I’m not sure I’m readily equipped to handle such a big topic yet but I’ve been preoccupied with death and started thinking about how death, ghosts, remembrance, rites, customs and etc are portrayed in different fantasy books.
I’ve also been taking fan submissions for what to write about this week and a Twitter follower said something like “books and/or quotes that left you breathless.” This was a pretty easy thread to combine so here you go, friend!
I know there are a lot of really unique takes on death throughout the fantasy genre but I wanted to take a look at a few I’ve read recently (think the past few years, or, I remember them vividly enough to comment).
First off, in broad terms, a lot of military fantasy handles death in a light that tends to reflect our modern day thoughts. Characters can die en masse during conflict, some go out as heroes, others die in accidents or simply senselessly, much as in real life.
I’ve got to mention one passage first that left me absolutely breathless when I read it – from Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson. One could write three essays on death in Malazan but it’s an embodiment of what I wrote above, everything from hundreds of thousands dieing in one day to an isolated hero, to the last man standing. Malazan spends a lot of time brooding on death and remembrance, with reincarnation and spirits and many, many related themed explored throughout.
Anyway, here is that passage:
The unnamed soldier is a gift. The named soldier–dead, melted wax–demands a response among the living…a response no-one can make. Names are no comfort, they’re a call to answer the unanswerable. Why did she die, not him? Why do the survivors remain anonymous–as if cursed–while the dead are revered? Why do we cling to what we lose while we ignore what we still hold?
Name none of the fallen, for they stood in our place, and stand there still in each moment of our lives. Let my death hold no glory, and let me die forgotten and unknown. Let it not be said that I was one among the dead to accuse the living.
Survivors do not mourn together. They each mourn alone, even when in the same place. Grief is the most solitary of all feelings. Grief isolates, and every ritual, every gesture, every embrace, is a hopeless effort to break through that isolation.
To face death is to stand alone.
Whether or not you agree, I feel this in my bones. I’ve thought about these passages more than anything else I’ve read in the last year, I’m sure of it.
So let’s look at how death is handled in some other popular (and not so popular) fantasy.
I know there’s a lot of understandable hatred towards Harry Potter right now but as a kid, it was the first book I read that took an honest look at death and put it in palatable terms for me as a young reader. The series takes a frank look at how much is lost in war, the cost to community, family loss, orphans, and also gives the reader the idea that family never leaves us. When Harry saw his family in the Mirror of Erised, it planted that seed for honor and remembrance and the ones that never leave us, a scene rehashed at the end of the series. It also runs the themes of heroes, accidents, senseless curse rebounds, and that no one is immune to death. My favorite was the story of The Deathly Hallows, embracing the eventuality of meeting death on equal terms. I also love the idea of Thestrals, the skeletal pegasus that is invisible until someone has viewed death – terrifying but actually very friendly and useful once a respectful relationship has formed. I could write pages on Thestrals alone.
Another favorite series of mine that I talk about frequently, Green Rider, has choked me up more than once in it’s remembrances of the fallen. I have never read a book with such a subculture built around death and preservation. The catacombs are the scene for some of the most moving parts of the entire series and shows that heroes and history can be cherished and revered. The main character has an affinity for communicating with ghosts (which will break your heart some times) but she also experiences such things as a type of berserker ride fuelled by ghosts, the shenanigans of ghosts wreaking havoc in the archives, and more. One of my favorite scenes is a remembrance ceremony where they all say the name of a deceased rider. That all said, it’s another fantasy series that kills characters in conflict, lets some go out at heroes, some die cruelly at the hands of enemies, and some are just. So. Senseless. Which is another reason why I shamelessly label Green Rider as military fantasy.
Moving on to a book which holds a rather alien view of death that stopped me cold when I first read it- Slaughterhouse 5. Just think about death for a moment and try to expand to a nonlinear frame of reference, then read this passage:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them….
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.Kurt Vonnegut
A bit mind-blowing, isn’t it?
There are lots of YA fantasy books that focus on death too, like Scythe, where Neil Shusterman looks at death from a pinpoint of random necessity. It’s not fair, and no one is immune, but a universally accepted construct of the reapers. Some other recent ones include The Keeper of Night, about Japanese reapers, and Give the Dark My Love, about necromancy and the toll of plague and death on one’s sanity. Love and souls.
I’d be amiss if I talked about YA/MG books and didn’t mention The Graveyard Book. I love this book because it gives kids the wonderful message to not fear death, to embrace being alive, and to kind of introduce the solitude and isolation that comes with grief. If the Macabray existed, would you dance with the dead even if you had no memory of the fact?
You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change
This is starting to get long, so I want to end with another of my favorite authors and how he tends to handle death in his books – from a Christian perspective. Jeff Wheeler writes a lot of fantasy with Christian undertones, so you get everything from the funeral rites of Kingfountain to The Deep Fathoms, where the living can visit the dead once a year should the proper channel be opened. In one series he offers us a land of the dead symbolized by a wall, in another it’s spirits exiting through a portal in the abbey. I always find his deaths to be terrible but necessary, back to the theme of heroes and wars and accidents.
Very briefly, some indie books with interesting takes – The Last Blade Priest where deaths are sacrificed to these vulture type deities for sustenance and a whole religion (and conflict) is built around the practice.
A Touch of Light by Thiago Abdalla – I don’t honestly remember this one too well already but there was a new and interesting theme regarding not mentioning the dead at all. It was really convenient for the characters who seemed to be chased by memories of the dead, frequently.
Wrapping this up, I have always been fascinated with how different books handle death. I’m not even speaking of books where death is a character like, oh I don’t know, Terry Pratchett, but as a theme or subtext or just a book with interesting ideas.
Do you have a book that deals with these topics that you enjoy or that made you think? Even a quote? Let me know in the comments!