The Usual Cabal: Davies, Rowling, and Letting Characters Take a Bow

One of the traditions of the stage is the curtain call, all the actors, still in costume, coming out one last time to be applauded by the audience, and if endings are about satisfying conclusions this doesn’t seem like the worst way to end a narrative. The endings of Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are both memorable, although probably to very different audiences, and both utilize a final display of the complete cast of their stories. Rowling shows her protagonists almost two decades into their future, the adults they are able to become. While Davies’s approach is far more subtle with the references being abstract and open. These texts don’t necessarily remind one of the theatre while reading but the curtain call might be an effective way of interpreting the ways in which these authors conclude their works.

It is also almost the exact atmosphere that can be felt through the 19 Year Later epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The characters appear one by one and show the reader what they have become, people with lives and children beyond the scope of the story. However, this can feel jarring, the parents who are standing on platform 9 ¾ with their children are so distant from the teenagers that the reader followed for seven books. The distance is too much to provide the kind of closure that would be satisfying because these characters don’t feel like the ones the reader is trying to stay goodbye to. In Fifth Business, Davies doesn’t force the reader into a curtain call the same way that Rowling does,  in fact who is being referenced in the Brazen Head riddle is the subject of many essays on its own but regardless of which characters the reader chooses to read into the riddle it is still the kind of acknowledgment that brings satisfaction and closure. The parade of characters at the end of a book should be an opportunity for them to shine a final time, at least that is how I like my reading experience to end – with a final bow from the actors of the novel.

There is a fascinating tag that appears often in Harry Potter fanfiction, the EWE tag which spells out to ‘epilogue, what epilogue?”, and in a fandom where the books are well loved and Rowling is often revered this kind of tag says a lot about how readers react to the 19 years later epilogue. In contrast to the few pages of the epilogue; the speech through the Brazen Head is an ending that is debated and often revered by those who love Davies’ work. The striking difference between these two endings, setting aside differences in genre, is that while Rowling spells out the fate of most major characters Davies leaves his conclusion very much in the hands of the reader. The riddle derives from a question about Boy’s death, the conclusion of his story and the presentation of the rest of the characters in such an abstract way break them down to the roles that they have played, summarizing the people they have become as part of the journey in Boy and Dunstan’s lives. So, despite offering a conclusion to the character arcs of the novel Davies chooses to make his ending one that is open to the interpretation of the reader, in opposition to Rowling’s later choice to prescribe the exact destiny of Harry Potter and his friends.

However, there is another factor that should perhaps temper the disappointments of unmet expectations placed on Rowling’s Epilogue and that is centered around the conventions of genre writing. Fantasy stories are tied up in fate of the world questions of good and evil while literary fiction is often focused on the narrative arc of single characters or group of characters. These concerns can shift the focus of the story and make the character’s arc feel far from finished when the world is saved. Harry Potter is 17 when he defeats Voldemort for the final time and the obvious question is whether he will be able to recover from what the war has cost. As constricted as the epilogue may be, it does give a short answer to that question. Davies doesn’t have to reckon with those kinds of questions, the ‘usual Cabal’ o the Brazen Head riddle have worked through their conflicts and their arcs feel complete without Davies adding to them even more.

In their own ways both Davies and Rowling created endings that remain the subject of debate. Davies crafted a riddle that allowed the reader to filter the end of the story through the lens of their own interpretation of the characters. Rowling doesn’t leave the same room for interpretation but the 19 Years Later is still a contentious point with fans whose fanfiction shows that continuing debate. These are debates that are shaped by the genres of the two texts but none the less rely on bringing the characters out for one last display to the reader. The bow of Davies usual cabal is perhaps more elegant but both a true feeling of conclusion.

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