to any. So Orcs simply wandered the Black Land, and the museum was as good a place to escape the sun as any cave. Here, they could meet and grouse during the worst of the heat, and even under the eyes of the conquerors, they felt this place theirs. Where else were there Orc-things to be found on pedestals in this occupied land?

Across the gallery from Garga stood Sheketh’s massive statue of Borag the Liberator, down on one knee, muscles coiled with power, his massive arms holding up his great shield to the sky as if to blot out the sun. Borag the Rebel, who defied the Dark Lord and shepherded the Halflings to the very Mountain of Fire, destroying the tyrant’s power and freeing the Black Land. Borag the Defiant, who lifted the Halflings on his shield to their rescue, even as a molten river consumed him, leaving only his shield to tell the story.

The statue was proud and powerful, but Garga liked Borag’s shield better. It was real. Every time he saw it–and he came to see it often–it reminded him of something so easy to forget. Orcs fought the Dark Lord too. Orcs, who suffered under him more than any other people, fought back. Orcs had heroes. Garga knew that the real Borag probably looked nothing like the statue. Some gaffers even said it revealed Sheketh’s shame of being an Orc. Its back was straight, like a Man’s, and its features too fine, almost beautiful, like an Elf’s. The real Borag was a soldier. He would have had scars and broken bones, ill-healed, like all the old gaffers who survived the war. Garga had never seen an Orc like the one across the hall, carved larger than life in black basalt. But the shield… That shield had seen battle. It had stopped axes and swords. It had survived the fires of the mountain. Not beautiful, but resilient. It was a thing of Orc-folk, given a place of honor where nothing Orcish was honored.

If only Garga could touch it.

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