The Tremendous Issue

Last week I reviewed The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There was one criticism I had, when I first finished the novel, that I withdrew after further thought. I’ll share it now, but first a

SPOILER WARNING: This post will focus on the ending of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading here.

Twenty years after Notting Hill’s victory, it began to tyrannize the other cities, forcing on them its own customs and rules. When they answered with the threat of war, Notting Hill took up the challenge eagerly. Adam Wayne rebuked his people, “Notting Hill is a nation. Why should it condescend to be a mere Empire?”

But they would not listen. So Notting Hill went to war against a hundred allied cities, and Wayne went down with his army to die.

My brother called the battle a Shakespearean slaughter. Chesterton killed – if not everyone, then at least he came close. Notting Hill was destroyed entirely. Watching the characters fall, I was startled and disappointed. I can still feel disappointed reading it again. But I am no longer inclined to criticize, because now I understand the purpose of it.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a story about patriotism. In the last, unexpected twist of the book, Notting Hill dies, as all nations eventually must. And Chesterton confronts the strongest objection to loving a country.

After the battle, “upon the field of the bloody end of it all”, a voice spoke: “So ends the Empire of Notting Hill. As it began in blood, so it ended in blood, and all things are always the same.”

And another voice answered out of the darkness: “If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. … If our ancient humanity were a single man, it might perhaps be that he would break down under the burden of so many diverse heroisms, under the load and terror of all the goodness of men. But it has pleased God so to isolate the individual soul that it can only learn of all other souls by hearsay, and to each one goodness and happiness come with the youth and violence of lightning, as momentary and as pure. And the doom of failure that lies on all human systems does not in real fact affect them any more than the worms of the inevitable grave affect a children’s game in a meadow.”

And the first voice offered another challenge: “What might have been done to Notting Hill if the world had been different may be a deep question, but there is a deeper. What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The answer came: “The same thing that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom.”

To end his story in grim failure was strange for G K. Chesterton. He wrote happy endings; in his novels I have read besides Notting Hill, I can recall only one character death, and that was of a minor villain. But it is only on the “field of the bloody end” that the question becomes so sharp. They ask, and answer again, what is the worth of Notting Hill – not in its triumph or in its weakness, but in its ruin.

And at that inevitable ruin, when a dark voice said it all meant nothing, another voice answered, “Notting Hill has fallen; Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue. Notting Hill has lived.”

CSFF Blog Tour: Red Shirts and Snapped Threads

In my last post, I criticized Beckon for its high casualty rate. I thought it would be good, today, to consider why characters are killed, and why they ought to be.

One common reason for killing characters is to (in the words of one author) “create peril”. Many poor red shirts* have lost their lives for this. And much of the time it doesn’t even work. Audiences are wise to the tactic; they are not going to feel peril when a character dies if they know the character died so that they would feel peril.

What’s more, they understand that the fate of minor characters says little about the fate of major characters. The fact that an author kills an unimportant character doesn’t mean that he’s willing to kill an important character. Indeed, some authors kill the supporting cast because they aren’t willing to kill the stars.

This is, as I said, commonly done – but I can’t help but think there are better ways of creating peril, and certainly better uses of characters.

Some characters are killed because, simply, the author wants to get rid of them. Although, in the short term, they had their purpose, they have no long-term place in the story. This can be understandable, at times it may even be necessary – but it is always an artistic weakness. It is an artistic weakness to snap a thread because you can’t work its color into the design.

A character may no longer be useful, but rarely is the fault inherently in the character. Even if it is – well, we know who created him. To relate the discussion back to Beckon – and if you don’t want spoilers, go no further – both of Jack’s companions died in the spelunking expedition. His position would have been much different if they had lived; it would have been much stronger, which would probably have been a bad thing.

But it was not necessary for those characters to die even for Jack to emerge from the caves alone. If, say, Rudy had fallen into the hands of the N’watu, Jack could still have gone into Beckon alone and we might have had the opportunity to understand the N’watu. If you take the trouble, you can find tremendous opportunities in unlikely characters.

Yet there are times when death is the proper consummation of a character’s story. Then it can be done with artistic strength – when a character dies not to make the audience nervous or to relieve the author of having to handle him, but to fulfill his own story.

* Red shirts are minor characters who are soon killed, usually as a sort of demonstration of the dangers our heroes face. The name comes from the original Star Trek series, where random crewmen – generally wearing red – would tag along with Kirk and Spock only to die just when things really started to get interesting.

CSFF Blog Tour: A Vote for Happiness

[Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers everywhere]

Do you know what irony is? Irony is a man wondering if he can find a new life, and then getting killed ten minutes later – due to past sins, no less.

I don’t know if Jeffrey Overstreet intended such a morose irony, though he did write it. That was the ending he dealt out to Ryllion, the repentant villain of The Ale Boy’s Feast. Cesylle – Ryllion’s partner in villainy and ex-villainy – received a similar fate. He said there was no way out of the hole he’d dug, and the book appeared to agree with him, squashing him like a bug five pages later.

Again, I don’t know what Overstreet intended. I could only speculate, and I really don’t care to. My point is how the story came off to me as I read it. Many readers, I am certain, did not mind Ryllion and Cesylle’s fates, and some surely saw meaning in it. But I was left puzzled by their brutal deaths and the apparent purposelessness of it.

The killings accomplished little in the overall plot. The only major ramification I can think of is that Emeriene, upon being widowed, headed off into the wilderness after another man. And she may have been planning to do that anyway. The story drew nothing great from those sacrifices, and neither did the characters. Cesyr and Channy were not at all comforted to see their father become a hero at last – and in truth.

Ryllion’s death had a near-miss with significance. When he joined Auralia and the others in the dungeon, I thought, “This is good; I can get behind this.” When it turned out he was really Pretor Xa, I thought, “I can still get behind this.” I assumed the story was headed to an epic showdown beyond the Forbidding Wall, but the Seer did … nothing. And the heroes – the same. Villain: 0. Heroes: 0. They kicked off and then canceled the game.

But beyond all this, I wished the whole book that Ryllion and Cesylle could have found the renewed lives they were looking for. After watching them run after grace, I wanted to see them walk in it. Some might say the way it actually ended is more realistic, and chances are they’re right. But if I wanted realism, I wouldn’t be reading a novel about killer sticks and water that raises the dead.

I realize that much of this is subjective; I am a sucker for happy endings, and a self-confessed softie. So let me cast the vote for once-villains not dying in sad fulfillment of their doubts and fears. I never expected Cesylle and Ryllion to get a group hug, but I thought they could have gotten a second chance.