“And they lived happily ever after.”
Everyone knows that phrase. The standard line resounds through numerous stories, wrapping the tale’s end in a sparkly, feel-good bow and sending the characters off to a blissful life of painless euphoria.
But, to use a modern phrase, is it for realz? Or is it just to lather us with the satisfaction of the happy feels?
The happily ever after comes at the end, after the Menacing Monster has been defeated, the hero has earned his place in the annals of history, and the conflict faucet has turned off in favor of the gentle farewell.
This begs the question: should stories always end well? If not, how should they conclude?
Taken simply, without the context of eternity, happily ever after is at best naïve and at worst a blatant lie. Sure, the story has run its course, the lovers are together, and the future shines bright with potential. But put yourself in the shoes of the characters. Substitute their life for yours. Are we guaranteed a happily ever after?
In one sense, yes. In another, not so much.
A Not-So-Happy Ending
A story’s impact can stand or fall on how it concludes. Some stories close with the perfect last scene, last page, last sentence. A sense of completion and satisfaction fills the reader. “Yes,” they say, “this is exactly how it should have ended.”
Other stories fall short. I loved the Hunger Games novels, but to me, Mockingjay failed to produce that satisfaction. Instead of resonating with lush notes of a world-famous symphony, it squeaked with the hesitation of the first high-school band practice of the year. (I thought the movie did a better job.)
Mockingjay had a rainy-day ending. Gloom, depression, pain. Mostly, it stole the warm blush of hope I was craving. What it did do, however, was point out a harsh fact of life:
Not every ending is happy.
- Marriage doesn’t lead to lifelong bliss, without another snag or dark valley
- Winning the war doesn’t ensure peace now and forevermore
- Friends don’t last forever
Lord of the Rings comes to mind as an example of a bittersweet end. The Ring was destroyed, Sauron vanquished, Aragorn crowned king, the Shire saved from Saruman’s schemes. The hobbits returned in safety, yet as Frodo said:
“The shire has been saved, Sam. But not for me.”
Frodo had the privilege of passing into the West, but Sam watched him leave. His best friend, his dear Master Frodo, gone.
There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart.
I can only imagine the sorrow he felt. Not an end of triumphant jubilation, but the right end.
The Ultimate Ending
What does this discussion of endings mean for us as Christians? Three things:
- We accept the consequences of living in a sinful world. We realize that things go wrong, that notes of sorrow weave into the melody of life. We understand that meeting Prince Charming or the beautiful princess won’t result in a blissful utopia.
- Thankfully, this world, with its cares and problems, is only temporary. Death isn’t the end of the story.
- We can live with the confident hope that the ultimate end of the story of history does, indeed, conclude with “happily ever after.” Where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4 ESV)
As C.S. Lewis poetically stated at the end (how appropriate) of The Last Battle:
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can truly say that they all lived happily ever after…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
What is your favorite type of ending? Is there a time when books should end on a gloomy note?