Everyone knows how the fairy tales end: They all lived happily ever after.
Yeah, right. But why should the princess marry the boring prince and not go off on an adventure of her own? The witch probably had a good point to make. And the youngest son had the advantage of learning from his siblings’ mistakes – he’s hardly a hero. Happy ever afters are a lie.
In our cynical, post-post-modern world isn’t needing happy endings in stories twee, or childish or – worst of all possible crimes – naïve? But we do need them, and the darker the world gets, the more important they become.
We live in unsettled, upsetting times. Trump, Brexit, trigger fingers near nuclear buttons, glaciers sliding into warming oceans, big business triumphing over the communal good. The voices that are heard are not ours. We do not prevail. And it’s not just that there’s an orange maniac with his finger on the button, or the jumpiness that comes with the reality of being in a big city in anxious times. There are all the other things that shake us and shape us – our own private losses and worries. It all makes us sore at heart.
A story probes our sore hearts – does it hurt here? Here? How about here? – and then reminds our hearts how to feel whole and good.
So there are big, frightening things in the old stories. Everything fractures – parents do not love, home is far away, lovers betray, rulers rule badly, brothers and sisters are separated –all peace is stripped away. And then, after you’ve gone there, after you’ve felt how bad it can get, there is a climb back to justice, love and wholeness. They all live happily ever after.
But happy endings aren’t about sentimentality or some sickly-sweet Disney version of reality; the stories we tell – they’re about us. And the people in them, they’re us. So we need to know that when the two older sons have failed, the third will succeed. In stories the world gets dismantled and the suspense and excitement comes from understanding it will be rebuilt. If it isn’t, then it’s not just unsatisfying, it’s unfair, unjust and makes us unhappy because we’ve lost all power to make things better.
The storytelling we do uses traditional, old stories. Not old-fashioned, old. And they’ve survived for all this time because they are important and relevant and they tell us things about ourselves and about ourselves in the world. They might be angry Kings instead of insane Presidents, or curses instead of man-made famines but they threaten the world and the people in it, just the same.
Cliff-hangers and shock endings are great, of course. A cliff hanger, a shock-horror screamer of a non-ending that leaves you yelping and gawping, is a lot of fun, and powerful. But only if everyone is in on the game. Then it’s a rewarding, tingling delight. And it can be an alarm rung close to your ear, a wake-up call to arms that says ‘it’ll only be OK if things change, if we do things differently from this.’
But a cliff hanger only works if the happy ending, that satisfying tying up, the breath of relief, is the rule that the cliff-hanger breaks.
Let’s have stories – legends, folktales, wonder tales, old stuff, new stuff- with happy endings. Let us give ourselves the strength and courage to live and love and make our voices heard.
Of course, there’s a lot to be gained from a tragic ending too, but that, as they say, is another story…
Alys Torrance and Lucy Lill
Story Jam is south London’s popular longstanding storytelling night. You can catch top tellers and songsters at Canada Water Theatre on Thursday 19th October and Thursday 7th December at 7.30pm and at the Albany on Thursday 7th November at 7.30pm. Each show features a different line-up and tales from every corner of the world.