I had a party at my house last night, a triple celebration: my fiftieth birthday, the tenth anniversary of my marriage to MBW, and MBW’s U.S. citizenship. The house echoed at times with the play of what seemed a hundred children, but couldn’t have been more than a half dozen. At the end of the night we discovered that a glutinous jar of pink slime, some sort of kid’s plaything, had been ground into the HA’s carpet. While a few remaining adults got down to cleaning that up (it turns out ice cubes are useful in that regard — helpful tip for you) I went back downstairs to pack up leftovers and load the dishwasher. The aftermath of the party.
Naturally, that got me thinking about war. Specifically the aftermath, the cleanup. And more specifically, how fantasy novels tend to deal with (or not deal with) the aftermath of the epic battles that fill their pages.
Tolkien certainly considered the aftermath. The orc bodies dealt with after the Battle of Helm’s Deep, the Huorns dealing with the remaining live ones. The various burial mounds. Treebeard cleaning up after the destruction of the Ring of Orthanc. The Scouring of the Shire. For Tolkien the aftermath is at least as important as the battle itself. How do the characters handle the devastation? How does it affect them?
Peter Jackson eschewed that narrative path. A bit shows up, at least in the extended cuts, but it amounts to little. The Scouring of the Shire didn’t make it into the film version of The Lord of the Rings. Why? I can imagine any number of reasons. Screen time spent on the clean up slows down the story. There is little action in such scenes. The films were already long enough. Of course, one could argue that had he not included extraneous material created for the movies he’d have had the time. But let’s not get into that again. The point is, the same source material, two different storytelling choices.
Narrative economy is an important consideration. A scene should accomplish more than one thing. If the aftermath contributes to character development, world building, and advances the story, then there is certainly a strong argument for including it. If it is merely that the author feels the need to explain what happened after, or feels uncomfortable that no time is spent putting out the fires, burying the dead, and rebuilding, then maybe not. Not if the reader is the primary consideration.
Cleaning up after a party isn’t a great deal of fun. Why would anyone want to read about it? It strikes me as superfluous in most fast paced, pulpy fiction. With an epic like LOTR, however, detailing the passing of an Age and the beginning of another, written by an author who lived through war and its aftermath, including the cleanup is not only understandable, it’s necessary.