Folkdays: Folktale Closings

It has grown late, and the campfire has reduced to smouldering embers, which glow in the breeze that begins to creep in from the surrounding dark.

As the flames recede, so does the story: both have spent hours dancing in the air, and both now begin to wane. The tale teller, as if to coax the very last enchantment out of both fire and story, draws in closer.

Every story must have it’s ending. It is the role of the tale teller to make sure that ending is brilliant enough to keep glowing, long into the night…

A month or two ago, I wrote a Folkdays post which explored the extraordinary variety of folktale openings. In a similar fashion, this post will delve into the many different folktale closings, from all over the world, and draw out a few interesting things they teach us about storytelling and folktales. A full list of folktale closings can be found here.

Just as ‘once upon a time’ holds a prominent place amongst folktale openings, there is a closing phrase that has become more common than all others: ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. It leaves the listener with a sense of contentment, to know that the trials and tribulations in the story were overcome, and happiness was reached in the end.

This formulation of a tale – from normality, to danger, to tragedy averted, and finally to happiness – has become so traditional, and this closing so expected, that it can remove some of the listener’s apprehension, even subconsciously. In early modern theatre all plays, even tragedies, ended with the players joining together in a jig or dance. This sent the audience off in a lighthearted mood, but also worked to assure them that none of the harm which was enacted on stage was real. ‘Happily ever after’ works in the same way: because a listener expects it to close the story, they end – and sometimes even begin – the experience without concern.

Some see it as doing the exact opposite. Joshua Loth Liebman claims that ‘and they lived happily ever after is one of the most tragic sentences in literature’, and that the prevalence of this closing can influence the minds of young listeners and negatively skew their expectations of life. If children are lead to believe that all lives will end ‘happily ever after’, he asserts, then the challenges of life will hit them a lot harder. This is a very cynical and pessimistic view, that should not be touted as a reason to stop children enjoying traditional folktale formulations.

Nevertheless, many folktale closings seem to acknowledge this overly-idealistic phrasing, and in a typically riddling fashion, seek to relinquish any blame if the tale has caused upset or disappointment.

And if they didn’t live happily ever after, that’s nothing to do with you or me.

Now, honourable dames and gentlemen, do not judge this story of mine too severely. If you like it, praise it; if not, let it be forgotten. The story is told and a word is like a sparrow – once out it is out for good.

This is my tale, whether it be sour, whether it be sweet, take what you wish and let the rest return to me.

Be bow bended, my story’s ended. If you don’t like it, you can take it to Wales, and buy some nails and mend it.

Some, like various folktale openings, create a sense of ambiguity about their truthfulness. This can also work to make the tale-teller blameless if the nature of the story has caused any upset.

The dreamer awakes, the shadow goes by, When I tell you a tale, the tale is a lie. But listen to me, fair maiden, proud youth, The tale is a lie, what it tells is the truth.

Chase the rooster and catch the hen, I’ll never tell a lie like that again.

And if you are going to tell a lie, tell it big enough so that no one will believe you.

The moral of the story is quite simple: If you insist on inventing stories, you had better marry an even better storyteller to back you up.

On the other hand, some tales are presented as being embedded in truth, either by the characters in the story being mentioned as still living, or the tale-teller positioning themselves as having been a part of the story.

If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself.

In fact, if I hadn’t been there myself, I never would have believed it could happen.

And they ate and drank, and were merry and of good cheer, and if they have not stopped, they are merry and of good cheer to this very day!

They feasted and they drank, and if the wine hadn’t run out, I’d still be there with them instead of here talking to you.

Some endings speak to the way in which folktales are transmitted – orally, and from generation to generation. Telling tales is figured as being the office of the elderly in a community, whose wealth of life experience gives the tales a certain gravitas. The passing of tales onwards is frequently encouraged, as a way of keeping the chain unbroken, and preserving the tales which have shaped imaginations for generations.

Now, that piper handed the tune down to his children, and his children to their children, and the old people taught it to me.

This is what the Old Ones told me when I was a child… 

That’s the way my grand mammy told me. And there’s no contradicting this, for she heard it with her own ears, just as you’re hearing it with yours.

And the last person to tell that story…. is standing here before you!

And now the story is yours.

There are other ways by which the importance of tale-telling is stated. Tale-tellers are the ones who put the phenomenon of the world and life into words, so it can be understood. Tale telling is seen as a way of preserving a life or a people; it is a way for the truth of the human soul to be expressed. In certain cases, folktale closings are almost proverbial.

The world is a story without a beginning we tell to each other from the day that we’re born to the day that we die.

We shall exist as long as our stories are moist with our breath.

When the heart overflows, it comes out through the mouth.

Most of all, folktale closings remind the listener of the fun of hearing stories told. In early societies, before the rise of technology and popular culture, tale-telling was a crucial means of entertainment and socialisation, especially through the long winter nights. They pull the listener out of the world of the story, but remind them how joyful it was to be suspended in fantasy for a short while.

Well, whether it was false or true, the tale spread far and near, because the tale was fun to hear.

A grief shared by many is half a grief. A joy shared is twice a joy.

There now, I have chopped off half the winter.

Now, in the twenty-first century, folktales no longer circulate in the same close-knit ways, with a tale-teller holding a central position in a small community. Today, the closing lines of a story – whether it be on film, television, or in music or theatre – are often a lot simpler. Yet they still sometimes convey the same messages as the folktale closings explored here: they seek to leave the audience feeling light-hearted and remind them of the joy of the story just told; encourage tales to be passed onwards; show how tale-telling enables the human soul to find expression; and in some cases, by breaking the fourth wall, creating an ambiguity in whether or not the story was really a story…

Hey, that was really fun, we hope you liked it too, seems like we’ve just begun, when suddenly we’re through… (Disney Channel’s Bear in the Big Blue House, 1997-2006)

Now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me? (The Alphabet Song)

You alone have made my song take flight; It’s over now, the music of the night! (Phantom of the Opera, since 1986)

You’re still here? It’s over! Go home. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986)

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