I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and thinking about happy endings.
If you’re not familiar with it, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a humongous, sprawling fantasy series that gained a lot of fans when it was recently made into an HBO series. With five volumes totaling some 5,000 pages, its size makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings look like a 98-pound weakling on the beach. And five volumes isn’t the end of it. I just finished number five and everything remains cliffhangers; author George R.R. Martin says there is at least one more volume to come, maybe two.
Like Tolkien, Martin has created an entire cosmology with thousands of years of back history, religions and civilizations, largely derived from feudal Europe (knights, kings, castles, the only light is fire). But as my friend Nick Herold pointed out in recommending the series to me, Martin differs from Tolkien in the depth of his characters.
Game of Thrones is made up of chapters with alternating protagonists — dozens of them. Each chapter, you’re inside someone else’s head, seeing their rivalries and desires and feeling their pain as they get imprisoned, seasick, maimed or betrayed. And there is a LOT of maiming and betraying. I like that Martin doesn’t sugarcoat his feudal kingdoms a la Disney. Villages are muddy and starving, wounds fester with yellow pus in a world without antibiotics, rats and dogs are a dinner staple for common people while the royalty eat elaborate, gout-inducing banquets.
That grittiness applies to the plot(s) as well as the details of daily life. No one seems to catch a break in Game of Thrones. Good, honorable characters are killed. Evil characters are killed. People who should be allies become antagonists. Well-intentioned plans go awry. Children are orphaned; innocents are betrayed; heroic gestures lead to disastrous outcomes.
Sometimes I wish I could take all the “good” characters and bring them together, in one place and on the same side, but they are scattered across two continents and don’t even know that their family members or friends are alive. They experience one setback after another. Really, it would feel like The Perils of Pauline — damsel now tied to the railroad track, now dangling from a bridge, now up against a firing squad — if the flow weren’t broken up by moving between the ups and downs of those dozen-plus different characters.
About halfway through the five books, I realized these aren’t really novels. None of the volumes end with closure. There is no visible narrative arc — no rise toward a climax, followed by resolution. The story just goes on and on. Ups, downs, ups, downs, more complications, more characters, more ups and downs. It could go on like this for a dozen volumes. A hundred.
Which makes me wonder how Martin is going to end the series. At any point, he could wrap things up and bring all the dozen plot lines to tidy conclusions. That’s what I yearn for as I read it — the good characters all uniting, the lingering mysteries revealed, the triumph of a Good King (or Queen) who brings permanent peace and justice to the beleaguered lands of Westeros. But to some extent, that would feel like a betrayal of the rest of the series.
The series is like life — nothing ever seems to really end, and one “resolution” just leads to a new set of conflicts. Compare it to world politics. Our involvement in Iraq is “ending.” Obama is bringing our troops home. But the internecine conflict and sectarian tensions there continue, and at any point there could be a new eruption of violence that spills over and affects the Middle East and us in unforeseen ways. In Game of Thrones, none of people’s efforts to establish a just and peaceful kingship have succeeded so far. Why should we believe they will succeed at the end of the series?
So I started thinking about happy endings. We crave them. We want good to triumph over evil, but perhaps even more, we want things to be resolved. Static. In tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, the heroes die but as readers we are still satisfied because things are wrapped up, static, concluded. Everything is known. The story stops.
And this is of course pretense, artifice – no less on the individual than on the political level. Pride and Prejudice ends neatly with the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But marriages begin, not end, on the wedding day. There are a zillion conflicts that happen afterwards – illnesses, jealousies, power struggles, intergenerational conflicts, who knows what. But we don’t want to see any of that. We want things to be wrapped up, resolved, static.
Would anyone buy a novel where everything — everything — was left unresolved at the end? Could you even call that a novel?
And why is narrative resolution so important to us, when the only thing in life that is truly static and permanent is death?