Décembre 2023 | “It’s no good anyone winning.” Refusing the Victory of Good in Postmodern Fantasy Fiction

Suzanne Bray, université catholique de lille


The flood of popular fantasy fiction instigated by the success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s followed a relatively predictable pattern. Like Tolkien’s saga, most 20th century, and even early 21st century, fantasy fiction conforms to the schema outlined in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), and includes both a fight between good and evil and a happy ending. Tolkien even considered that “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” was an essential part of a successful fantasy story. However, in recent years, several bestselling fantasy authors have decided to abandon the final victory of good over evil and present a more low-key ending. Examples of this include the final volume, by Brandon Sanderson, of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga, A Memory of Light (2012) and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (1990). To a lesser extent, George Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation come into the same category. This article examines these works of popular postmodern fantasy and attempts to discover the reasons for their authors’ refusal of the traditional ending. It could be that, unlike the Roman Catholic Tolkien, they consciously rejected the Christian world view with its post-apocalyptic, joyful heaven, or just, as C. S. Lewis suggests, that imagining heaven or a society without evil, is practically impossible, even for those who have faith.


Le flot de fiction populaire que l’on qualifie de fantasy, initié par le succès du Seigneur des anneaux, la trilogie de Tolkien parue dans les années 1950, a suivi son cours de façon assez prévisible. Comme la saga de Tolkien, la grande majorité des œuvres de fiction fantastique publiées au vingtième siècle, ou même au début du vingt-et-unième siècle, illustre les préceptes énoncés dans Le Héros aux mille et un visages (1949) de Joseph Campbell, et contient une lutte entre le bien et le mal qui trouve un dénouement heureux. Tolkien considérait même que “la consolation du dénouement heureux” était un élément essentiel de toute fantasy réussie. Cependant, plus récemment, plusieurs auteurs à succès de fantasy ont décidé d’abandonner la victoire finale du bien sur le mal et de présenter un dénouement moins dramatique. Deux exemples de ce phénomène sont A Memory of Light (2021), le dernier volume, écrit par Brandon Sanderson, de la série Le Roue du temps de Robert Jordan et De bons présages (1990) par Terry Pratchett et Neil Gaiman. À un moindre degré, on peut classer la série Feu et sang de George Martin et son adaptation pour le petit écran dans la même catégorie. Cet article examine ces œuvres de fantasy post-modernes et tente de découvrir pourquoi leurs auteurs ont refusé le dénouement traditionnel. Il se peut que, contrairement à Tolkien, connu pour sa foi catholique, ils ont consciemment rejeté la perspective chrétienne avec son paradis joyeux après l’Apocalypse, ou, simplement, comme le propose C.S. Lewis, qu’imaginer le paradis ou une société dépourvue de tout mal est presque impossible, même pour ceux qui ont la foi.




        Popular fantasy fiction in English in the form we know it today dates from the second half of the 19th century and in particular from two authors: William Morris, who was socialist, romantic and agnostic, and George MacDonald, who was a profoundly Christian author. MacDonald’s two adult fantasy novels, Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895), and Morris’s The Wood beyond the World (1894) strongly influenced many fantasy writers of the 20th century. Fantasy literature as a recognisable, popular genre really took off after the Second World War and much of it followed the schemas outlined by two important theorists, Joseph Campbell and J. R. R. Tolkien. Campbell was profoundly spiritual, but essentially a syncretist, happy to mix ideas from numerous religious traditions. He was fascinated by myth, and his most famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), has been referred to as “the most influential book of the 20th century” (Vogler, “Practical Guide”) when it comes to creating plots, especially since film director George Lucas acknowledged its influence on the Star Wars series (see Campbell, Hero’s Journey 186-87). A committed Roman Catholic, J. R. R. Tolkien originally wrote his essay “On Fairy Stories” as one of the Andrew Lang lectures at St Andrew’s University in 1938, just after the publication of The Hobbit (1937), and it was first published in a memorial volume for fellow Inkling Charles Williams in 1947 (Tolkien, “Fairy” 38-89). However, it did not come to the attention of the general public until after the phenomenal success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s. The principles of fantasy literature described in these two works have been followed by numerous authors, songwriters and film directors, including, in addition to George Lucas, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, Mark Burnett, David Eddings and Bob Dylan.
        Campbell described his theory as a “monomyth” (Faces 1), based on a “timeless vision” (3). This may be defined as the idea that all successful heroic, epic, adventure or fantasy stories follow a pattern with similar elements, “one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story” (3). In his opinion, stories built on this model “have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious and because they reflect universal concerns” (Vogler, “Practical Guide”). These elements include a single heroic protagonist with whom the readers/audience can identify, a fight between good and evil, external and frequently supernatural help given to the hero and a mission of immense significance which concludes with a final victory and happy ending after all obstacles have been overcome. From Campbell’s point of view, this monomyth may be found in cultures shaped by all religious and philosophical traditions, but presupposes belief in some kind of cosmic battle between good and evil and some meaning of life beyond this world. The protagonist, who is usually young, experiences not only an exciting adventure, but also a “deep inner journey of transformation that heroes in every time and place seem to share” (Vogler, “Foreword” vii), although the postmodern West may provide a partial exception. In the best literature written in our imperfect world, Campbell sees “the happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul . . . not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man” (Faces 26), putting readers or an audience in contact with “the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible” (26).
        Tolkien’s template for fantasy literature is, intentionally, definitely Christian even if not specifically Catholic. He is mainly concerned with what Gary K. Wolfe defines as High Fantasy “set in a secondary world . . . as opposed to Low Fantasy which contains supernatural intrusions into the ‘real’ world” (52), although he also includes tales where there is movement via some kind of portal between our world and the imaginary one. He asserts that all good fantasy stories include “Recovery, Escape [and] Consolation” (Tolkien, “Fairy” 66). Recovery, which includes a return and renewal of mental health, is to be understood as “a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view” (74) of things, so that we “may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity” (74), and see the world as the wonderful place it is. Escape is perceived as “the Escape of the Prisoner” in time of war, a positive action to obtain freedom, rather than the “Flight of the Deserter” (76), an act of cowardice or refusal to face reality. Tolkien’s form of escape enables his reader to temporarily put the trivial, ugly or insignificant to one side and concentrate on the essentials. However, for Tolkien, the most important element of fantasy is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” (81), what he calls the Eucatastrophe, understood as “a sudden and miraculous grace” (81), “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world” (83), and therefore a prefiguring of the final happy ending Christians look for in the new creation where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Based on Campbell’s and Tolkien’s theories, traditional fantasy in English has these combined, Christian and syncretistic roots and has, in the vast majority of cases, provided a happy ending where the forces of evil are defeated.
        In the aftermath of the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings, many other writers started to write fantasy fiction in the same vein, using Campbell’s and Tolkien’s ideas. Although some of this was excellent, many less gifted writers produced “formulaic fiction with plenty of action but little thematic content beyond a basic good-wins-over-evil lesson” (Sullivan 445). As a result, as Brandon Sanderson remarks, “Fantasy hit a post-modern stage with remarkable speed” (qtd. in Baker) as a reaction against the Campbell/Tolkien model. It should be noted, however, that traditional fantasy continues to be written and some of this, like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and the other novels in Rowling’s series, has been phenomenally successful.
        Although there is no complete consensus about exactly what is meant by postmodern literature, far less postmodern fantasy, there are some constants. Brian McHale, whose comprehensive overview of postmodern fiction thoroughly explores the question, considers that postmodernism “has close affinities with the genre of the fantastic” (74), although he is more concerned with Todorov’s “fantastic,” which corresponds to Farah Mendlesohn’s “intrusion fantasy” or Wolfe’s “low fantasy,” than with immersive, high fantasies like The Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time series. While traditional fiction, including traditional fantasy, “persuades us in concrete fashion that human action, human life, is somehow a complete, interlocking whole, a single formed meaningful substance,” so that “our satisfaction with the completeness of the plot is therefore a kind of satisfaction with society as well” (Jameson 12), postmodernism, according to Lance Olsen, “explores the impossibility of imposing a single determinant meaning on a text” (8). This means, for Olsen, that postmodern fantasy is “a mode of radical scepticism and hesitation that believes in the impossibility of total intelligibility” (117). As a result, postmodern fantasy, like other forms of postmodern literature, in the words of Jean-François Lyotard, no longer has “its great hero, its great dangers, its goal” (xxiv). This may be why Brian McHale includes no works of high, epic fantasy in his overview of postmodernist fiction.
        Most critics refer to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, published in the late 1970s, as “the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic” (Baker), followed shortly afterwards by the first volumes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (1983-2015). It can also be noted that although many works of postmodern fantasy are still immersive and epic, others correspond to Farah Mendlesohn’s definition of liminal fantasy, as the action takes place in our world or a very similar one and when strange, magical or potentially supernatural events occur, “the protagonist demonstrates no surprise” (xxiii). One can also note that most postmodern fantasy refuses what Patrick B. Williams calls the “traditional Christian ending” (51) with evil defeated and virtue triumphant, preferring a more lowkey or ambiguous conclusion.
        Three very different works of postmodern fantasy which refuse this traditional happy ending are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens (1990), a stand-alone novel; A Memory of Light (2012), the final volume of Robert Jordan and later Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time series; and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (from 1996), generally known by title of the HBO television adaptation and then continuation of the novels, Game of Thrones. In spite of the obvious differences in genre and content between them, all three of these works have multiple protagonists, highly fallible and sometimes morally ambiguous characters and an unexpected ending which refuses the final victory of good over evil.

Good Omens
        Although Terry Pratchett described himself as a non-religious Humanist because he found “the comedy of the rising ape intrinsically more wonderful than the tragedy of the falling angel” (“On G. K. Chesterton” 296), he was also strongly influenced by the Christian author G. K. Chesterton, to whom Good Omens is dedicated. His co-author, Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, “was Jewish and attended High Church of England schools,” which gave him a double identity and, in his own opinion, “all the religion one ever needed” (Elder 71). More recently, Gaiman has described himself as “a believer, but he is unable to name a particular dogma to which he adheres” (Camus 98). It is therefore hardly surprising that their joint novel is open to multiple interpretations. Not only does it have several main characters and a narrator who frequently addresses the reader directly, there is also, as Laura Nicosia points out, “a polyvocality through the paratextual conversations held at the bottom of the page in the footnotes” (161). It is a liminal fantasy, where an angel and a demon try to prevent the Apocalypse from happening and an 11-year old, English Antichrist from fulfilling his supposed destiny. Although both authors claimed that “the main purpose of writing Good Omens was to make each other laugh” (Nicosia 162), Pratchett also considers that “a good fantasy is just a mirror of our own world, but one whose reflection is subtly distorted” (“By the Book” 8) in order to encourage readers to think. Good Omens may therefore also be seen as a criticism of attitudes prevalent at the time it was written.
        The ending of Good Omens includes not only a refusal of the victory of good over evil or heaven over hell, it also includes a new cosmic Fall, when Adam, the intended Antichrist, now fully human and without his former supernatural powers, deliberately eats a stolen apple, claiming that “there never was an apple . . . that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it” (382). The reason for refusing the final victory is explained to Adam by his friends (the Them), using as an example their rival gang in the village, the Greasy Johnsonites. Adam concludes:

Adam: What you’re all saying . . . is that it wouldn’t be any good at all if the Greasy Johnsonites beat the Them or the other way round?
Pepper: If we beat them, we’d have to be our own deadly enemies . . . Everyone needs a Greasy Johnson.
Adam: That’s what I thought. It’s no good anyone winning. (307)

        As a result, in Adam’s opinion, “you can’t really beat the other side, because you don’t really want to . . . not for good” (350). From this viewpoint, the final victory of Good would not in fact be good, as the existence of evil is necessary in order for everyone to have an adversary, something to fight against and real temptations to resist.
        Laura Nicosia sees Good Omens as “intentionally blasphemous” (162), but this is not necessarily the case. It could equally be a comment on the inability of God’s supporters, be they human or celestial, to understand his plan. Although they are surprised at the outcome, Crowley (the demon, named after Aleister Crowley) and Aziraphale (the angel) conclude that, in spite of what most of the characters thought, God may actually have wanted the Apocalypse to be averted:

Crowley: Are you saying that he planned it this way all along? From the very beginning?
Aziraphale: Could have. (361)

The status quo is therefore maintained, to everyone’s relief.

A Memory of Light
        A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final volume of The Wheel of Time series brought an end to a saga which started in 1990 and “has sold at least 25 million copies in the US alone” and where each volume, from the second onwards, “debuted at number 1 on every major book chart” (Warnica 34). The final three volumes were mainly written by a practising Mormon, Brandon Sanderson, who would be expected to believe in an enduring cosmic happy ending after a last battle (Gale). However, Sanderson took over after the death of the series’ creator, the liberal Episcopalian and Freemason Robert Jordan, using Jordan’s notes to complete his work. Jordan once explicitly stated in an interview: “My work certainly is not religious in even the sense that J.R.R. Tolkien’s was, much less the work of C. S. Lewis” (“Questions”) and his professed beliefs, either as a Freemason or as a liberal Episcopalian, do not commit him to any particular view of the Apocalypse. Masonic beliefs are held by many to be syncretistic on account of the “worship of Jahbulon as syncretistic God” (Ap Sion, Francis and Windsor 11) and “the emphasis on all ways being equally valid,” (11) but they lay no emphasis on the end of the world. Apart from its larger than usual number of main characters and viewpoints, up until the final instalment The Wheel of Time largely follows the Campbell/Tolkien schemas. It has a principal hero, Rand, and takes place in a wholly imaginary secondary world. There is a fight between good and evil, incarnated in a satanic figure, the Dark One, with his supporters and evil army. However, the ending is unexpected.
        In A Memory of Light, shortly before the Last Battle, Rand steps into a vision of “a world that didn’t know the Dark One” (820), a virtual creation of “the world that would exist if Rand defeated him in the Last Battle” (821). It is “a world without problems, a world where people worked out their grievances easily. A world of giving, not dispute” (822), but it is also a world where strong political leaders are not necessary and where it is no longer possible for people to choose evil, because evil no longer exists. As a result, Elayne, the courageous and dynamic Queen of Andor, has lost something of her character. Rand looks into Elayne’s eyes and sees that “a shadow lurked behind them . . . like the shadow of someone who had been turned to the Dark One” (824). Because she no longer has the possibility of choosing evil and because, although she can make mistakes, she cannot sin, Elayne has lost some of her essential humanity. Rand realises that “in creating his vision of a world without the Dark One, he had created something horrible. Something awful. Something worse than would have been before” (825). For this reason, instead of destroying the Dark One in the Last Battle, Rand chooses to thrust it[1] “back into the pit from where it had come” (985), in the same way as the Archangel Michael in the biblical book of Revelation “laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him” (Revelation 20:2-3). However, Rand puts no time limit on the Dark One’s stay in the pit. It will stay there until some foolish human is tempted to release it. Once again, the status quo is restored. In disguise, and now without his supernatural powers, Rand wanders off to live the rest of his life as an ordinary person.
        Although Patrick B. Williams claims that the untraditional ending of The Wheel of Time is an example of “demythologication or the practice of detaching the Christian faith from the mythical world picture of the first century so that it could be re-imagined in more modern terms” (51), it actually seems that, by envisaging any possible world without evil as undesirable, A Memory of Light has actually changed the message.

Game of Thrones
        The example of Game of Thrones is less clear cut. Although George R. R. Martin considers himself as “second to no one in [his] respect” (Hibberd) for Tolkien, he diverges from him in his lack of religious faith. Martin defines himself as “a lapsed Catholic . . . an atheist or agnostic” (Hibberd) and this is apparent in his writings. His saga is similar to Tolkien’s in that the setting, or secondary world, resembles our world in many ways, but is not identical to it. However, it includes several postmodern elements. As Riccardo Facchini points out, “the absence of moral absolute values, the lack of heroes and antagonists, the lack of a single point of view in the narration, the desire of breaking the rules of fantasy literature—all these elements are sufficient to define A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones as postmodern, both because of their contents and their style” (65). As Matteo Barbagello remarks, Martin even deliberately subverts readers’ expectations when, in the first volume A Game of Thrones (1996) he describes the Stark family using “adjectives such as ‘wise,’ ‘faithful,’ ‘reliable,’ usually addressed to heroic figures” (40), and then very rapidly kills off the two main male members of the family. However, it is not the fact that the imaginary universe is “grim, murderous, licentious” (Barker, Smith and Attwood 1) that makes it postmodern, but rather that it is notably “low on hope” (1), not to mention virtue.
        Most of all, the ending, actually written by the HBO script writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss in consultation with Martin—as Martin himself appears to have some form of writer’s block—is not entirely happy and is definitely not final. It disappointed the fans to the extent that “nearly two million viewers were motivated to complain” (Barker et al. 169). It is a relief that the war is over and that Daenerys, at one point perceived as a heroine, has tragically fallen as a result of her pride-driven insanity. However, evil is very temporarily contained rather than defeated and the new, elected, ruler, Bran Stark, can have no children. This may, indeed, be part of the point. What is more, not only does the TV series end with no clear victory of good over evil, one unpleasant character, Ramsay Bolton, even breaks the fourth wall in the sixth episode of season 3 to underline the point. Speaking as much to viewers as to his fellow character, Theon Greyjoy, he memorably declares: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention” (qtd in Barker et al. 169), making the authors’ intentions clear. This is admittedly not quite the same thing as an explicit rejection of such an ending and, indeed, it may merely be a marketing ploy, paving the way for the series to continue.

Why No Final Victory?
        Why, then, do these three works of postmodern fantasy and other recent series refuse Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, the happy ending recommended by Campbell and the victory of Good over Evil? Could it be the result, not only of a lack of faith in an ultimate victory of Good in reality, but also of a lack of imagination? It appears that the authors may be incapable of imagining heaven or any kind of existence without the presence of Evil as anything but boring.
        C. S. Lewis, himself a writer of traditional fantasy with a happy ending, considered this question in his 1947 work of popular apologetics Miracles. In a discussion of why his contemporaries seemed incapable of envisaging the afterlife as presented by the Christian Scriptures, Lewis used an analogy:

I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard the absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. (260-61)

        Even more explicitly, in a letter to Vera Gebbert on 16th October 1960, Lewis declares: “I wasn’t at all questioning life after death . . . only saying that its character for us is unimaginable” (Letters 1198). For Michael Edwards, Lewis had grasped something which “in our own day the varieties of post-structuralism and post-modernism . . . cannot know” (24-25). This is because for Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and all those who write their fantasy fully within the Christian tradition, “any contact with God is an illuminating of reality such that everything outside that way of seeing, of believing, of sensing even, becomes unreal, part of the mere dream of the fallen self” (Edwards 25). For Lewis and others in the same tradition, heaven, or the world beyond the final victory over Evil, is “the real enhanced,” and therefore more concrete and more practical as well as more glorious than the reality we know (25). This is clear in his Perelandra, where a drink of water in an unfallen world gives his hero “a quite astonishing pleasure. It was almost like meeting pleasure itself for the first time” (32). Also, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the characters approach Aslan’s country, the water becomes “real water . . . drinkable light” and “stronger than wine” (174, 177). Everything is better and more itself than in life as we know it. In the same way, in The Last Battle, where Lewis’s debt to Plato’s ideas on the shadows and the reality is even plainer, heaven includes “the real England . . . where no good thing is destroyed” (171), something more than our world, instead of the something less that Rand sees in A Memory of Light. In other words, although Lewis says that heaven is unimaginable and, of course, he does not believe that it is really like an idealised England or Aslan’s country, he does manage to imagine them, as does Tolkien in “Leaf by Niggle” (1945).

        Comparing the endings to the postmodern fantasies studied in this article with the traditional Christian conclusion is not to criticise them. Their authors, incapable of imagining, or perhaps essentially unwilling to imagine, a world without evil, are reformers not visionaries. Their fantasies are strongly earthbound and they desire a fairer, kinder and happier society for all in the here and now. And yet, despite the ambiguous endings, there is hope. As Arya, like Tolkien’s elves, sails off into the distance, Adam rejoices in the world around him and Rand wanders off towards a new, more ordinary, life, we are encouraged to believe that the universe is a wonderful place, worth exploring and preserving from those who would destroy it. Postmodern fantasy may still celebrate life and be life-changing. As Cath Filmer-Davies remarks, “readers are compelled to clarify for themselves what constitutes good and evil” (64), and presumably, once they have done so, they will act accordingly. If they do, Ursula Le Guin’s confident assertion about reading fantasy literature may still be true: “It will change you” (90).

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Suzanne Bray is professor of British literature and civilisation at Lille Catholic University. Her research focuses on the history of religious ideas in England during the 20th century and she has published many works on the relationship between theology and popular literature.


Suzanne Bray est professeur de civilisation et littérature britannique à l’Université Catholique de Lille. Elle est spécialiste de l’histoire des idées religieuses en Angleterre au XXe siècle et a publié de nombreux travaux sur la relation entre la théologie et la littérature populaire.

[1] The Dark One is always referred to as it, rather than him.