Wed
Oct 19 2011 2:00pm

Cheating Death in SFF

In some modern fantasy, death seems like a revolving door. Characters sacrifice themselves and die, and come alive again so fast that it feels like no cost. The trouble with this is that you’re supposed to care, because they’re going to die, and then they don’t stay dead, and the next time the writer plays the “they’re going to die” card you don’t believe them. If another character also survives death, eventually you stop caring. There are no real stakes. It’s like any jeopardy — the reader has to believe the writer will go through with it, and this kind of thing can destroy the reader’s trust. It makes me stop caring what happens, if the tension is being escalated but I know that everyone is going to be all right. If I don’t care, I tend to stop reading.

Unless it’s being played deliberately for laughs, or if it’s a story about the undead, death works much better if it’s meaningful.

As it’s impossible to discuss examples without horrific plot-destroying spoilers, and because picking on specific examples would be unkind, I’m going to talk about this trope generally. There will be spoilers for the New Testament, The Lord of the Rings, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In other examples, I won’t name characters or go into too much detail.

Ancient stories about trying to cheat death and get people back from death tend to end badly, and they haven’t really been models for revolving door fantasy death. There’s not much that uses Gilgamesh (Ryman’s The Warrior Who Carried Life) and use of the Orpheus myth really isn’t the problem. There’s also surprisingly few examples of Baldur stories. Fantasy really gets this trope from Christianity — but not directly from Christianity, from Christianity as filtered through Tolkien.

The first thing to note about Gandalf coming back is that it only happens once. Everybody else who dies in The Lord of the Rings stays dead, and everyone treats Gandalf’s reappearance as very strange. This helps it work. The next thing is that he doesn’t come back right away. Thirdly, he doesn’t come back unchanged. In fact when Gandalf comes back he is extremely weird for a while, acting as if he barely recognises his friends and as if he barely remembers what’s important any more. And he has changed his colours. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey, but Gandalf the White. He has gained, but he has also lost.

When I was a child the bit where Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli meet Gandalf at the edge of Fangorn was easily my least favourite bit of the entire trilogy. I loved Gandalf, and I didn’t want him to be weird like that. I couldn’t figure out why he was. He was alive again, why couldn’t he be himself again? And quite soon he is. It isn’t that he has his glow and his magic horse, it’s that he’s calling Pippin a fool of a Took and smoking his pipe. He comes slowly back to — well, not humanity, as he’s not technically human, but to the world of living, and to his personality.

It seems clear that Tolkien got this directly from the Bible, and the way Jesus is weird after the Resurrection. Tolkien wasn’t directly retelling that story the way Lewis was with the death and resurrection of Aslan. But it was the resurrection story he knew, and Jesus is weird in it — he wasn’t recognisable. Mary Madgalene thought he was the gardener. And he kept showing up and disappearing again. If you read the version in the gospel of John I linked to above you can see Jesus’s behaviour between the Resurrection and thr Ascension reads very like Gandalf when he first comes back, you can see it was in Tolkien’s mind. The weirdness, the way he isn’t exactly the same, strangely makes it more plausible as a narrative. It isn’t what you’d just naturally think of if you were making it up. Jesus doesn’t get back to normal, though, the way Gandalf does. He doesn’t take up his life where he put it down. He gives the message and then leaves permanently. (This never happens in fantasy novels.)

Guy Gavriel Kay in Fionavar just barely got away with it for me — he separated the character death and the resurrection, and he only used it once. Nevertheless, when another major character died, I was half-expecting him to come back for chapters and chapters. He loses the weirdness, and I can’t think of anybody else who has kept it except Pamela Dean in The Hidden Land, and even that’s really different.

I can’t think of any other instance where I both mourned the initial death of a character and then didn’t feel cheated when the character showed up alive again. Because it is a cheat. I know why writers do it. They love their characters. They don’t want to kill them. They’re not that mean. But they need to love their characters less and their stories more. When death ceases to be meaningful, it loses its sting.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

35 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
I'm thinking of the Vorkosigan saga. The death in Mirror Dance was surprising and although the character came back to life, it was clear that there was a cost- a cost that resonates through the later books. I was glad, despite my sadness, that the death in Cryoburn was a permanent one. (Man, this going spoiler-free is tough!)
Nicholas L. Garvery
2. Nicholas L. Garvery
Stephen King's Pet Sematary anyone?
Nicholas L. Garvery
3. etv13
I can't be unspoilery, so I'll just give a warning: spoilers ahead for Robin Hobb's Assassin and Fool trilogies, and for Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain.

Robin Hobb handles death and resurrection very un-Tolkienly, and there's a lot of it (Fitz dies or very nearly does two or three times, and then there's the Fool), but it definitely isn't cost-free and it definitely leaves the dead-and-revived characters profoundly changed.

The death and resurrection in Red Moon and Black Mountain is different in yet another way: Oliver, who is from our world but is in another one, offers himself as a sacrifice to the goddess Vir Vachal (if I am remembering her name right) and he dies in that world, but ends up alive in ours. His "death" is meaningful, I think, in that it succeeds in binding the goddess, and it's also meaningful in the sense that he doesn't know he's going to end up back home, he's actually willing to die for the sake of the people he loves in the alternate world. I don't think it changes him, thoough.
Ian Johnson
4. IanPJohnson
Really, Jo? Do you really think that anyone needs to put up a "spoiler alert" for the New Testament? I mean, it's a collection of documents that's almost two thousand years old. Call me crazy, but I think that the statute of limitations on that one has passed a while ago.

…All joking aside, good article, Jo.
Nicholas L. Garvery
5. big k
As a comic book reader in the Sixties and Seventies, I hated the "back from the dead" character, which has become commonplace in recent decades. A perfect example being Alfred the butler who sacrificed his life to save Batman and Robin. At eight years of age, I found it quite dramatic. Unfortunately, two years later the Batman creative team came up with a totally implausible scenario to resurrect Alfred and things were back to normal. The drama of the earlier story was completely undone. I swore off Batman comics for years after.
David Thomson
6. ZetaStriker
I think the Malazan novels are the only places I've not felt cheated by those kinds of events . . . probably because coming back in that series didn't mean just resuming your life. Dead characters stayed dead in the important ways - lost to their loved ones - and that only made their passing all the more bittersweet.

It also helped that Erikson handled death better than most authors, by having the characters not forget about the dead within the next hundred pages - characters that die in book one or two have their deaths reverberate all the way through the 10 book cycle, for instance.
Nicholas L. Garvery
7. corig123
In Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series, there's a sort of prophecy running through many books about Deathstalker's death, so when he dies at the end of the last book it's sad, but fitting. So when a while later Green started writing Deathstalker books again and found a way to bring him back, it felt like he was just looking for easy cash or something.
Zack Weinberg
8. zwol
This is just to say that I would love to see you review The Warrior Who Carried Life. I read it oh so many years ago now, and I recall it doing all sorts of really interesting things, and I completely missed that it was riffing on Gilgamesh because I hadn't read that yet.
Chris Hawks
9. SaltManZ
There are a number of notable resurrections in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, starting from early on the in first book. By and large, as with Gandalf, it's not as simple as dying and then coming back and hooray everything's back to normal. There's usually some kind of transformation, and Erikson oftens goes for the tragic. Some characters come back almost unrecognizable. Perhaps the most heartwrenching are those one or two that do come back almost unchanged, only to spend the rest of the series consumed with guilt, wondering why?, and struggling to find a purpose in this new unwarranted, unasked-for existence.
Nicholas L. Garvery
10. DavidA (still)
I don't actually think that Gandalf is a good example of what you are complaining about, Jo -- because when Gandalf disappears, everyone assumes he's dead, but no one has seen him die, just disappear. So when Gandalf comes back, it's not an example of "he died, but came back to life!" but "we thought he was dead, but he was just lost!" (which can be even more annoying as an authorial trick, but quite different).

. . . and then, Tolkein changes the story and ups the stakes: He has set the table to be "he wasn't dead, he defeated the Balrog, then just got lost for while," but then tells us that Gandalf waged a terrible battle to defeat the Balrog that surpassed his strength and he did die, but was returned because his mission wasn't finished. But Tolkein didn't have to rely on that story to bring Gandalf back; he had a thematic reason to bring it in.
Chin Bawambi
11. bawambi
Actually, its funny you bring this up because I'm literally in the middle of my yearly re-read (Hobbit first of course).
Edited for spoilers. I tried to post in white but it didn't take.
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
To the opposite extreme is Brust in the Taltos series where people can die and be resurrected fairly easily, so long as someone pays the sorceror to do the necessary spell and so long as particular soul killing blade is not used. There is, however, a near-perfect Gandalf situation in Brust's Khavvren/Viscount of Adrilanka series - person assumed to be dead but didn't die at all, but it only occurs once so it is ok.

The series of books that could raise the most discussion in this area are the Song of Ice and Fire books, which Jo hasn't read. This discussion would be way, way too spoilery.
Sean Arthur
13. wsean
Yeah, was gonna mention Brust. I think it works there, because there are specific rules to how it works, and there are ways to permanently kill or be killed.

Rather than get sad when someone is killed, you would get sad when they're pronounced unrevivifiable.

And horrified if it's a Morganti (permanent soul-death) killing.
C Smith
14. C12VT
I like cheating death better when it happens in the first chapter, and then the bulk of the book is about what it's like to be the clone/computer simulation/magical reincarnation or what have you. Now there are some interesting identity issues.
C Smith
15. C12VT
@12, 13: the Morganti killings actually seem worse to me because of how non-permanent other types of death are - the soul that is destroyed may have been in existence for thousands of years and might have existed for thousands more.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
RobMRobM: I have read them! Perhaps you're thinking of Jordan, which I really haven't read.
Rob Munnelly
17. RobMRobM
Jo - I thought you read the first one and stopped. Guess it was EOTW then stopped. My bad.

P.s. FYI - I asked my local librarian for SFF recommendations. He pointed out six or seven worthies (Scalzi!!), including our smallish collection of your works (notably, the Farthing books). I got to note that I had read them all, plus your latest (which remains downstairs in the new books area).
Nicholas L. Garvery
18. Shriek
This contains a spoiler for Mr. King's Dark Tower series:
I agree that a lot of authors have brought characters back from the dead. I would however, disagree that making it commonplace is a bad thing entirely. Surely, not all of a series' characters should Die and come back. That said, I don't mind when a couple do it, throughout the course of the entire series, and execute it in such a way as to make the reader feel for the character. Look at Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series. Over half of the main characters who die come back from death, but he does it in such a way as to make you miss those characters first, so that when they do come back, it is something of an emotional relief.
Nicholas L. Garvery
19. RYNO117
This is a fantastic article. This is one of the main reasons why I really appreciated Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy. There is excellent character development, but the characters are all human (at least relatively speaking). Those who die stay dead, and not even the main characters are immune from this fate. You learn it early on, and it makes you really care about, and fear for, the characters when they are in trouble.
Nicholas L. Garvery
20. Dr_Thanatos
Riverworld---the fastest mode of transportation is the Suicide Express: off wourself and wake up somewhere else the next morning. Everyone dies and comes back at least once, and some do it hundreds of times...
Nicholas L. Garvery
21. Barb in Maryland
I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Bujold's Curse of Chalion. The Mother(Goddess of Summer) said that the curse could be broken only by one who would "lay down his life three times for Chalion". Hoo boy! How Bujold resolves this is wonderful and twisty--basic lesson is that curses cannot be broken by rote.
And yes, the person who breaks the curse is wonderously changed.
One of my favorite books.
Nicholas L. Garvery
22. Joel Franz
Jo, I applaud the post and I think there is some merit to the essence of the notion, although I am going to take to umbrage with your correlation of Tolkien and Christianity. In a number of different publications, and there are far more authoritative sources than I to explicate this, including myself, Tolkien states that his work is not founded upon Christianity, and neither should it be correllated to Christianity.

I understand that compulsion of others to try to reframe literary works as allegory, but when one does do this it perverts the beauty of the literary work in question. When you state that Gandalf coming back from the dead is a correllary to Jesus, that is taking a step to far.

This notion of allegorical comparisons aside, having singular personas come back from the dead, or become not quite dead is rather common now. It starts with the vampire myth and then evolves. You either become not quite dead, or revitalized.
Beth Mitcham
23. bethmitcham
Harry Connolly does a good job dealing real consequences to his characters; main character Ray Lilly comes very close to death, and the steps taken to save him have long-term effects. His friends also face true risks. The Twenty Palaces books in general tend to keep death real. Too bad they've been cancelled.

When I saw the rebooted Star Trek movie with my son, he was devastated by the destruction of Vulcan -- watching billions of people die reduced him to tears. But I quickly comforted him, because of course it wasn't real -- the characters knew zillions of ways to change time. Yet he was right. They stayed dead that time. Oops.
Nicholas L. Garvery
24. Ki
Supernatural is the perfect example of this. The first time a major character dies, at the end of the second season, it rips the guts out of you, and you're there for every moment of the terrible deal it takes to get him back. The next time a major character died, though, the trauma was gone--we already knew death doesn't have to be permanent. And after that death is pretty much a revolving door for the Winchesters and their friends.
Nicholas L. Garvery
25. Ellestra
I think there is nothing like Malazan Book of the Fallen for resurection/unded options. It has hundred ways to comeback from the dead (or stay dead and still be part of the story) so you can pick the one that works best for you. The variety of second life and afterlife options makes it the best offer on the market.

When I like a resurection of a character is not because of what type it is but how it fits into the story, the universe and the development of that character and those who care about her/him. I didn't like Starbuck's I loved Pwyll Twiceborn's.
Nicholas L. Garvery
26. (still) Steve Morrison
@22: I believe you’ve misconstrued what Tolkien said about religion and LotR. Here is an excerpt from one of his published letters:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
Nicholas L. Garvery
27. Scotoma
If we were talking about superhero comics, I could understand the annoyance with death being merely a revolving door instand of a final marker. It's one of the big jokes about the genre. But I can't remember any example in fantasy fiction in recent years where I felt like this was a problem at all, nor that it is a rampant thing all over fantasy.

And so far, none of the comments here make me reconsider. I rather think it's just that Jo dislikes any and all instance of resurrection. Thought why some people need an infusion of tragedy to get meaning at all is beyond me. I prefer something like the ending of Stross's Glasshouse, that shows that death is an old paradigma and needs to be overcome, not embraced.
Lisa Keefe
28. fledge
I had never really thought about this problem before but now that you've pointed it out it makes sense. So few fantasy books kill off main characters that it comes as quite a shock when you run across a story that does. I remember the shock I felt finishing The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson because some major characters die in the end. I wasn't sure how I felt when I put that last book down and it took me awhile to feel satisfied with the ending because I wasn't used to the deaths.
Edit: I also could not white out the spoilers so I took them out.
Jenny Thrash
29. Sihaya
The Dresden Files series does a good job of reviving a rather major character in its most recent book, but you knew it was going to have to happen. The reader is meant to be sitting through the journey rather than focusing on the destination. And it's a good journey. Which makes the destination - the specific circumstances of the revival - a good surprise.
Nicholas L. Garvery
30. wiredog
BtVS handled it pretty well, where resurrecting Buffy has consequences throughout the last two seasons.

Having the Scoobies find out via a song and dance routine that she was in heaven was just awesome.
john mullen
31. johntheirishmongol
I never really had an issue with it in fantasy, or even scifi as long as it was explained within the rules of the universe. Brust does it well, BtVS was great at it...I prefer my main characters to win and to survive. I am old fashioned that way
Nicholas L. Garvery
32. UnionJane
Even though perhaps it is one of the most delicate elements a writer can handle, the traditional format for the hero is that they really do die, either literally or figuratively. Then they have to make the return journey to finish up whatever their quest was. Traditionally, the quest is conquered and the hero displays how they have grown from it. It is a literary trope, much maligned in the hands of modern writers.
Binyamin Weinreich
33. Imitorar
Intellectually, I understand this problem. I understand how resurrections "cheapen death" and ruin a story for people.

Yet I'm a sucker for it. Every time. Every time a character dies, I'm always worried that the author won't choose to bring them back, even in superhero comics, where no sacred cow is ever left slaughtered. And every time a character comes back, I'm ecstatic that nobody died and there can be a completely happy ending after all. The few times a resurrection (or a "didn't die afterall") bothered me were when the explanations for them were too far-fetched to be reasonable.

I guess I'm just a softie at heart. There's a reason I mostly stick to middle-grade fantasy.
Nicholas L. Garvery
34. thanate
My first thought here was of MacAvoy's Damiano trilogy, because it so very blatantly doesn't do resurrection even when the characters want it to, and yet we still get to interact with certain dead characters under a specific set of rules. (I thought that one worked, really.)

What doesn't work for me is less the improbably resurrections (though when it happens to villains, I get highly annoyed) than gratuitous death that is apparently thrown in to prove the author is serious. Possibly this is just my version of being soft-hearted, but I definitely feel like there's such a thing as too high stakes; I stopped reading Fire Upon the Deep, for instance, because by half-way through I'd gotten sick of characters & worlds being introduced just so that they could be wiped out.
Michael Burke
35. Ludon
Cheating death is the setup - and a continuing theme - in Dani and Eytan Kollin's The Unincorporated Man. There are, however, ways within the story to achieve permanent death.

While I do have a few problems with the story, the cheating death part is not one of them. Being reanimated in this case was used as the setup for looking at the problems of a man coping with life in a world of the future AND the problems of that world trying to cope with that man.

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