The last story got me thinking about mythology in general, how they don’t end happily ever after (HEA). I’m honoring my promise by not talking specifically about the Levite priest, Gibeah, and the Benjamites. I ended the discussion on Monday by referencing how the Greeks favored tragedies over comedies, so I’ll pick up there.
The first thing to understand is that comedy didn’t mean what we think it means. It was not about generating laughs. That was in there, but then tragedies also had elements of humor in them. In Greek literature, and later the Renaissance literature, a comedy meant a happily ever after. Specifically, it ended in marriage. Weddings were a union and look at the future, a time of hope and building new things. They were nice and all, but the Greeks preferred their tragedies. Aristotle went on at length about the nature of comedies and tragedies in Poetics, which still serves as the baseline for a lot of literature.
The Greeks (Aristotle) felt that tragedies taught us more. They are the warning of what not to do, of how human beings become responsible for their own downfall. The gods even become a part of this as many of the myths have shown us acts of hubris whereby the gods exact punishment. We can see that readily with Andromeda, Medusa, and Acteon to name a few.
There are also cautions about how powerful people exact punishments when telling them what they don’t want to hear. For his honesty, Teiresias was blinded by Hera. This is an innate lesson about the nature of social power. Those higher up in the food chain can do what they want to those who are lower. Even among the gods there is a hierarchy where those with power can mistreat those without, more or less with impunity.
These unhappy stories, the tragedies, are cautions to humanity. Beware of your own actions or of actions which might offend someone in power as the result is the same. Above all, do not underestimate those around you. That is its own form of hubris. Agamemnon and Jason believed themselves above their respected wives. They learned too late that they were not invulnerable. Even mighty Zeus, with all his power, was once brought low after a conspiracy of the gods captured him.
These unHEA stories are common throughout mythology. We don’t get HEA. Is this contrived because they didn’t like these stories? I don’t think so. I think it was just meant to reflect their living. Every once in a great while we get happily ever after, and those stories are to be cherished because they are so rare in life.
We’re mostly beset by stories in which we manage to survive. We carry on to tackle the next story in our lives, much like Odysseus who not only had to fight his way home, but had to fight a war to begin with. Did he get an HEA? Of a sort just by the fact that we last left him alive, at home, with his wife and son.
By the time we get to the late Middle Ages, when the Grimms, Perrault, and Andersen have created fairy tales that end happily, things are changing, with HEA becoming more popular, possibly even the norm, at least for younger readers.
The allure of tragedy never goes away completely, though. Shakespeare wrote far more tragedies than comedies, and by the end of his career, he was realizing that the best stories are a rich blend of the two.
Personally, while I like the occasional HEA, I can’t do it for very long, purely because there is no variety. Every HEA is the same; there’s almost no variation. I like stories that end in surprising ways, that push the edges. My favorite romance story is Casablanca where Bogey does not get the girl. But it’s still a very romantic ending, especially because our hero Bogey, acted out of moral right and love for Ilsa.
I think, much like the Greeks, we can take more, be changed more, by endings that are not HEA. The HEA gives us comfort and resolution, and no reason to think more about the story or our own lives. Other endings ask us, or even force us, to be reflective and introspective.