Not my last words – at least I rather hope not – but to think about those ways in which books come to an end, and particularly some of the books I return to again and again, and how they are brought to a conclusion. This requires a Spoiler Alert here, par excellence: this blog post looks at Winnie the Pooh, Jack Miller, Thomas Cromwell, Lubrin Dhu, Randal of Dean, Adam Young, Lyra Belacqua, Samwise Gamgee and the works which they bring to conclusion: The House at Pooh Corner (yes, this link is to Dorothy Parker’s wicked review); Dark Matter; the Wolf Hall trilogy ending in The Mirror and the Light; Sun Horse, Moon Horse; Knight’s Fee; Good Omens; The His Dark Material trilogy (as it was), ending in The Amber Spyglass; The Lord of the Rings ending in The Return of the King . I have cited Susan Cooper’s end to The Dark is Rising sequence often enough, with the charge that It is up to you leaving space for the forging of a new world of justice. But do all the books I propose here – and they aren’t a Top Ten, just the most striking – have that sense of looking out onto a brave new world?
Well, no. I think the first book whose ending I was aware of was The House at Pooh Corner. The shades of the prison house are beginning to close round Christopher Robin, but Milne gives us a sort of apotheosis:
But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.A A Milne House at Pooh Corner Ch 10 “In which Christopher Robin and Pooh come to an enchanted place
and we leave them there.“
I can’t forget the end to Lord of the Rings where the book pivots back to the comfort of family and security after war, to where, when I read the final lines of the massive narrative I felt I knew it had been headed all along: Sam’s search for “locality and peace” as he says…
Well, I’m back.”J R R Tolkien: The Return of the King: The Grey Havens
There is a problem with all the different endings of LOTR: the film in particular grapples with the complex task of bringing all the endings together. In his text Tolkien manages well, with the possible death of Frodo and Sam (ah, but the eagles, the eagles!), the coronation of Aragorn, the scouring of the Shire and the death of Saruman, the departure of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and the others, but ends not with that final parting (the appendices tell us there are more ships going from the Grey Havens long after the end of the narrative proper), a sort of death, another sort of apotheosis, but with Sam coming back to where he has needed to be since first steps beyond the Shire at the start of the story.
Lyra Belacqua, at the end of the first Trilogy, His Dark Materials (and this is, of course, where Pullman gets tricky to comment on: one more book is coming for the second Trilogy) is left facing exactly the opposite to Tolkien’s Sam. She has lost her access to his great love, Will in his own world, and is sitting listening to the bells of her city in the dark of the Botanic Garden:
In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”
“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra. P Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, Ch 38 The Botanic Garden
For sheer rhetorical power it is worth savouring again and again: not a kingdom with structure held together by force of authority, but a nation-state where grace is not given but springs naturally. The phrase republic of heaven is a masterstroke.
Rosemary Sutcliff is a wonderful writer of endings – and there are two coming up, below – but it make me curious as to why I like them, and I can discern a couple of reasons. The speech of Eugenus in The Lantern Bearers has been quoted enough by me, but let me explain the power of a Sutcliff ending by the last day of the protagonist, Lubrin. I have explored this before. There are really two endings to Sun Horse, Moon Horse, really: the departure of Lubrin’s people, and his own death by sacrifice. These double-hits of denouement and close are part of the structure of much storytelling, and here Sutcliff manages both with grace and poignancy.
In the first, Lubrin watches from the ramparts of what we know now as Uffington Castle:
Somewhere, he knew , they would look back, and see the great white mare on the hillside; and then they would not look back again, but keep their faces to the north, following the dream of the distant grazing lands between the mountains and the sea.
There were so few of them, less than two hundred to the youngest child. He wondered how many more would be born on the way, how many would die. How long would it take them to get to the place where they were going. A year? Two years? Half a lifetime? He wondered if they would get there at all.
The white dust was rising behind them, and the track ran into the trees.
He watched until he could not see even the dust cloud any more. R Sutcliff, Sun Horse Moon Horse ch 12: Song of the Northward Droving
And maybe that would have been enough, but the author makes the ending far grander, with much more emotion in it, as Lubrin moves through the crowd of his captors to the death with which he has bought liberation. There is so much poignancy, so much loss and hope – and so much love for the land in which he has lived – in these final lines:
He knew the high wind-stippled sky above him, and the warm steadfastness of the ground beneath. He knew the harebell growing in the tawny grass, tossing on its thread-slender stem as the wind came by. From somewhere far away in time and place, he knew the weary joy of his people’s home coming to their herding runs between the northern mountains and the sea.
‘Brother, go free,’ said Cradoc.
He saw the sun-flash on the descending blade.Ibid. Ch 13: Sun Horse, Moon Horse
The almost unbearably noble “far, far better thing” that Lubrin does is to give himself up so that others – not he – can have a future. Aquila in The Lantern Bearers will continue his struggle so that the shreds of Roman culture can hold together for just a few more years. This is the same folorn hope – in the smae historical context, ore or less – that Sutclff presents us with at the end of Sword at Sunset, where Artos, her fallen, dying Arthur, ends the book with the rounded phrase
There will be more songs – more songs tomorrow, though it is not we who shall sing them.R Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset Ch 37:The Corn King,
But this is not her only trick to end a powerful narrative. Knight’s Fee is beautiful exploration of significant male friendship, but comes to a climax before the end of the book in a tragic bereavement. The ending is about Randal the protagonist bearing that loss but looking to the future with the corn, the responsibilities that come with holding a manor in Norman England. She might have ended it with Randal’s being given the manor: his painful homecoming shows that Sutcliff is unflinching as a storyteller.
There are multiple endings, too, as all the storylines resolve, in Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens. Armageddon nearly happens – but is averted; celestial and infernal wrath are nearly doled out on the cast – but aren’t; and Adam Young, the innocent-and-yet-not-innocent Antichrist goes off with his dog, nicking an apple as he goes:
If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boy and his dog and his friends. And a summer that never ends.… Imagine a tuneless whistle, pounding some lockless popular song into insensibility; imagine a figure, half angel, half devil, all human…
Slouching hopefully towards Tadfield.…
For everTerry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
Adam is left in an endless summer, like Christopher Robin. Schooling, parental discipline, irascible neighbours are all in the future. In this kind of ending we are not to imagine in any detail what comes next; their situation as it stands is enough.
These amazing endings sometimes are punctuated by swift, brilliant lines, but sometimes it is the situation that provides the drama. Hilary Mantel’s Mirror and the Light was always going to end with the death of her protagonist, but it is the manner of his dying, and the self-reflection that precedes it, that make the ending remarkable. It is poignant but takes its time, as ghosts of allies and enemies come to him like Caesar to Brutus. Singling out a last line is impossible. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter does a similar thing. In structure it is not unlike the double-hit of Sun Horse Moon Horse, but the tying up of loose ends sets the protagonist in a comfortable, sunny place after the harsh and haunted darkness of the Artic – only to pull the rug away from the reader in the final images.
So do I have a favourite ending? In what sense favourite – and this is where the status of the reader and critic might differ, but even then I’m not sure I can do that. Dispassionately I think the best ending – preceded by my favourite denouement – is the uncovering of Jorge and then the mediation of the aged Adso in The Name of the Rose, a book I haven’t even touched on here. Neither film nor TV adaptation could manage what Eco does. Out of this lot? Best crafted, I think is the ending of Lord of the Rings: well-paced, restrained emotionally and yet full of feeling. The chilling death at the climax of Dark Matter is astonishing – but the final thoughts of the undead in the Arctic darkness as the protagonist writes in the bright, warm West Indies so disturbed me I found it hard to sleep: nowhere is safe is a great message at the end of a horror story. Most emotive, for me, though – and this is much more a personal thing – is the going of the Inceni and the death of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse. I see I mention this book very often here – and of course elsewhere in the blog. All those complex relationships, and a weight of hope, and a sad ending, really, for all… The shadows of war hang over so much of her work; this seems to me, from what I’ve read, to be where she puts it best.