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.