A good story has a beginning and an end, and some stuff in between. It’s tough to tell when it stops beginning and starts to end.
Beyond that, there are stories out there that have no discernible beginning or end. It’s tough to tell when they start beginning and stop ending. They become a Möbius Strip of creation – an infinite tapestry of interwoven stories that form an endless circle of reflexivity.
Call them epics or sagas – depart from the traditional definitions, if you must. I prefer to extend both “epic” and “saga” to include these infiniversal tales (though they need not be Scandinavian or heroic).
You want examples.
Good stories: The Great Gatsby, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Grapes of Wrath, Choke, Call of the Wild, On the Road, the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, and I could go on, but I assume you’ll find one of these that you are at least familiar with.
Good epics/sagas: The Star Wars universe, the Star Trek universe, Middle Earth, the Dune universe, Narnia, the Marvel multiverse, the Whoniverse, Asimov’s Foundation continuity, and again I could go on.
The first bunch all have distinct focal points. Take Gatsby for example: We don’t need to know about or care about Nick’s great-great-great-ancestors for the tale to be complete. You may argue that Harry Potter and Twilight deserve this “epic” distinction, but again, the focus is on a specific generation of characters with noticeable and meaningful past influences not extending beyond one or two more generations. A story may take eight novels to tell in its entirety, but that doesn’t give it the “epic” distinction that I’m referring to.
The second bunch, in comparison, all go well beyond the typical tale in scope and meaning. For these, we have to open our minds to take in millions of years, thousands of characters, hundreds of plots. Typically, these epics I speak of are beyond the abilities of one single author to create, though many have done well alone. Frank Herbert’s original Dune novels are insanely epic in their own right, but add in what Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson have expanded upon and you get something completely different – an almost endless tale.
So what makes a story epic? Open source literature?
You can read Harry Potter and imagine the origins of magic, the past of wizardry, the future of the world those characters inhabit, but Rowling’s intentions began with Harry Potter being born into extraordinary circumstances and ended with Harry Potter resolving the conflicts that arose from those extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps the story continues, but at this point Harry’s story deserves a “The End.” Will Rowling open up that universe to other authors, letting it be populated by the visions of others? I doubt it.
You can argue that A New Hope through Return of the Jedi has a distinct focus, but Lucas seeded the past blatantly. Even Episode One feels like a middle point to a story. The fact that Lucas opened his universe up to other writers just filled in the blanks to a universe that he had already set the rules to. “A long time ago” has become “An even longer time ago” and “A long time after”.
Personally, I prefer the epic universes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the framed story as well. This is not my way of saying one-offs or short series are for the unintelligent, the easily distracted, or easily entertained, but I have noticed that those readers who extend preference towards the epic are oftentimes extremely intelligent and imaginative people in their own right. It takes an epic mind to accept the entirety of an epic tale.
Television has inadvertently resurrected the epic serial. Where once the serial found its heaven in small cinemas, it now finds undeath in television. What you can’t do on the big screen, you do on cable. The problem is the business side of television has narrow vision. Capitalism does not deal in epics – in deals in zombie clones of domesticated livestock.
The reason why we’ve been privileged to epic storytelling on television is how easily epic tales fit into the soap opera formula. I know you don’t want to hear it, but Battlestar Galactica and Lost are children of the soap opera and nothing else. It doesn’t matter the intentions of the writers – the creators of those universes. Those products made it on the air because the executives in charge of generating profit for their respective corporations saw that any genre can work in the soap opera format – not because they felt the stories needed to be told. This is elementary. This is business.
I’m not telling you anything new. This is what television and cinema are in this century – the raping of the creative mind for cash cows, and the discarding of those ideas in the dampness of darkened alleyways when the new car smell fades.
The bottom line is this: the acceptance and success of our creative children has become increasingly dependent upon both the state of popular culture and the overall psyche of the human race. We do not deal in epics in anymore. We are not concerned with the future of our species if the profits are not tangible in the present. We want the quick fix, the instant return – we copy the past as formula, and pound out the same old song, ka-chung, ka-chung, ka-chung. We love to invest, but not on the future. The stock market dives on news, not predictive models. We’re concerned with what’s “in” and what’s “hot”, not what’s brewing, not what is evolving, not what could be.
“This doesn’t make money,” we say.
“Why does it need to?” we should ask.
There is an infiniverse of creativity that exists in the collective soul of the human race. This is our greatest power – not the ability to observe and repeat. We are the creators. We are the weavers of the infinite tapestries and every thread of original creation should be given praise and respect.
Instead, we elevate those who have accumulated wealth. We worship the manipulative and the greedy. We take the stance that wealth equals intelligence. We mine the soul of the human race for profit and rape the artistic mind for treasure.
We see the epic human, but we divide him into seconds, minutes, and hours. We impose limitations on its legacy: at this age you should have accomplished this, at that age you should have accomplished that. Homo sapiens is an epic species because of its creativity, not because of its power.
Worth should be defined by the longevity of influence and impact of change upon the path of evolution.
We ask today: “What will this get me?”
We should ask: “What will this change us into?”
As a species, we will go on, and regardless of our involvement with the future of our species, we are affecting it whether we want to or not. I stop short of dictating how people should choose to live their lives, but I challenge people to consider that while realistically there is an end to our lives, in the epic that is the life of the species, our deaths end with “to be continued”.
Life is a journey, not a destination. Spirituality, even in the most rigid organized religions, is a journey, not a destination. Love is a journey, not a destination.
The world evolves around us, and we have to move with it. We don’t spend decades of our life just to find a place to get comfortable and say “The End”. We push until we can push no longer, we go as far as we can go, as high as we can climb.
In our quest for spiritual peace, the quest never ends. What religion doesn’t encourage interaction, love, and friendship with those around you. You don’t profess your belief in a deity, a creation story, and a set of laws just to say “The End”. Spirituality, religion, philosophy – these are all endless journeys of enlightenment. No day follows a day like itself.
Love, marriage, companionship, friendship, are all perpetual in development. They are serial pursuits, not milestones or agreements we reach and then let gather dust. They require work and tending like a garden. We don’t find a friend and say “see ya”, we don’t find a life partner and say “The End”, the story goes on, the engagement between the two parties goes on into the next day, the next year, the next decade, and it requires you to be present and active in the evolution of that relationship.
There is no “The End”.
We are “to be Continued…”