In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, the protagonist changes the stories of those whose lives she has ruined. Her change of the story is her attempt at atonement for the pain she caused. “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end.”
Changing stories is an attractive option.
When my son was small, I remember that the changing of stories began with Hans Christian Andersen. I remembered as I read The Tin Soldier to him that there would be no happy ending. I remembered the story from it being read to the class at primary school, a story that I had found it very difficult to fathom. What was the point of the story of the poor tin soldier who had been through such experiences only for him to be thrown on the fire? I came to the closing paragraphs of the story:
At this moment one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and without rhyme or reason, threw him into the fire. No doubt the little goblin in the snuffbox was to blame for that. The tin soldier stood there, lighted up by the flame, and in the most horrible heat; but whether it was the heat of the real fire, or the warmth of his feelings, he did not know. He had lost all his gay colour; it might have been from his perilous journey, or it might have been from grief, who can tell?
He looked at the little maiden, and she looked at him; and he felt that he was melting away, but he still managed to keep himself erect, shouldering his gun bravely.
A door was suddenly opened, the draught caught the little dancer and she fluttered like a sylph, straight into the fire, to the soldier, blazed up and was gone!
By this time the soldier was reduced to a mere lump, and when the maid took away the ashes next morning she found him, in the shape of a small tin heart. All that was left of the dancer was her spangle, and that was burnt as black as a coal.
But I did not read the words on the page. I looked up and said, “The boy threw the tin soldier from the window and as the window was open, there was a gust of wind that caught the dancer and carried her out through the window as well. The wind blew and carried them upwards and far away until they landed in a wood together, far from anyone who could harm them and there they lived happily ever afterwards.” My son liked this ending; soon we dispensed with books altogether and wove our own tales of Thomas the Tank Engine and Fireman Sam and anyone else who caught our attention.
Re-telling stories with our own endings proved much more fun. Why be bound by an unhappy story when a happy one can be chosen? Were such an option available in real life, much happier tales could be told.