The Triumph of Tragedy: GUEST POST by Matthew Ward
Today, Matthew Ward returns to the Fantasy Hive for our stop on the Blog Tour for the spectacular conclusion to his Legacy trilogy, LEGACY OF LIGHT.
Do be sure to check out the rest of the tour!
Tragedy is the engine of a great story. It’s the promise that actions have consequences, and that triumph is fleeting. Inasmuch, tragedy is prevalent across storytelling, speculative or otherwise, and a cornerstone of Grimdark fiction, which proudly rejects happily ever afters. Tragedy’s also a big part of my Legacy Trilogy. So many of the characters are carting around the means of their own destruction … whether they realise it or not.
Tragedy’s hardly a new weapon in the storyteller’s arsenal. Hell, most myths and folk tales are cautionary stories in the vein of ‘and then he ate/stole/drank/slept with/lied to someone or something he shouldn’t, and there were serious consequences’ so there’s definitely a case to be made for tragedy being as old as storytelling itself. When we think about mythic figures like Robin Hood and King Arthur, the tales of their deaths overshadow almost everything else.
But what’s the difference between a Tragedy with a capital ‘T’ and merely a case of some sad stuff happening while a story plays out? Picking a source at random, the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines tragedy as:
‘… a branch of drama that treats in a serious and dignified style the sorrowful or terrible events encountered or caused by a heroic individual.’
That’s pretty good, as nutshell definitions go, but I think we can go further.
First of all, I’m not wedded to the idea that a tragedy always spills outward from the actions of a hero (though it often does). What a tragedy calls upon us to do, first and foremost, is empathise with the protagonist.
Of course, making the protagonist a hero is the fastest way to create empathy, but we do, by and large, love a bastard – so long as they’re compelling. In fact, flawed attempts at redemption forge wonderfully tragic tales once the wheels come off.
Second, and more importantly, the above definition is missing what makes a tragedy worthy of the name absolutely sing: the audience knows, almost from the start, that it’s all going to end badly. They are, in other words, in on the joke. Except it’s not a very funny joke. From Hamlet, to Londo Mollari (Babylon 5), to Léon “No Women, No Kids” (Léon: The Professional), to Elim Garak (Deep Space Nine), to Francis Urquhart (House of Cards), we know pretty much from the get-go that these are folk heading for a head-on collision for decisions they’ve made, and are still making.
But doesn’t knowing how the story’s going to end diminish its power? Well, you might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment … Ah, who am I kidding? Of course I’ve got something to say.
Thing is, most stories aren’t about the ending but the journey… and that’s doubly true of tragedy. However, where a cheerier tale tempts you to think that the protagonist might not actually defeat the bad guy (or gal) and save her (or his) love interest along the way, a tragedy lures you into believing – for the odd moment, here or there – that the protagonist might actually achieve their goals. Where a heroic tale builds tension by teasing the idea of failure, a tragedy teases with hope – we want to believe that the hero (or scoundrel) we’re following can achieve their goals …
… almost as much as we want to see them fail.
You see, tragedy’s cathartic on two distinct levels. First of all, by shining a light on another’s horrific struggles we feel better about our own (hopefully) more mundane challenges. Yes, the commute was horrible this morning, but Frodo Baggins will never be free of the One Ring’s burden (or the bite of the Morgûl blade, or Shelob’s sting), you selfish monster. Knowing that Battlestar Galactica’s Laura Roslin is destined to lead her people to a new home she won’t live to see really helps put that empty jar of marmalade into perspective.
As for the second level of catharsis? Are you ready for an unpleasant truth – the worm in the bottle of Tragedy Tequila, as it were?
We’re all of us monsters. (Yes, you especially.) We like to see people suffer. Fictional people in particular, because it frees us of all of that enervating moralising that comes with seeing it play out in real life, however much we might otherwise feel the person deserves something to happen to them. Oh, I’m not judging. It’s not necessarily an expression of malice. Might be an innate sense of justice at work. A desire for the wheel to turn and, if not grind, then at least lightly squash – just enough so the squashee knows what they did. It’s why tabloid newspapers and Twitter do such a roaring trade in clickbait.
I suspect this latter point is why a tragedy’s protagonist – whether a hero, a villain or something in between – is always a flawed character. On some level, they have to deserve what’s coming. Or, at least, we have to be able to tell ourselves that they deserved it.
This friction between justice, triumph and loss is where tragedy sings. On the sine wave of the protagonist’s struggles, we get to cling, cheering, to the peaks of their successes, even though we can see the troughs yawning just ahead. Depending on where our sympathies lie, we silently implore the protagonist to dwell a moment longer in triumph and happiness before it all goes sour and sticky – or urge them to take their medicine and pay for all the harm and horror (intentional or otherwise) they’ve doled out along the way.
And the best thing is … You can do it all over again.
Tragedies, more than any other kind of story, encourage repeat consumption because they constantly invite you to consider the ‘What Ifs’. Don’t kill him. Don’t betray her. Don’t touch that strange glowing object. Don’t sign that contact. Aid your ally when they beg for help. Realise you’re in the wrong before it’s too late. Maybe if the protagonist makes just one different decision, the outcome will change. They can dwell on the crest of the wave forever, and never plunge into the depths.
This is a special kind of cruelty that the reader (or viewer) inflicts upon themselves, because of course we know that the decisions aren’t going to be different, and the outcome isn’t going to change. But whether you live for the hope that things might change, or to watch the protagonist suffer all over again, the thrill and catharsis remain.
I said you were a monster. It’s not my fault.
LEGACY OF LIGHT is available now! Find out where you can get a copy below:
Matthew Ward is a cat servant, creative consultant and author of the Legacy Trilogy, the final book of which – Legacy of Light – is available now. Follow him on Twitter (@thetowerofstars) or check out his website www.thetowerofstars.com.