I’m not sure when happy endings fell out of fashion, but I do know that present-day narratives generally strive for a distorted concept of realism where the grittier and darker it is, the more “realistic” it is. At the very least, this is the case for fantasy novels, so much so that the concept of “grimdark” has emerged, although I believe it’s more applicable for adult fantasy novels rather than YA.
So it bears asking: what’s wrong about happily ever afters?
As with my previous LTTs, we should begin with a definition. The “happily ever after” trope goes must go beyond just “and the protagonists were victorious and the villains were defeated.” Although the defeat of the villain signals a positive future post-book for the characters involved, there are other factors that play a part in the happily ever after trope.
All plots should theoretically involve costs to the protagonist. There wouldn’t be stakes if there wasn’t something to lose, and the stakes wouldn’t feel substantial if the author didn’t prove the protagonist was going to have to struggle to get what they want. Costs can come in the form of losing a loved one or dealing with the mental and/or physical aftermath of that last big conflict. The bigger the supposed stakes, the bigger the cost ought to be.
Where happily ever afters get problematic is when they mitigate the post-book costs, when it feels like a character got off extremely lucky by losing less than they ought to have.
Warning: spoilers abound for the titles below. Consider:
The Lord of the Rings
Sauron gets defeated. His minions all collapse right before they could truly overwhelm and destroy Aragorn’s meager army. Aragorn gets crowned king and finally marries Arwen. The Hobbits return to the Shire to do battle one last time with Sarumon, but after their victory, Pippin, Merry, and Sam all settle down. Granted, Frodo never does. He never can, not after carrying the Ring for so long, but being the Ringbearer means he can join Bilbo and the Elves in their passage to the Undying Lands. But, when one considers the threat they were up against, it’s a miracle how many of them survived it at all. I believe the only major deaths were Boromir and Theoden.
When Bella becomes pregnant with a half-vampire baby, it looks like things are going to end bloodily when the Volturi turn up wanting to see the baby killed. Bella brings together the Cullen family as well as Jacob’s werewolf pack to face off against the Volturi vampires. But despite the bad odds, no one dies. No one even fights. They just talk it out and the Volturi leave, letting Edward and Bella have their weird happy ending.
The Starless Sea
The major villains of the novel attempt to make it so no one can access the Starless Sea ever again, denying people its beautiful magic. In an attempt to stop her and to save the Harbor, the Starless Sea, and the reincarnations of Time and Fate, the protagonists all wind up on a crazy journey that ends with the main protagonist, Zachary, killed by mistake. But the death doesn’t stick. His love interest, Dorian, saves him with magic. Mirabel and the Keeper make their escape, finally able to be together. And if one was worried about the end of the Harbor and the Starless Sea, the concern was unfounded, for Zachary’s friend, Kat, stumbles across the new Harbor in the very last scene of the book, proving the magic will prevail.
Adam, with the help of his friends, Crowley, Aziraphale, and a few others, managed to stop the apocalypse. They defeated the Four Horsemen, even erased Satan himself from existence. (At least, that was my impression.) Crowley and Aziraphale managed to trick the angels and demons into leaving them alone so they could finally be together, and Adam went back to live with his parents and play with his friends, with everything back in place like it should be. Or, almost, anyway..
The Tale of Despereaux
Despite the harm that multiple characters inflicted on the protagonists of the novel, the likes of the Princess, Roscuro, and Despereaux had no other choice but to forgive that harm or else be torn apart. Through the power of a shared meal, Roscuro left his bitterness behind him. Miggery Sow gets to borrow a crown. Despereaux gets to happily be in the presence of the princess. And all of them get to stand around some soup and be happy there.
Fairy Tale Endings
When we think of happily ever afters, we invariably think of fairy tales: Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White… They all end with their conflicts resolved, the villain defeated, and their Prince Charming found. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a fairy tale that has a happy ending, especially when these are cute little stories we tell kids. Happily ever afters are idealistic and hopeful. They say that the forces of evil can be defeated (whether that be neglectful stepmothers, one’s own self-loathing and self-pity, or jealous witches), and even better, that the conflict will end with a happy marriage to the man of your dreams.
The problem with these kinds of fairy tale endings being transferred onto lengthier, dare I say more mature?, narratives is that it gives the reader the literal best-case-scenario ending and likewise ignores the obvious fact that romance is not a spark but rather is a seed that needs to be planted, cultivated, and grown. The derision for these kinds of endings stems from experience. If only we readers could defeat our evil stepmothers and find out that the rest of our happy lives are laid out before us.
Let’s return to a few of our above examples. Twilight‘s finale was well-regarded to be something of a disappointment. The Volturi were set up to be insurmountable odds, the opposing side of a battle that the Cullens had to win despite the fact that they’re terribly outnumbered. But Stephanie Meyer wanted this to have a happy ending. Edward and Bella were set up as a fairy tale couple, destined to be together. But of course the readers have grown attached to Jacob and his pack. They’ve grown attached to the Cullen family. To see any of them die in a battle would have marred that happy ending Meyer wanted, and thus, the readers were given an unsatisfactory conclusion where, despite everything, the conflict got wrapped up in a neat little bow, mitigating the very stakes it had been building since book one.
We can also look at Starless Sea. There were several antagonists at play in the novel, but the only one that gets summarily defeated was Allegra, the mundane, non-magical one. As for the likes of the Owl King and the…metaphorical?…stars that kept Mirabel and the Keeper apart, well, we don’t know. The two were able to slip out of the Harbor and into the “real world,” but the specifics were never revealed. That, in addition to the sudden, left-field resurrection of the main character so that Zachary and Dorian could have their happy ending made for a story that very clearly said that it believed the false assumption that any happy ending is a satisfactory one.
Merging Realism Into a Trope As Old as Time
I think it goes without saying that “happily ever afters” happen on a gradient of optimism. Generally speaking, a story will end on some kind of happy note. We readers like to see the characters did not go through all of their trials for nothing, and that they did, in the end, get something out of it. Or, at the very least, that the price the protagonist had to pay was worth it, even if maybe they’re not the one who gets to see that happy outcome. But how optimistic the ending is generally correlates with how realistic the cost.
Consider the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings. In broad strokes, it does have a happy ending. Hardly anyone of note dies, and those who live find themselves getting to live in peace for the rest of their hopefully-long lives. But, say all you want Tolkien’s long-winded conclusion to the series, it does acknowledge that defeating a great evil does not necessarily mean that there will be no more conflict in the future. And even if Aragorn and Arwen are promised long lives together, there’s no denying that Aragorn will die eventually, that there will be grief when he does. Frodo will never be able to escape the weight of carrying the Ring that long distance, and that is his price to pay for their victory. And even though Merry, Pippin, and Sam get their own little happy endings, they have to say farewell to Frodo when he leaves with Gandalf and the others for the Undying Lands. For all its happiness, there is still a bitter sweetness to the ending.
With the rise of gritty realism, it’s really no surprise that happily ever afters are looked upon with some disdain. After all, just because a book has a happy ending doesn’t mean it’s a happily ever after. The trope disregards all possible conflict in the future: the war was won, the characters lived through their trials, and now they can finally have that hard-earned quiet, peaceful ending they so wanted. Lord of the Rings fits the trope on technicalities; even Frodo gets his happy ending, though his departure does, of course, pull at the heartstrings.
Modern narratives tend to stick closer to the middle of the gradient. They want their happy endings, but worry that too happy of a conclusion will ring out as “unrealistic.” Of course, readers riot when their OTPs don’t end up together by the end of the story, so most authors will diverge from the happily-ever-after path by hitting their protagonists with grief during the climactic finale. Characters are going to die. The protagonist gets their scars, whether mental or physical. Even if the happy ending makes the character’s pain worth their while, there’s no forgetting that those things happened, etc. And yet, there are ways that an author can write a happily ever after without making it feel too much like a fairy tale.
When discussing the happily ever after trope in a fantasy novel, there are generally two identifiers: 1) To avoid dealing with grief and loss post-book, few named characters are killed off, and 2) To establish a happy future for the characters, the ending is written with the clear assumption that all of the relationship pairs will survive and thrive post-book. Of course, the current market dictates that some level of realism be infused into the overall plot, that the author acknowledge the cost of the conflict.
Barring fairy tale retellings or whimsical narratives–which generally imply, from the beginning, that there will be some kind of happy ending–one can still write a narrative with a happily ever after that likewise answers to the modern desire to have some realistic understanding of cost. FIRSTLY: A book can keep all of its named characters alive so long as the conflict leaves some sort of toll, whether that be a physical or mental one (scars, guilt at their actions, etc.) Characters can even be resurrected, but if and only if it is carefully and discreetly laid out as a possibility well before the actual resurrection takes place. SECONDLY: Few novels span more than a month or two. You’re lucky to get a year out a fantasy novel, generally speaking. Which, as I’ve said before, is not enough time to really know if you can spend your whole life with someone. But if you’re hoping to satisfy one’s readers demands for at least a semblance of realism, it’s important to acknowledge that the characters are going to have disagreements in the future, but that they’re the kind of couple willing to work it out.