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The Unfinished Story

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In 1987, the Hindu epic The Rāmāyaṇa was serialized for Indian television. It immediately became immensely popular and was treated with ritualistic honor throughout the country when episodes aired. When it was announced that the series would be ending — before the entire 500-chapter, 24,000-verse saga was completed — the entire nation went into an uproar, demanding that the unfinished story continue. Sanitation workers in Jalandhar went on strike to protest the show’s cancellation. The strike spread among other sanitation workers in major cities throughout India, eventually prompting the government to sponsor more episodes of the show in order to prevent a potential health hazard.

Unfinished stories have found their place at various points throughout history. Joseph Campbell tells us that the earliest surviving version of the Grail legend is Perceval, le Conte del Graal of Chrétien de Troyes, who insisted he adapted the tale from a book that had been given to him by the Count Philip of Flanders (Romance of the Grail, 165). While it’s understandable that the Grail story’s beginning is shrouded in mystery, it is curious as to why de Troyes left his recounting of the narrative unfinished. Campbell also pondered this mystery, lamenting that “All the great themes are left in the air” (Romance, 165). De Troyes, himself, was not a knight, but rather a court poet to Marie de Champagne, capable of crafting “perfectly turned couplets out of his sleeve” (Romance, 137). Perhaps his leaving the story unfinished was poetic in nature. Journeys such as the Grail quest are, of course, circular and cyclical. We return with the boon, only to eventually embark on a new mission, leaving us to ask if the story really ever does have an ending. Jung went as far as to state that these were the stories of mankind: the unending myth of death and rebirth (Jung on Mythology, 103).

Never-ending stories are still all around us. In a questing age such as ours, it is no wonder that streaming episodic content has grown very popular. Amazon Fires, Apple TVs, and Rokus have become thresholds that millions now enter through searching for insights and meaning in their own lives. Storytelling is now more than entertainment, not that it was ever only that. It is a gateway into a land of articulated questions and philosophical investigations that intersect with individual internal journeys. Television content based on mythic ideas and motifs has never been more plentiful for those willing to venture below the technology’s electronic surface. Why has this serialized content become so attractive while traditional movie theaters struggle to find ways to entice audiences to patronize their halls? Aside from the logistical and economic factors, the serialized story of today, like the Grail tale of de Troyes, seems to have no ending. At the conclusion of each episode, new questions are asked and the promise of a continuing story beckons us toward the next stop on the narrative journey. Even at the end of a complete season of television, a new season awaits on the horizon. Stories such as these are structured to be never-ending, only concluding when their creators finally decide to stop providing us a window into the world of the show. This also speaks to our inability to truly know where we are in our own journey. Often signs of the ending of one season only point to the blossoming of another. Just when we feel the Grail slipping from our fingers and the fading of the light, we blink, the Grail remains in our sights, and our eyes are opened to an unexpected renaissance. Our story remains unfinished. 

Campbell suggested that such moments represent the restorative power of the Grail. He stated that it can “transmute primal filth into gold….the life of the world into the golden life of the spirit….a symbol of the spiritual conduit that carries the inexhaustible of the eternal into the inexhaustible forms of temporal world….It cannot be exhausted. And the Grail is the source through which this comes.” (Romance, 167-168) This word inexhaustible has taken on greater significance in the information age. Be it our own e-mail inboxes, the number of options we now have with which to consume entertainment, or the vast capacity of knowledge that now lives on little devices in our pockets, we can become overwhelmed when we consider the inexhaustible. The term consistently has negative connotations in our world. To be fair, the concept of the endless, from Tantalus to Sisyphus, is usually negative in myth as well. However, Campbell challenges us to consider the inexhaustible in terms of the goodness of the Grail. The restorative too is inexhaustible. When we return to the source of our empowerment, we find no end to its fullness. The story remains thankfully unfinished.


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