“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.