Thu
Feb 14 2013 5:00pm

Seven Science Fiction/Fantasy Martyrs Who Give Saint Valentine a Run for His Money

In many ways the conception of Valentine’s Day feels a bit like a science fiction thing, or at the very least, an urban legend. Unlike Saint Patrick, who totally, for real, drove snakes out of Ireland (maybe), details about exactly what Saint Valentine did are dubiously muddled and/or non-existent. The essential fact is this: at some point there was a Saint Valentine who was certainly a martyr, so it might as well be for love!

But when you stop to reflect on it, science fiction and fantasy is lousy with martyrs, and we probably know much more about them than we’ll ever know about Saint Valentine. Here are seven martyrs who keep sci-fi and fantasy going, mostly because they seem to always come back after they’ve died!

Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings)

One of the nice things about being a genre-fiction martyr is that you often get to come back to life at just the right moment. That being said, Gandalf’s “Fly, you fools!” line is probably one of the best parting lines of all time. Gandalf is so badass that he insults you while he’s saving you from the Balrog. Also, if you’re going to check out as a martyr, you might as well go out fighting the Balrog known as “Durin’s Bane,” while bellowing “You shall not pass!” like a maniac. It’s hard to be a cooler martyr than Gandalf, though some have tried. And does Gandalf coming back as the slightly more amoral Gandalf the White ruin his martyrdom? No! However, he was probably at his wizardly slickest in those Mines of Moria.

 

John Sheridan (Babylon 5)

Speaking of people who return from the dead slightly weirder than before, Sheridan from Babylon 5 managed to come back to life after his martyrdom thanks to the power of his love for Delenn. (Sheridan holds a weird distinction of being on two of our Valentine’s Day lists this year. Is it the hair?) Sheridan’s martyrdom in Babylon 5 is significant because of what it sets into motion for all the other alien races. If he hadn’t blown himself up to take down the Shadows, a lot of those folks probably wouldn’t have gotten on board with the whole fighting the darkness thing. Good work, Sheridan!

 

Spock (Star Trek)

In many ways, Spock is a career martyr. He’s always trying to sacrifice and/or punish himself for stuff in the original TV show. In “Operation: Annihilate!” he nearly blinds himself in order to kill the creepy parasite/flying pancake things. In “Amok Time” he promptly decides to turn himself into the space cops after he thinks he’s killed Kirk, and of course there’s that whole radiation poisoning/fixing the warp drive stunt he pulled in The Wrath of Khan. Though Bones “liked him better before he died,” Spock actually doesn’t become an asshole when he gets resurrected, and his martyr-like behavior (whether he actually dies or not) usually is truly selfless. One of the reasons we like Spock so much is precisely because of this quality: if Spock were a celebrity pop star, he’d probably ONLY do charity concerts. And he’d mean it.

 

The Doctor (Doctor Who)

Which incarnation of the Doctor is the biggest martyr? We could make a strong argument for the Ninth Doctor, since he is arguably the most angry, thanks to his previous incarnation (supposedly) ending the Time War and his entire race with it.

In a way the Doctor is sort of an inverse martyr because he performs martyr-like actions, and then has to live through, and with, the consequences. Killing all your own people is certainly not the same as being a martyr, but absorbing the time vortex, or a bunch of radiation certainly is. (Seriously, how often does the Doctor die and then regenerate because he’s absorbed a bunch of something or other?) Regeneration is such a great sci-fi trick though, because it allows the character to have his death and martyrdom...and then keep on living. Which brings us to....

 

Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Let’s see... how many times has Buffy died and come back? And it’s not just the fact that she has been shuffled off this mortal coil only to be resurrected more than once, it’s that she might have been a whole lot happier staying dead. When Buffy comes back from some heaven-like place following her second major life sacrifice in season five, she tries to keep the truth from her friends—being done with the whole slaying thing had been awesome. But she gets it together once more, becomes a counselor at school, then a Slayer grand dame, and keeps saving the world over and over. It’s not just the fact that Buffy has sacrificed herself, it’s that she will never stop doing it—maybe not always by physically giving up her life, but by repeatedly sacrificing her love life, her friends and associates, and her personal happiness. Heck, it turns out that dying was the easy part.

 

Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock, et al.)

Though the martyrdom of Sherlock Holmes is not technically science fiction or fantasy (though I truly believe you can make a case for it being in the genre!) it has become significant recently, perhaps more than ever before. Yes, readers famously wore black armbands after Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem,” but that swell of devotion may have been eclipsed recently by the “I Believe in Sherlock” fan phenomenon which popped up on the Internet after the airing of “The Reichenbach Fall.” As many have pointed out before, any adaptation of “The Final Problem” is poised to be better than the original, because Conan Doyle clearly didn’t give a shit about that story making sense. BBC’s Sherlock crafted perhaps the best possible version of this story by having Sherlock’s martyrdom not only be accomplished by his death, but also the complete loss of his precious reputation. His phone call to John might just be the most heartbreaking Sherlock Holmes-related moment of all time.

 

Valentine Michael Smith (Stranger in a Strange Land)

Did you think we’d get through a Valentine’s Day martyr post without mentioning the guy who has “Valentine” in his name? Way to be subtle, Robert A. Heinlein! We know there are an infinite number of opinions about Stranger in a Strange Land, but beyond having an awesome title (and premise) the final scenes of Valentine Michael Smith’s life easily qualify him for best genre martyr ever. Not only did this character introduce the word “grok” into the pop cultural lexicon, he also inverted all the mores of the future world in which he lived. And how did society repay him? Mob violence takes him down! Luckily, he gets to talk to his pal Jubal from the afterlife, and the book about his life is still in print and readily available. Now, we know this might be an inappropriate time to bring this up, but where’s our damn Stranger in a Strange Land movie already? And why is Michael Fassbender not playing Valentine Michael Smith?

In any case, Happy Martyr Day, everyone!


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. 

Emily Asher-Perrin is the editorial assistant at Tor.com.

18 comments
ClayG
2. ClayG
Please guys, do a little research. St Patrick attempted to drive Pagans and Paganism out of Ireland, not snakes, as something tells me you knew in the first place. Snakes were a pre-Christian symbol of wisdom (which is why the snake is a tempter in Genesis).
Matthew Schmeer
1. mwschmeer
Here's a litte clue: If they RESSURECT, they are NOT martyrs!

They are saviors. Big difference.
ClayG
3. Eric Saveau
Sam Winchester and Dean Winchester in Supernatural. Each of them has died and gone to hell (twice in Sam's case!) while fighting the good fight and protecting the only family they have left - each other. Honorable mention in that same series to Castiel and Bobby.

Also Rory Williams in Doctor Who. Erased from history, restored as a plastic automaton dressed as a Roman Centurion, standing vigil over the woman he loves for two thousand years, and then ressurrected as a real flesh-and-blood boy who keeps the Centurion costume for sexytimes with the aforementioned woman (which maybe makes the martyrdom a bit too cutesy but, hey, Doctor Who).
ClayG
4. Eric Saveau
Oh, a better one if we're talking no resurrections: Marcus Cole in Babylon 5. Sacrificed himself to save the woman to whom he devoted boundless unspoken love, and no sneaky resurrection to bring him back later.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
Martyrs sacrifice themselves for others, so that leaves out some of the Doctor's incarnations. The First "died" of old age. The Second was forced to regenerate as a disguise during his exile (which in retrospect became a sort of mini-death sentence once the 12-regeneration limit was introduced quite a few years later). The Sixth bumped his head in a crash, and the Seventh "died" from medical malpractice.

Of the Doctor's self-sacrifices, I'd say the Fifth's is the most awesome. Perhaps because it's not about saving the universe, but just about saving his best friend. And he doesn't waffle about it like the Tenth did in similar circumstances; he's relentless about it, and he's not going to let you stop him now!
Natalie Zutter
8. nataliezutter
I don't think I've ever read a Valentine's Day article quite like this before, really digging it. Also, I love reading the posts you guys co-write because I like trying to figure out who penned which parts.

@ClayG - I dunno, when I watched the animated story of St. Patrick's life in Catholic school, there were totally snakes...

@booklegger451 - YES.
ClayG
10. stygyan
Vegeta on Dragonball Z, when he kills himself to stop Boo. He doesn't even expects to resurrect. And Goku, on the cell games.
Chris Hawks
11. SaltManZ
Optimus Prime! As Beast Wars Megatron put it, "You Optimuses do enjoy sacrificing yourselves."
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
12. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
Dipping into anime (which is rife with self-sacrificing), one of the biggest in recent memory is Madoka from Puella Magi Magica Madoka. Her choice of martrydom in order to save all magical girls (or ascension into Goddess-hood, whatever you prefer) was one of the best conclusions to an anime that sought to deconstruct the whole magical girl genre.
Ryan Britt
13. ryancbritt
@2 Clay
Hey, we were kind of kidding there with the Saint Patrick thing.

@Everyone on the definition of marytr: we were going with a broad
interpretation here, for the purposes of fun. :-)
ClayG
14. Sanagi
I didn't want a Stranger in a Strange Land movie until you said the words "Michael Fassbender." If I could be sure it wouldn't turn into "Die Hard with an alien" halfway through production, I'd be up for that.
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
Actually, no one 'drove the pagans out' of Ireland. There was no invasion of Christians who displaced the pagan people who previously lived there. Instead, the people of Ireland were converted to Christianity. And there are some who think that the earliest Christians in Ireland did not even drive out pagan ideals--instead, they absorbed many pagan festivals and traditions into their practices. For example, compare the celtic goddess Bridgit with the Catholic Saint Bridgit. In keeping with this theory, some argue that it wasn't until later that Christianity in Ireland came back in line with the mainstream of Catholic thought.
And the Patrick who was kidnapped to Ireland and brought Christianity to his captors left writings behind that are strikingly different than the stories we think of when we discuss the legends of Saint Patrick. While he brought the faith to many people, there are reports that Christianity existed in Ireland well before the historical Patrick arrived.
Ryan seems to have opened a can of snakes by bringing up Patrick. ;-)
Christopher Bennett
16. ChristopherLBennett
@15: That sounds likely. Religious conversion is usually more a process of syncretism, with the first generation incorporating or reconciling the new religion's teachings with their existing traditions; and then in a later generation, once the converted culture is brought into greater contact with the cultural center of the new religion, there may be a fundamentalist reform movement to bring the syncretic practices more in line with standard doctrine. What you're describing about Ireland is a close match for the pattern I've studied in other religious conversions elsewhere in world history.
Marie Veek
17. SlackerSpice
If we're including video games - Martin Septim from The Elder Scrolls. Every damn time. The guy sacrifices himself to become an avatar of Akatosh to fight Mehrunes Dagon and restore the barrier. No matter what else happend afterwards, Champi-gorath made a very good point in Skyrim - how can you top that?
ClayG
18. Amaryllis
There's not a mile of Erin's isle where dirty vermin musters,
Since there he put his sweet fore-foot, and murthered them in clusters.

Where blind snakes crawling in the grass disgusted all the nation,
Right down to hell with a holy spell he changed their situation.

Christy Moore said it, I believe it, that settles it.

As for martyrs/saviors, on the fantasy end I submit Ista and Cazaril from Lois McMaster Bujold's "Chalion"series, both of whom died to save others. (They got better.)
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
19. Lisamarie
Late to the party (almost in time for St. Patrick's day, though!), but how could we forget Obi-Wan Kenobi? Albus Dumbledore (and to an extent Harry Potter himself, although he didn't really die. He was certainly willing to. And Lily Potter really is the ultimate and drives the whole series!)

There are some great WOT ones I could mention but not sure if we are allowed AMOL spoilers yet :)

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