I hate it when an author or filmmaker leaves me hanging at the end of a book or movie — almost as much as I love it!
What are the best fantasy “cliffhanger” endings of all time? Let’s take a look, shall we?
Xena: Warrior Princess, Four Season Finale (TV Show)
It doesn’t get much worse than this: Calisto has broken Xena’s back with her own chakram. The Warrior Princess can’t stand, much less fight back. Gabrielle, making the choice to break her season-long vow of non-violence, picks of a sword to defend them. But seeing what has happened to Xena and fearing for their lives, Gabrielle’s self-defense soon turns to blood-lust. And in an instant, she violates every principle she holds dear.
But it’s all for naught anyway. Xena and Gabrielle are captured — and, in the horrible realization of Xena’s season-long vision, they’re crucified. And we know there can’t be a last-minute reprieve, because we literally see their souls floating up to heaven.
In “The Ides of March,” the culmination of the show’s best season, Xena was firing on absolutely all cylinders. Incredibly, the season premiere of the following season, “Fallen Angel,” lived up to all the promise of the previous season — though, sadly, the show took a precipitous decline in quality soon after.
The Two Towers (Book)
In Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies, Sam and Frodo’s encounter with the giant spider Shelob takes place in the third part of the trilogy, The Return of the King (to give Sam and Frodo more of a storyline, apparently). But in the books, the sequence takes place at the end of the second installment, The Two Towers, creating perhaps the best fantasy cliffhanger of all time (though it’s debatable whether author J.R.R. Tolkien intended it as such, as he wrote the three “books” as one long novel that was divided by his publisher).
What a sequence! Supposedly showing them a “hidden” entrance into Mordor, Gollum leads Sam and Frodo into the tower of Cirith Ungol — though he’s secretly leading them into the spider’s lair. The trap works perfectly, and the spider stings Frodo in the neck, seemingly killing him. But Gollum didn’t anticipate such a furious fight from Sam, who drives off both Shelob and Gollum, who doesn’t end up with the ring after all.
Then Sam must make a choice: go after vengeance and Gollum, or take the One Ring from Frodo and complete the quest.
Sam decides he must destroy the ring and sets off the quest alone. But he doesn’t get far. Soon he hears the orcs discussing Frodo’s body. He isn’t dead after all, only paralyzed by the spider’s poison!
“Frodo was alive,” says the last line in the book, “but taken by the Enemy.”
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book)
When Dumbledore was killed at the end of Prince, there were those who said it was a trick, that he wasn’t really dead. But I knew better: just as Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker’s father, Dumbledore had to stay dead, lest the audience feel like they were being cheated.
But let’s face it: Dumbledore’s death created exactly the feeling that author J.K. Rowling must have intended: a sense of absolute unpredictability, a feeling that anything can happen in these books. Coupled with the book’s later reveal that Snape seems to be evil (and the Half-Blood Prince), Rowling created one of fantasy-dom’s best cliffhangers — and set up the expectation that it was going to take a truly gifted writer to wrap all this up. (Did she have the chops to pull it off in Deathly Hallows? The debate continues!)
The Illearth War (Book)
With a name like “The Illearth War,” we had to know it wouldn’t end well, in the second book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s brilliant fantasy trilogy, The (First) Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
And sure enough, the war is a disaster. Yes, the Lords “win,” but at what cost? Revelstone is nearly destroyed and their army is almost completely obliterated. Worse, they only win because Hile Troy, their military genius, has made a pact with the Forestal, bringing the forest to life to defeat the Ravers and their army, but forever enslaving him to the wood. Meanwhile, Elena has drunk the earthblood and foolishly commanded High Lord Kevin to take on Lord Foul — but not only does Foul easily defeat and enslave him, he forces Kevin to attack and kill Elena. To make matters worse, by her actions, Elena has lost the Staff of Law and broken the Law of Death.
Covenant manages to escape the Land using the power of his ring, but he still doesn’t understand how to invoke it. And returning to the “real” world, he is — yes — still a leper. Is there a person alive who didn’t want to know how all this ended, in the third book in the series The Power That Preserves?
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