On Pratchett and Beginnings and Endings
I can’t find the exact place in the message thread now, but one of you glorious commenters wrote last week in the thread on Terry Pratchett’s passing that the biggest tragedy of losing him is that we lose all the futures of all his characters in one swoop as well. That we never see how the story of Vimes ends, or the story of Tiffany Aching, or any of the dozens of other brilliant creations of his mind. They just stop where they are, for all time, frozen in the last positions we saw them like tin men rusted in sudden rain.
And that’s true, and that’s false, and that’s what I want to talk about, something that’s been sitting in a Word document on my desktop for a couple of years now gestating.
Oscar Wilde said once that every story has a happy ending if we end it in the right place, and Jacqueline Carey broke my heart once with the argument that there are no endings. That it’s our own vanity that assumes that the story of ourselves starts and ends with us, when in reality the stories go on heartlessly without us. There are no protagonists in reality, and even kings and queens are but side characters.
Pratchett wrote his stories in such a way that they always kept going before and after the characters. Despite writing of a world that flew through space on the back of a gargantuan turtle, his were the most realistic stories I’ve ever read for exactly that reason. He didn’t write his stories to have beginnings and ends, but so that they were all one enormous symphony. Characters came and went to play their parts, but it was never explicitly their story. We didn’t lose the end of Vimes’ story with the death of Pratchett, because there never was going to be an end per se, whether the character lived or died, or whether Pratchett ever wrote another story with that character. The world would go on, because there aren’t really any endings.
Stephen King’s Dark Tower has perhaps the most criticized ending of any fiction of the last few decades. People were absolutely infuriated by it. But I’ve always liked it, I’ve liked the way he warns readers off of the final chapter if they are the sorts who need an ending, if they’d rather live Wilde’s illusion than Carey’s truth.
But the fact was that the ending of that final novel was the same ending that every single novel ever written has, if made explicit for once. The story wraps back around to the beginning, because unlike reality, no matter where the line of the ending is drawn, it can then only lead back to the first page of the novel. When you read the last words, there is no where else to go but back to the beginning.
Stories wrap back around on themselves like the way black holes pull matter back into themselves in a mobius strip. But King gave us some hope on those last pages, in the small changes to the beginning, hinting that every time we read a story it is different, because we are different if only for having read it in the first place.
We lost an untold number of stories when Pratchett died. But we didn’t lose the endings. Had he lived another century, written another hundred books, we still would have been left with just as many ragged endings and characters we wished to know the endings of. Because just as in history, there are no endings in fiction such as his, only a multitude of beginnings.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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