Happily Ever After

Six weeks ago I complained about the lack of happily-ever-after romances in the Star Wars series.  It occurred to me that it would be useful to take a look at what exactly makes for a “happy ever after” ending (“HEA” in genre romance code).  What do we really mean by that, anyway?

The Thrill of the Chase

All the world loves a lover.”  We enjoy seeing stories about people falling in love, whether it’s with someone they’ve just met or by discovering someone who was always “right before my eyes.”  (Unless, of course, we’re too cynical to give any credence to so vulgar and sentimental an idea; in which case it’s the trope we love to hate.)  I’d call it the courtship phase of a relationship, if that term weren’t so archaic.  But “courtship” does express in a useful way the stage I’m referring to, when the lovers-to-be are maneuvering around each other, trying to figure each other out, and (almost invariably, in fiction) overcoming initial obstacles to their mutual attraction.

Couple silhouetted against sunset

“Forever Mine” by welshdragon at DeviantArt

It’s not hard to see why this is.  The courtship phase includes a lot of fun stuff.  We get to see the thrill of discovery, the novelty, the tentative reaching-out and missing connections, the achievement of initially establishing a base of trust and affection.  There’s uncertainty and thus suspense in those first contacts.  The process reminds me of the “handshaking” by which communications systems establish a protocol for exchange of information (anybody remember that windy ‘modem connecting’ sound on a dial-up connection?).

And this process is both tricky and essential.  The relationship can’t move forward until the common foundation is established.  I’ve quoted Lois McMaster Bujold before:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.  (Response to a reader question on Goodreads (10/30/2017).)

And the relationship does have to move forward.  Courtship is only a prelude.  It inherently looks forward to something else:  a life together.  (Even to “forever,” but that’s another subject.)  We feel something is missing in a case like that of Romeo and Juliet, where circumstances cheat the lovers of that opportunity.

Falling in love is fun to watch.  But if that’s all a character is interested in, we get the self-centered thrill addict who keeps wanting to have the same experience over and over again—as if they wanted to relive high school graduation repeatedly, Groundhog Day-style.  We can’t fall in love indefinitely; eventually we have to land somewhere.  Whether the story ends with a wedding or just a commitment, there has to be a conclusion.

Yet the conclusion itself is only the kickoff for the real relationship—the HEA.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”

What It Isn’t

“Happily ever after” doesn’t mean the initial thrill of falling in love lasts forever.  That simply isn’t possible; human emotions can’t remain at that fever pitch.  At some point, the “dizzy dancing way you feel” is going to ebb.  If we expect to feel the same way always, as I’ve just noted, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and unnecessary disillusion.  On the other hand, that thrill can always reappear from time to time.  Wise couples will take steps to encourage and renew that early glamour throughout their marriage.

Couple dancing, from Dancing in the Minefields music videoNor does HEA mean freedom from all troubles.  We can put this aside momentarily to celebrate a wedding, visualizing only a life of unimpeded bliss; but real lives invariably encounter problems and difficulties.  We may even want to remind ourselves of this on the occasion of union itself.  When I ran across Emily Hearn’s wedding video online, I was struck by the fact that the first piece of music set to the video was Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields”:  “And it was harder than we dreamed / But I believe that’s what the promise is for.”

Even the vision of a couple facing adversity staunchly side by side isn’t always going to be valid.  We’re told that even healthy couples have their arguments and disagreements.  Indeed, a couple that never disagrees may be harboring unresolved issues under the surface.

It seems to me that all these flaws or troubles can still be accommodated in the “happily ever after” archetype.  Couples can recover from adversity; it can make them stronger.  Even crises in a lifelong love affair can be healed or overcome.  It’s the overall trend or direction, and the overall tenor of the romance, that leads us to call it “happy.”  Of course, when we wish someone happiness forever, we hope that their troubles will be relatively few and their recoveries maximally joyous.  But a life together need not be perfect to be “happy.”

What It Is

If the ever-after need not be perpetual bliss to count as HEA, what is it made up of?  I am hardly so wise as to prescribe sure-fire ingredients for a happy marriage.  But if we think about what we’d expect to see in a story that depicted a happy couple, we can point to a few things.

Carly Simon singing The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

If it’s going to compete with the initial falling in love, being in love has to gain in depth and resonance what it loses in surface intensity and thrill.  It’s “the slow and steady fire.”

What can a couple that’s been together a while do that lovers who’ve just met can’t?  Consider the cumulative pleasures and joys of two people who know each other well and have learned how to please and help each other.  If they continue faithful to each other and to their union, their mutual trust will grow and deepen.  And the more they trust each other, the more each can express their individual strengths (and admit their individual weaknesses).

Since loving someone doesn’t consist only in having a feeling about them, but in enacting love for them, we can learn to love someone better through experience and attentive learning.  I may start by giving you a gift I would like—but eventually I learn how to give you the gift you would like.  Meanwhile, the sharing of memories and experiences, families, running jokes, can enrich and strengthen the bond.

All these things are compatible with the imperfections and difficulties noted above.  They make up what we’d expect to see, down the road, in a story that goes beyond the courtship—a happy-ever-after.

How We Tell the Story

Because the HEA lacks the surface glitter of the falling-in-love story, we see far fewer stories depicting it.  But for purposes of example and illumination, it’s very useful to see depictions of ongoing marriages.

Such mature romances can crop up in odd places.  For example, in a series that goes on beyond the resolution of initial relationships, or perhaps longer than the author expected, we may see the original lovers ‘age out’ of the focus, but still have the chance to watch them practice the art of love.

Shards of Honor coverExhibit A is Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  The first two books in the main sequence, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, deal with Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, whose son, Miles, is the principal character in most of the stories.  So we see Cordelia and Aral fall in love—but then we see them continue through a whole series of other tales as both parents and political prime movers on Miles’ homeworld of Barrayar.  We get to see them working together in common causes, both personal and cosmic.  We see their continuing affection and evident harmony.  Each is so distinctive a personality that we never think of either Aral or Cordelia as merely an extension of the other; rather, they provide an ongoing example of the kind of relationship we wanted to see in their initial stories—and to which Miles aspires for himself, having that example always before him.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us another example.  In the first book (as published, not chronologically), Dragonflight, we see the rocky road of the strong-willed main characters, Lessa and F’lar, to love.  Both of them are so stubborn and willful that it’s hard to picture them in a peaceful marriage.  And indeed, on Pern, nothing is ever entirely peaceful for long.  But as more couples come and go through the long series of sequels, F’lar and Lessa remain onstage a good bit of the time.  Neither is ever tamed, though they both mellow a bit.  The scrappy young Lessa becomes a little steadier and more mature as she gets older and has a child, but she still retains the original fire.

I frequently refer to the classic Lensman series, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the final novel, Children of the Lens, shows us the lovers whose activities dominated the three middle books, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall, as middle-aged parents a generation later.  The story is so action-oriented that we don’t get to see much of the family in peace, but what we do see gives us the satisfaction of knowing that Kim and Cris have lived a happy life together (and will continue to do so).  And since the surclimax (if I may invent a word for a secondary climax occurring after the main one) involves Clarissa’s use of the power of their mutual love to retrieve Kim from an otherwise unsolvable trap, it’s clear that the romantic connection consummated at the wedding in the previous volume (twenty years earlier) has not lost its fire.

Second Spring coverAndrew Greeley wrote a whole series of novels in which the romance is generally about falling in love.  But in his O’Malley family saga, in which the titles all refer to seasons (of life), he continues the story of one such couple from the post-WWII era right through their “Golden Years.”  The young lovers of A Midwinter’s Tale have to grapple with some pretty serious psychological issues themselves, as well as family drama, over the course of years.  But the “crazy O’Malleys” emerge stronger from their troubles as they go on, giving us a picture of people who are always becoming more themselves as they adjust to changing circumstances.

God is an Englishman coverThere is a subgenre of family sagas—the kinds of long-running, multicharacter stories that always make me think of TV mini-series—and some of these also give us extended looks at maturing romances.  In some such stories, the conflicts arise from the dysfunctionality of the family itself; Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels are a case in point.  But in others, we can see a couple holding strong.  I recently reread R.F. Delderfield’s God Is An Englishman, the first book of his “Swann saga.”  His central couple, Adam and Henrietta, grow in significant ways over the course of the story.  Their love waxes and wanes, but after it wanes, it always comes back.  I’d count that as a HEA.

The novella I’m just finishing up, Time Signature, takes place in the Deerbourne Inn common setting created by the Wild Rose Press.  This gave me the chance to show how a secondary couple who were engaged in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace was getting along, a little later.  While their appearance is brief, I enjoyed the opportunity to represent a growing post-courtship romance, even in its early years.

Real Life

For purposes of inspiration and example, of course it’s even more helpful to be acquainted with real-life successful relationships.  My parents, for instance, lived long and happy lives, and despite religious and political differences, they always remained in harmony.  Though they argued about many subjects, they never, so far as I know, quarreled.  While their lives could not be said to be untroubled (after all, I was one of their children), I’d say they qualified as a happy-ever-after.  I’m privileged to know a number of other couples whose romances have flourished over many years, on whom I’d be glad to bestow the accolade of HEA.

The accumulation of such real and fictional examples gives us the wherewithal to refute those who scoff at the happily-ever-after ending.  None of the characters of our favorite romances will have perfect later lives unmarred by any suffering or any down times in their love affairs.  But if we’re willing to accept that solid happiness can be consistent with life’s inevitable troubles, we can look forward with hope to a satisfactory ending for those couples who approach their lives with both realism and love.

Preferred Atrocities

One might suppose that people would write stories in which a society followed their preferred points of view.  We would see socialists writing about the peaceful harmony of the commune, libertarians about collections of sturdy self-reliant individuals, feminists about places where women were ascendant, or at least equal.

Handmaid's Tale coverBut The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t written by a man.

More often than not, authors seem to write about the opposite of what they appear to prefer.  Their heroes and heroines struggle against epic oppression by regimes of exactly the type the author finds most atrocious.

Evidently, we love stories about the things we hate.

Dystopias Made to Order

Just as our views about good and bad character influence the kinds of people we see as heroes, our views about good and bad societies influence the systems we create—in the negative.

Thus, in 1985 Margaret Atwood writes about a near future in which a theocratic revolution in the United States takes the oppression of women to unprecedented levels—the worst cast for a feminist.  A robust agnostic like Robert A. Heinlein depicts a revolt against another type of theocracy in the 1940 novella If This Goes On— (though putting it that way vastly oversimplifies the relationship between Heinlein and his stories).  Anti-collectivist libertarian Ayn Rand gives us a society in which even first-person pronouns have been eliminated with the novella Anthem (1938)—and the America of Atlas Shrugged (1957), while not yet so extreme, is tending in that direction.

The Mercenary coverIn the second section of Jerry Pournelle’s The Mercenary (1988), John Christian Falkenberg’s mercenary army is hired to help maintain order on the planet Hadley, where Earth’s “Bureau of Relocation” has dumped job lots of involuntary “colonists” with few skills and no will to work.  The result is a classic welfare-state nightmare.  In the climactic sequence, the bad apples have all concentrated themselves in a self-appointed constitutional convention in a stadium, seizing power and essentially enslaving the technicians who keep the colony running.  When this self-serving mob initiates violent resistance against the nominal government, Falkenberg orders his troops to secure the stadium.  The mob attacks after refusing to heed warnings—and the troops systematically slaughter all the armed attackers who will not surrender.

The way Pournelle tells the story, the reader is wholly sympathetic to the “mercenaries” and feels righteous satisfaction when the tables are finally turned on the antagonists.  The cumulative misdeeds of the mob are what give us the sense that the last-resort violent countermeasures are justified.

There may even be examples of preferential atrocities in the young adult dystopias that currently spread across the landscape.  The common element in The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and perhaps The Maze Runner is that likable teenagers are cruelly oppressed by sinister adults.  Societies in which young adults are subjected to the arbitrary and exacting rule of hostile grown-ups might be considered to constitute the anti-ideal for teenagers—the characteristic dystopia.

The Appeal of the Atrocious

If we ask why so many writers depict worlds entirely at odds with their own (or their audience’s) preferences, one simple answer is that utopias are notoriously boring.  A story requires conflict.  And, once we’ve defined what makes our heroes virtuous, the obvious opponent is their opposite—depicted in as extreme a way as possible.

But I think there are also other factors at work.

We could perhaps write a story about defending a utopia against attack, rather than attacking a dystopia.  But it’s easier to depict something that’s obviously noxious than to show how a really well-working society would go.  Destroying is easy; building is hard.  If the bad guys are sufficiently bad, we may never have to wonder about, say, exactly what kind of reformed society the Rebel Alliance would put into place after defeating Darth Vader’s Empire.  (To its credit, the Hunger Games series does provide some hints at the end about the pitfalls of establishing a better successor regime—although, again, more by showing how the revolution could go wrong than by showing it going right.)

OrcsMore important, it’s easier to engage our emotions by showing how bad the bad guys are.  Personally, I am even more moved by awe at the acts of heroism and virtue; but rousing our outrage against evils may be more visceral.  In a dystopic story, the despicable practices or institutions of the society justify our hatred of the antagonists.

It’s hard to overstate the adrenaline rush of righteous anger.  It’s seductive.  When a storyteller takes the despised behavior of the oppressive society to an extreme, they allow us to imagine, and desire, the equally extreme response.  Shoot ’em all down!  Blow up the Death Star!  No quarter!

From Story to Fact

This is one of the places where the stories we tell extend their reach out into the real world.  If we get too attached to that defiant rush, we may be more susceptible to the possibility of finding it in reality.  The prospect of being forced to ultimate measures is appalling—but there’s also a certain thrill.  What if the apocalypse is finally here?  We can finally abandon restraint and pull out all the stops!

Of course, there genuinely are times “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary” to take extreme measures.  There are always two ways of going wrong.  We may be too rash and rush to extremes; but we may also be too complacent.  Either way may involve, in part, a failure of imagination.  It’s one kind of failure not to recognize the anti-ideal when it genuinely begins to happen.  But the other kind is to pounce on every sign that our favorite stories—the ones with the atrocities we despise—are coming true.  It’s when we prematurely think we see this in real life that the stories in the back of our heads become dangerous.

Image of old piano with rose petals

Image by SeaReeds from Pixabay

Extreme measures need to be kept to a true last resort, because civilization is more fragile than it seemsWe cannot lightly throw away the rule of law.  If we do, the result is likely to be worse than the original problem.  We need to keep that essential idea firmly in view, even in difficult circumstances—including those where the rule of law itself is being violated and needs to be reasserted and reawakened.

There is no substitute for thinking things through, with care and determination.  The adrenaline rush so familiar from our favorite stories can’t be allowed to keep us from drawing the right lines, at the right times, in the right places.  If we are too complacent, or too belligerent, we may simply be lending ourselves to making someone else’s preferred atrocity come true—and earning their equally extreme resistance.  That isn’t the kind of resolution we need.

Lonely Hearts of Star Wars

The Conclusion of the Skywalker Arc

I’m going to assume that by now, everybody who wants to has seen Star Wars IX, The Rise of Skywalker (“TROS”).  So we should now be able to discuss the plot freely, though I will hang out a

Spoiler Alert!

just in case.

Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker posterAnd we are now in a position, after forty-odd years, to reach conclusions about the story as a whole.  We can consider the main storyline or central arc of Star Wars complete.  That universe is already expanding (for the second time) into side stories and prequels; and it’s quite possible that we’ll see more stories set after the end of TROS, even including some of the same main characters.  (Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing about four separate spinoffs from the ending of TROS—for reasons discussed below—as long as there are NO MORE DEATH STARS.)  But it appears we’ve seen a conclusion to the main story.

There are, of course, a lot of things one might say about the nine-movie saga.  The one I want to consider here has to do with love stories.

Star Wars and Romance

Star Wars isn’t primarily a romance.  But adventure stories, particularly of the swashbuckling sort that Star Wars set out to revive, frequently do end up with a pair of characters getting together romantically.  Sometimes more than once; I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones.  Even James Bond movies always end with a sex scene.

So it’s not unreasonable to expect a sweeping space opera like this to include, as a minor element, at least some romantic achievements.  Do you recall how many successful romances, in the sense of “happy ever after” (“HEA”) endings, we see in the entire Star Wars saga?

None.

Not one romantic combination in the entire series leaves us relatively content with a couple’s life story, despite the number of such combinations that are teased over the course of the movies.  This fact strikes me as remarkable, and it’s puzzling how to account for it.

The Original Trilogy

The original Star Wars movie (the title later changed, for those of us too young to remember, to A New Hope) did suggest a conventional romantic development—although with some ambiguity.

Luke & Leia kiss on Death StarLuke is recruited into the Rebellion through seeing an image of a beautiful damsel in distress.  He’s clearly infatuated with her (I always enjoyed the fact that even in stormtrooper armor, you can see the bashfulness in Luke’s tilt of the head when he finally meets Leia in her prison cell).  Just before they swing across a pit, she gives him a quick kiss “for luck.”

And then there’s Han.  Though he starts out merely kidding Luke about taking an interest in Leia (“Do you think a princess and a guy like me—”), by the end of the movie, one imagines the interest could become real.  The three of them exchange characteristic glances at the final ceremony, showing a certain affection, but leaving it up in the air whether a genuine romance will develop in either case.

When the first movie became a howling success and Lucas decided to continue the trilogy, he had to pick a side.  Empire gives us a pretty straightforward Han-Leia romance, albeit one interrupted by a cliffhanger.  (“I love you.”  “I know.”)  In Return of the Jedi (“ROTJ”), the writers terminate the competing Luke-Leia possibility permanently by making them siblings.  To all intents and purposes, the finale of ROTJ includes a traditional HEA conclusion, in which we can expect a successful marriage between Leia and Han.

Nobody else in the original trilogy has a romance going on.  Lando doesn’t get a girl, at least not onscreen.  It would be entertaining to imagine a Madame Yoda (especially now that Baby Yoda is a worldwide favorite), but we don’t see that either.  But at least we did have Han and Leia.  From 1986 through 2015, we could assume that the series had achieved one HEA ending.

The Prequel Trilogy

A romance is in some degree central to the plot of Episodes I-III.  Anakin Skywalker’s troubled attraction to Padmé Amidala is a major motivator in his descent into the dark side.

Star Wars - Attack of the Clones posterOne of the things for which I admire the prequel trilogy is a convincing depiction of how a basically decent, if unstable, person can gradually be corrupted into an evildoer.  There are a number of factors involved, some of which could be attributed to “the system.”  I’ve never been convinced there was a good reason for the Jedi order to take children away from their parents when barely toddlers, or to forbid them to marry.  And the fate of Anakin’s mother Shmi is another strong driver.  But his fixation on Padmé is where we see his “Face-Heel Turn” working itself out in action.

For a nine-year-old, the boy Anakin is already oddly focused on Padmé in The Phantom Menace (episode I).  Attack of the Clones (episode II) lays out a burgeoning love affair between them as young adults, culminating in a secret marriage at the end.  Unfortunately, this star-crossed romance is handled ineptly by the movie-makers, IMHO; there is absolutely no chemistry between the characters on-screen.  Nonetheless, the plot requires us to consider this a compelling romance, in order to set up the third episode.

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is besieged by nightmares of Padmé dying in childbirth.  His desire to protect her makes him more and more obsessed with acquiring forbidden powers to save her life.  In a well-managed ironic turn, this obsession takes him down a path that ends with Anakin killing Padmé himself.

Given the backstory we already knew from the middle (original) trilogy, it was clear that the Padmé-Anakin romance was fated to fail.  Anakin would become Darth Vader, and something was bound to happen to Padmé, since the children (Luke and Leia) were raised separately by foster parents.  So no HEA for the main characters was in store.  While there are various side characters involved—most notably Obi-Wan Kenobi, who seems to have faithfully carried out the marriage proscription by never having a romance at all—none of them contributed anything to the tally of Star Wars love stories.

Deconstruction

When the new third trilogy opened, the writers of the first movie, The Force Awakens (episode VII, “TFA”), made a crucial decision:  to sour the one romance standing by undermining the ending of Return of the Jedi (VI).  In the intervening years, Han and Leia’s son Ben (Kylo Ren) has turned to the dark side.  Lucasfilms might have depicted this tragedy as pulling his parents closer together.  Instead, it apparently shattered their marriage.

Han and Leia meet in The Force AwakensTFA shows Han and Leia meeting each other again after a long separation, in which both of them have gone back to their earlier selves.  Leia is leading yet another rebellion, while Han has returned to pointless smuggling.  The characters have regressed rather than progressing.  The character arcs we thought had been completed in the original trilogy have been reversed.

More important for our purposes here, Han and Leia’s love affair in retrospect seems limited and bitter.  One hopes they had happy years together while Ben was a child.  But we don’t see any of that.  And any hopes for a long-term return to a life together are eliminated when Ben kills Han.

One must admit this outcome is realistic.  It could happen that way.  But it’s also unsatisfying, in a particularly frustrating way:  it undoes the happy ending of the middle trilogy.  This is a classic fault in sequels—to negate or deconstruct what the characters achieved in the previous episodes.  And that fault occurs in the Star Wars saga in more than one way.

We might expect that at least some of the numerous new characters introduced in the sequel trilogy might find love.  But while the writers tease us with all sorts of possibilities, they never deliver on any of them.

Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker, final group hugThus, TFA suggests that Rey and Finn will end up a couple.  But they don’t.  In episode VIII, The Last Jedi (“TLJ”), Finn is involved with another new character, Rose Tico, who at least is clearly in love with him.  Nothing comes of it.  The final episode, TROS, hints that Finn might become involved with still another woman, Jannah, who like Finn is a former stormtrooper.  But there’s no suggestion at the end that they’re actually going to get together.

Meanwhile, we keep getting hints that Rey is eventually going to get together with Kylo Ren, the redeemed Ben Skywalker.  They are supposed to be a “Force dyad,” whatever that means.  But Ben gives up his life to save Rey, as they share one kiss.  There’s thus no real Rey-Kylo romance (fortunately, in my view; I never liked Kylo anyway).  Nor does Rey get together with anyone else.  She doesn’t have to; she’s a great character regardless.  But it’s one more romantic potential that came to nothing.

Poe Dameron, the third main character of the sequel trilogy, finally gets a possible soul mate in the last episode.  This is new character Zorii Bliss, an armored fighter with a grudge against him from earlier events.  He actually extends an invitation to her at the end—and she turns him down.

It’s not impossible that some of these tenuous relationships might turn out to develop into something later.  I wouldn’t mind seeing Poe and Zorii continue their prickly antagonism into some kind of romance; or Finn getting together with somebody; or Rey having further adventures, in the course of which she might meet that special someone.  But as far as the nine-movie main storyline goes, we’re left with nothing.

Why Don’t Fools Fall In Love?

There’s nothing wrong with an adventure story that doesn’t contain a romance.  But as I noted above, going through nine episodes in this genre without a happily-ever-after is a little peculiar.

Illustration for Edmond Hamilton's The Star Kings

Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings

Look at classic space opera for a minute.  The archetypal space operas, E.E. Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series, each include more than one satisfactory romance.  Jack Williamson’s pulp-style epics, such as the Legion of Space series, generally gave the stalwart hero an irresistibly beautiful woman to rescue and marry.  Edmond Hamilton, credited by Wikipedia with creating the space-opera genre along with Smith, often did the same, as in The Star Kings.  On a more popular level, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had their Dales and Wilmas.

Of course this isn’t a universal rule.  Early SF authors could be so focused on imaginary technology and adventure that romance wasn’t a consideration.  For example, John W. Campbell, a close competitor to Smith with galaxy-spanning adventure tales in the thirties (later a formative editor in the field), not only eschewed romance but seldom even included women in stories like The Black Star Passes.

Why were romances common in old-time space operas?  A HEA ending was part of the reward for the hero, who “gets the girl.”  (Or vice versa, in principle.)  More than that, I think, the preservation and fulfillment of beauty and love is part of what save-the-world stories are trying to achieve; they show vividly what is at stake.  Thus a romantic commitment, or even a wedding, is a natural part of the celebratory ending of an upbeat adventure story.

By and large, then, one tends to associate colorful, sweeping space opera with a romantic element, even if it’s not very sophisticated or central to the story.  So why is that factor absent from this nine-episode extravaganza?  All the lonely Star Wars people:  where do they all come from?

We can ask this “why” question in two ways.  Internally, from a narrative standpoint, what is it about this universe that seems to discourage HEA endings?  And externally, from the writers’ point of view, why didn’t they put some in?  Of course, we can only speculate about either matter.  (If anyone knows of an explanation from the screenwriters or showrunners that would shed light on the latter question, I’d love to hear about it.)

In terms of the narrative itself, maybe the answer is that the Star Wars universe just isn’t hospitable to happy endings.  It’s a very violent world, for one thing.  Slavery on the outer planets, the ascendancy of tyrannies on the more civilized worlds.  When you come right down to it, how many people do we see living happy, contented lives anywhere in the Star Wars ’verse?

Star Wars awards ceremonyThis cheerlessness is itself an odd thing, given the way the series started out.  The relatively lighthearted original trilogy, and especially A New Hope taken by itself, gave us the sense that once the Death Star was destroyed, the galaxy could prosper in some kind of freedom.  But the more detail additional episodes added to the background, the grimmer the universe seemed to become.  In the end, post-Episode IX, it just doesn’t seem like a very nice place to live.

In terms of the authors’ intent, it seems to me that changes of directing or authorial handling may have taken a toll.  The J.J. AbramsRian Johnson team that handled the final trilogy is a different ‘voice’ than that of Lucas’ original trilogy.  Johnson’s middle episode of the last trilogy, TLJ (VIII), seems to have devoted itself deliberately to deconstructing all the expectations created in TFA (VII).  And Abrams’ partial re-reversal in TROS (IX) didn’t save the love affairs.  Apparently the third-trilogy directors simply didn’t want a HEA romance.

But why was that?  I don’t know, of course, but I think part of the answer is simply that times have changed—again.

The original A New Hope in 1977 was a blockbuster precisely because it broke a long string of jaded, cynical movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It invited us to enjoy a kind of upbeat adventure story that had long been out of fashion.  And that atmosphere was one in which a relatively light, upbeat romance could also flourish.

But any romance in the prequel trilogy, as noted above, was bound to be downbeat.  And the sequel trilogy directors/writers seem to have felt that audiences today wouldn’t buy a sentimental HEA ending—or to have been so bent on defeating expectations that they were unwilling to close the deal on any romantic interest, because a romantic happy ending is something we expect.

Personally, I think the sequel trilogy would have been better off with one or two successful romances, out of the several possibilities.  But that isn’t the story we’ve got.  So, until someone decides to remake the whole Star Wars saga from scratch—and at the current turnover rate of remakes, maybe that’ll start in another ten years or so—we’ll have to enjoy Star Wars for virtues other than those of the happily ever after.

The Phantom’s Lighting Contractor

I never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera on stage.  But I am fond of the 2004 movie.  I can’t compare the two formats, so I’ll have to duck quietly out the back door if people want to debate their relative merits.  But the movie does bring up an entertaining, if minor, point.

Phantom Candles

If you’re not familiar with the story of Webber’s musical, check the Wikipedia link at the top of this post.  What we need to know here is that around 1870, a reclusive villain haunts the Paris Opéra House; he’s obsessed with a young singer named Christine Daae, who is in turn mesmerized by the Phantom’s music; and the partially-masked man lives in extensive caverns under the opera house, which form the backdrop for scenes in the movie.

When I say “caverns,” you may be picturing some dark, gloomy retreat.  Not at all.  The Phantom’s lair is not only pretty plush; it’s brilliantly lit by what seem to be thousands of candles.

Phantom & Christine with many candles

The Phantom’s well-lit lair

My family was watching the movie one time and started speculating about exactly who manages these candles.  To begin with, someone has to have lighted them all before the Phantom spirits Christine away to his hideout.  Did the Phantom himself spend a couple of hours going around with a Bic lighter beforehand?  It’s not as if he has a crew of minions to do it for him.  The Phantom is strictly a one-man operation.

Nor is it enough simply to turn a light on, as might be the case for, say, a gas lamp.  Candles burn down and have to be replaced.  One imagines the Phantom singing the languorous lyrics of “The Music of the Night” while breaking off every few lines to change out a guttering candle for a fresh one.  It would kind of ruin the effect.

It gets worse.  Where do all the candles come from?  Even if we assume the mystery man can afford them (he demands regular protection money from the opera in exchange for not killing people), remember that this is a secret hideout.  If a big lorry pulled up outside the cellar doors every week—“Order of 5,000 candles for Mr. P.”—someone would eventually notice.

Of course, The Phantom isn’t exactly a model of realism, and we don’t begrudge the producers another minor lapse in logic in exchange for the visual spectacle.  It’s an example of what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”: the plot holes that occur to you half an hour after the movie is over, as you’re rooting around in your refrigerator.

Still, it’s surprising how common this particular anomaly is.

Richelieu’s Firepots

In Disney’s 1993 version of The Three Musketeers (still my favorite version), the primary villain is Cardinal Richelieu, hammed up to the hilt by Tim Curry.  He too has an underground lair:  a dungeon somewhere near the palace, which can only be reached by rowing a boat across a subterranean lake.

The path to the dungeons is lighted by plenty of torches; no doubt the Cardinal’s numerous henchmen can take care of those.  But in addition, there are firepots spaced strategically around the lake, presumably with wood or coal feeding their bonfires.

Cardinal Richelieu's underground lake, with firepots

Cardinal Richelieu’s underground lake

I suppose there must be minions whose sole job is to row around the lake, periodically replenishing the firepots’ fuel.  And I expect they are under strict orders to skedaddle off the lake whenever the Cardinal himself comes to take a boat across, lest their mundane tasks interfere with Richelieu’s august progress.  Still, it seems a rather elaborate, not to mention wasteful, setup.

It might well be more economical, instead, for Richelieu to hire a contractor to come in and handle the job.  That method would solve the minionless Phantom’s problem as well.  Clearly, there’s a market niche here in providing this key service for villains.

But why shouldn’t heroes also get in on the game?

Carroll’s Oil Troughs

In National Treasure (2004), Our Heroes spend most of the film searching for a fabulous hoard of valuable artifacts originally collected by the Knights Templar, passed on to the Masons, and eventually hidden by Charles Carroll, one of the Founding Fathers of America.  They finally discover this treasure in—you guessed it—an underground cavern, this one under Trinity Church in New York City.

This vast array of shining gold would be unimpressive if it were lighted by a single torch.  Fortunately, Our Heroes find that the designers of this particular display hall have run troughs filled with oil down from the entry and across the whole expanse.  All Nicolas Cage has to do is touch his torch to the basin of oil at the top, and flames race along the entire network of open tubes, providing them, and us, with a wonderful view of the goodies.

National Treasure treasure room

Treasure cavern in National Treasure

This neat bit of eighteenth-century construction still works perfectly after all these years, reminding us of the kind of Durable Deathtraps Indiana Jones is always running into; except that this isn’t a deathtrap, just a convenient lighting effect.  At least we don’t have to imagine fires that have been burning continuously for two and a half centuries.  We needn’t worry about plausibility as long as we don’t wonder why the oil hasn’t evaporated or leaked away long since.

If those fridge thoughts do occur to us, however, clearly the answer has to be that Carroll got in touch with the Phantom’s lighting contractors to renew the oil supply every so often.  The movie has already presented us with several secret societies functioning for centuries; what’s one more?

Conclusion

This particulat subtrope seems to occur mainly in the movies, since it’s primarily a matter of visual spectacle.  A verbal description can more easily skate around the problems, though it still wouldn’t be quite as satisfying to write about the wonderful sight of a vast treasure if it were almost entirely shrouded in gloom.

It’s primarily in a historical context that we need the lighting contractor’s services.  A story set in the present or future would face less daunting challenges if it merely had to explain long-lived electric lighting rather than candles or other fires.  And of course it’s in underground settings that we tend to need the light most.

Athos with sword and torch (Three MusketeersA little stretching of the imagination was always needed when visualizing exploration, not to mention swordfighting and such, in underground areas without an obvious source of light.  One could stipulate that Dungeons and Dragons adventurers were carrying torches in one hand while wielding swords in the other—but at best that always seemed like something only a master swordsman could pull off.  I was rather relieved when the players in my D&D campaign came up with the idea of casting Continual Light spells on coins that they could hang around their necks.  The wildly shifting shadows as they darted around in a melee, lanyards swinging, would be headachy to imagine; but at least they could get rid of the dratted torches.

What really justifies (and I use the term loosely) these candles and firepots is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Cool:  we’re willing to grant some logical leeway to a storyteller to allow a really impressive effect.

But I’m still tempted to add to the traditional Evil Overlord List an additional bit of advice:  If you want cool lighting effects, and the technology level is such that it’s not just a matter of making sure your utility bills are paid up, look up the Phantom’s lighting contractor.

Describing the Indescribable

Showing the Unshowable

In our last exciting episode, we noted that fantasy and science fiction stories often seek to transcend the boundaries of human experience—to show us things beyond our ordinary understanding.  Take it further:  the author may wish to present things that are beyond all human understanding.  How do we get across to human readers, or viewers, something that we’ve just postulated as indescribable or incomprehensible?

We’re not asking whether there can be things the human intellect or senses cannot grasp.  Kant or Aquinas, for example, would have rather complex answers to that question.  Rather, we’re focusing here on how to put the ungraspable into a story.

Beyond the Senses

Doctor Strange casts a spellThere are plenty of things that are impossible, but easy to describe; we can detail how they appear to our senses, though explaining how they can actually occur is another matter.  For example, magic spells cast by Doctor Strange frequently manifest as flat discs suspended in space, generally with symbols or letters inscribed.  Both the comics and (using CGI) the movies can show us these with no problem.  That’s not what we’re interested in here.

What’s intriguing is a sensory experience different from any we normally experience (or, perhaps, can experience).  In James Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres, our hero Captain Pausert, who is just beginning to exhibit witch powers, detects an extra-universal entity called a “vatch.”  His young witch companions have referred to “relling” a vatch, but this is the first time Pausert himself has had the experience:

The Witches of Karres, coverIt was something like smelling a grumble, or hearing dark green, or catching a glimpse of a musky scent.  As Goth had suggested, it was not to be described in any terms that made sense.  But it was quite unmistakable.  He knew exactly what he was doing—he was relling a vatch.  (ch. 9, p. 250)

I tried this same technique of combining nonsensical sensory references to suggest something magical about spell-casting music in my short story The Green Song.

While Schmitz chooses to present this supernormal power as “magic,” such special powers can just as well be described in science-fiction terms (often as “psionic” powers), which is how we normally use words like “telepathy” and “telekinesis.”  Though it’s worth noting that fantasy characters like Gandalf and Galadriel can “speak mind to mind” as well—they just don’t call it telepathy.

I’ve just finished The Pursuit of the Pankera, a recently-discovered earlier version of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast which takes off in a quite different direction.  In chapter 38, one character, Deety Burroughs Carter, meets a Lensman from E.E. Smith’s Lensman series and tries to describe the famously indescribable Lens itself:  “The nearest I can think of is an enormous fire opal with a light behind it—but take that and cube it.  It’s all colors and the colors keep changing and the lights come from the Lens itself and dance like a color organ but brighter and more alive—and I still haven’t described it.”

Heinlein’s method is instructive.  In this brief passage, we start with a known image—fire opal—and are told to extend it in an unspecfied way (“cube it”).  The second sentence is a run-on, piling image on image in a way that suggests an inability to capture the item in any single description.  She finishes by apologizing that the result is still inadequate (“I still haven’t described it”).

An extraordinary experience like Schmitz’s “relling” is neutral—just an unfamiliar new sense.  But once we’ve postulated the non-natural, it’s easy to transition to the “unnatural,” in the pejorative sense of the term.

The Colour Out of Space, magazine illustrationI recently revisited H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space (1927)—the only Lovecraft piece I’ve ever actually read.  According to the story, a meteorite arrives on earth in 1882, in the Arkham area (there’s a reason why the lunatic asylum in Gotham City is called the “Arkham Asylum”).  Weird growths emerge from the meteorite and transform plants, animals, rocks, water, and humans in horrible ways.  The creatures so affected are characterized by an unearthly color, first noticed in globules in the meteorite:  “The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the metetor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossbile to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all” (p. 150 in the anthology I have).  Skunk cabbages infected by this influence are described unpleasantly:  “. . . they held strange colours that could not be put into any words.  Their shapes were monstrous, and the horse had snorted at an odour which struck Stephen as wholly unprecedented.”

The notion of extra colors that can be seen with ordinary vision is dubious, given what we now know about neurobiology and the electromagnetic spectrum.  But the notion does communicate a sense of the weird and unnatural.  That’s what Lovecraft was driving at, according to Wikipedia—“to create an entity that was truly alien.”

More important, Lovecraft, like other horror writers of the pulp era, was quick to treat the incomprehensible as evil, or at least destructive to humans.  If you’re writing horror, I suppose that comes naturally.  But it isn’t a necessary conclusion.  Something not naturally perceivable could be neutral, as in Karres—or it could also be incompehensibly good.

The Extraordinary and the Supernatural

An extra sense or a psionic talent would be beyond ordinary human capabilities, but not beyond the range of nature itself.  Those powers needn’t be good or evil—just neutral, like most human abilities, able to be used for good or bad purposes.  Bur we’re especially likely to run into the indescribable when we speak of the supernatural.

The supernatural tends to have an evaluative charge, so to speak:  either good or evil in itself.  Lovecraft’s unnatural horrors tend in that direction; he doesn’t describe them as theological, exactly, but they’re definitely horrible (at least to humans).  Something supernally good, however, may be just as difficult to describe.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, two eldila—planetary angels of a sort—ask Ransom, the main character, in what form in which they should appear to do honor to the new human masters of the planet.  Their first attempts aren’t very successful:

A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom.  Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void.  “Stop it . . . stop it,” he yelled, and the scene cleared.  He gazed round blinking on the field of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that ths kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations.  (ch. 16, p. 197-98)

Lewis handles the incomprehensible by referring to some familiar things, but placing them in unexpected or incoherent contexts (darting pillars, with eyes; bird imagery and pure geometry).  He also uses Ransom’s reaction, as Lovecraft used the horse’s reaction to an “unprecedented” smell, to evoke the strangeness and unbearableness of the experience.

A Wind in the Door, coverMadeleine L’Engle is also talking about angels, more or less, in The Wind in the Door (sequel to A Wrinkle in Time) when she introduces a being called Proginoskes.  The human characters first see—

wings, it seemed like hundreds of wings, spreading, folding, stretching—
and eyes
how many eyes can a drive of dragons have?
and small jets of flame

On a closer look, Meg reacts this way:  “She had the feeling that she never saw all of it at once, and which of all the eyes could she meet? merry eye, wise eyes, ferocious eyes, kitten eyes, dragon eyes, opening and closing . . .”  (ch. 2-3, pp. 53-54)  Again, some familiar things are mentioned, but in unexpected relationships.  The notion that “she never saw all of it at once” acknowledges the inadequacy of her perception, along with the baffled question about which eyes to meet.  (The cover illustration shown on the Wikipedia page attempts to show in pictorial form what Meg is describing.)

These examples occur in a theological context, but they’re not good or evil themselves.  Lewis and L’Engle are showing us that creatures of a different kind may be beyond our perception.  But in some cases there emerges a sense that the very goodness of something may exceed our ordinary knowledge.

Lewis’s The Great Divorce adopts the fanciful notion that souls from Purgatory or Hell (or both) may be allowed a “vacation” in the lower realms of heaven.  Our narrator, one such soul, finds that heaven is not the vaporous or cloudy region we sometimes imagine; on the contrary, it is more solid and more real than lower things.  Blades of grass are so solid that  don’t bend under the feet of the visiting shades (ch. 3, p. 27); the rain so substantial that it penetrates them like bullets; the flowers are hard like diamonds.

The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps.  It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.  (p. 28)

Simply being in this region causes the narrator’s sensory capacity to expand.

. . . something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity.  On earth, such a waterfall could not have been perceived at all as a whole; it was too big.  Its sound would have been a terror in the wood for twenty miles.  Here, after the first shock, my sensibility ‘took’ both, as a well-built ship takes a huge wave.  I exulted.  (ch. 6, p. 49)

Lewis’s evocation of strangeness here is in the service of a theological point:  he wants to demolish our tendency to think of the spiritual as less real than the solid earth and propose that it is more real.

The Ball and the Cross, coverIn a similar way, G.K. Chesterton suggests that ordinary objects can be subtly transformed for us—can appear to a greater degree as what they are—when we are transformed by the dawn of love.

The difference between this experience and common experiences was analogous to that between waking life and a dream.  Yet he did not feel in the least as if he were dreaming; rather the other way; as waking was more actual than dreaming, so this seemed by another degree more actual than waking itself.  But it was another life altogether, like a cosmos with a new dimension.  (The Ball and the Cross, ch. 9, p. 111)

As Lewis’s Heaven reverses our usual reactions to indicate something more substantial than our ordinary world, Chesterton reverses the usual relationship of dream and reality to imagine a vita nuova more awake than waking.

Finally, attempting to show us complete transcendence at the very end of the Narnian books, Lewis can only fall back on very rough metaphors and, again, a confession of inadequacy.

“’The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.’ . . . but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.”  (The Last Battle, final pages)

Where Lovecraft presents the transcendent as unintelligible, repelling our comprehension, these examples rather seek the superintelligible, something that draws our comprehension deeper.

How It’s Done

From these examples, we can throw together a list of some techniques used to evoke the incomprehensible.

  • Deliberately mix sensory references in a way that’s literally nonsensical, so as to suggest an unknown sensation.
  • Astronaut in bedroom, near end of 2001: A Space OdysseyRefer to ordinary objects, but in a surreal sort of way, as in the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Lead us up to the pinnacle of something that we know, and then point beyond it: the method of “supereminence” that I spoke of last time.
  • Describe people’s reactions to the indescribable thing: horror, exaltation, comfort.  This is particularly appropriate and effective if we’re dealing with supernatural good or evil, as in The Colour Out of Space, or the descent of Venus in That Hideous Strength (ch. 15.1).
  • Acknowledge the insufficiency of our explanation; leave much of the description mysterious and unaccounted-for.

Such methods may be helpful if we want to write about what is beyond description.  They might even be of some use in interpreting our own experience if we should encounter such things ourselves . . . which is never entirely out of the question.