The first four volumes each ended with the promise that the story would continue. The hope of more, that somehow this epic could unfold in any direction. So it came as a shock when the end came. Narnia ended, I felt, when the story had played itself out, but Prydain wasn’t done. Alexander even made that plain in his explanation that more took place after the final chapter. We just didn’t get to see it. The story was done, and all the possibilities closed down.
Since I’ve already mentioned fantasy, consider Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Though arguably the Twentieth Century’s most influential book, it lags in both the early and late chapters. Tolkein felt the need for such intricate introductions and explanations that the Council of Elrond runs nearly as long as some entire novels. And observe how filmmaker Peter Jackson elided Tolkein’s long, talky denouement. Only the middle doesn’t suffer from either scene-setting or resolution.
If you want a more mainstream example, consider Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness and Nostromo, acknowledged classics both, present us with lush stories that probe at the inner recesses of the human soul. They also don’t so much resolve as peter out. By his own admission, Conrad had difficulty writing endings, but this didn’t stop him feeling the need to close every door he opened. Thus these masterworks sputter in the final pages.
Unfortunately, most sequels have been undisputed stinkers. I blame the authors’ evident need to solve every debate definitively. Only Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which butters its bread with existential ambiguity and, if anything, asks even more questions, merits our time. Nor is this problem unique to Shakespeare; consider all the authors who write sequels to the Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice—and how few are actually are worth reading.
Shakespeare, Homer, and Austen knew that, if they left important plot threads open, we would write our own stories. Even if we don’t literally put pen to paper, we tell stories to ourselves. We ask questions, we speculate on possibilities, and we put ourselves into the shoes of our favorite protagonists. We make meaning not from the completion of every concept the authors put on the page, but in the ability to join the story, which we can only do if the story remains open.
Perhaps that’s why ongoing series novels dominate the current publishing domain. Maybe audiences like middles so much that they want stories to hang on. Though one particular conflict may resolve, our characters’ arcs remain intact, and continue to live in a world where anything can happen. Because we want to believe anything can happen in our world, as Lloyd Alexander taught me to hope so many years ago.