Does Anyone “Really” Die in Stories?

As one year dies and another begins, and, at least in my part of the world, most outdoor growing things are dead or wisely biding their time to emerge in a few months, it is a fitting time to think about how stories, like those we analyze and discuss here, address the idea of death. Perhaps this is a rather glum subject, but it does not have to be. I sometimes joke with my literature and mythology students that no one ever “really” dies in mythology, that characters morph from one myth into another, that the stories themselves sustain the characters. In literature, characters can continue to live, as we revisit them, even if they “die” within the structure of the narrative. Rowling, like all the good storytellers and myth-makers who create the tales that teach and entertain us, works with the idea that those who die don’t really leave, whether they are family members or cuddly pigs; but perhaps it is a bit of stretch to assume no one “really” dies in these stories. Let’s ponder that further and see.

The difference between stories that children should read and stories they shouldn’t

Edna St. Vincent Millay famously wrote that “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies” in the poem of that title. Sadly, there is a certain maturity that comes with the realization that death is a real part of life. The innocence of a childhood unsullied by a personal death The Little Match Girl. A Short Story by Hans Christian… | by Mission | | Mediummay mean that one is unable to see thestrals, but it also means one is unable to see many ugly realities as well. C.S. Lewis, whom we’ll discuss more in a moment, saw the bit of his life before his mother’s death, and the rest of his life, as completely different epochs, and certainly, many children who lose a parent early in life could relate to his experience. Although the stories we think of as “children’s” stories are often filled with deaths, death is often treated very differently in fiction that is appropriate for younger readers and fiction that isn’t. Even heart-wrenching deaths, like those in the works of George MacDonald or Hans Christen Anderson (the trauma of “The Little Match-Girl” has scarred both me and my daughter, decades apart), have a non-reality to them. People do die in those stories, but they also fly, fight dragons, and have fairy godmothers who whip up glorious transportation, staff, and evening dress with a wave of a wand. In those stories, death may be no more or less than magic lamps and mermaids.

Considering the fact that J.K. Rowling, when she writes as Robert Galbraith, often deals with the more graphic and final aspects of death, perhaps it is not surprising that her books that are appropriate for all ages are those in which the reality, the finality, of death is often in question. The terrible, but realistically accurate, description of Lula Landry’s smashed body that opens The Cuckoo’s Calling is an immediate indication that this is not a death like those Rowling presents in the Hogwarts novels. In the Wizarding World, we do have a number of people who are undoubtedly dead: Lily and James, Remus, Dumbledore, Cedric, Sirius, Snape. Yet, each of these characters “re-appears,” in some form or fashion: via paintings, the Resurrection Stone, the Pensieve, or visitations in subconscious train stations. Just in case that is not comforting enough, Rowling offers her apologies to her readers for killing off those beloved characters. While Lula’s story is filled in, complete with her gorgeous photos, giving her some semblance of continued life, her death is a truly final end.

In The Christmas Pig, treasured items, even those that have been destroyed in The Land of The Living, continue to exist on the Island of the Beloved. Although their physical forms are long gone, worn out completely or destroyed by naughty dogs or speeding vehicles, these toys remain in their reward. They have become Real, like the Velveteen Rabbit, and thus, for them, the reality of death is cancelled. The beloved toys are Real; death is not. Through the transformative power of love, the treasured items gain mythic power, like Santa Claus, who enjoys their company, like the mythic heroes who live on in story.

Mythic Heroes and the Mystery of Death

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of RagnarokMy husband, who sometimes wanders down (non-velveteen) rabbit paths when he is writing, recently sent me a link for the trailer of the new Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Dawn of Ragnarök, not because I play the game (I don’t, though I have heard of it), but because he saw the connection with this post I’ve been pondering. The trailer features a growling voice crooning the sort of song we often get in action movie trailers, repeating “Everybody dies.” It’s a pretty bleak outlook, of course, but then again, Norse mythology, from which the game is drawing inspiration, is not known for its feel-good appeal. As a trailer, the video showcases the way one can apparently play as Odin, battling various supernatural creatures and monsters to save Baldr who has been carted off by said monsters.  Ironically, with that “everybody dies” motif, the game evidently reinforces my little classroom joke, as one of the main story threads in Norse myth is the fact that Baldr dies.

Surprised by Joy - By: C.S. Lewis C.S. Lewis, in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, writes of the three central experiences that defined his longing for joy. One of these was the moment he read the passage “I heard a voice that cried,/Balder the beautiful/Is dead, is dead” (17). Although he had no idea at the time who Balder was, nor why his death should provoke such sorrow, young Jack was overcome with the longing, the sehnsucht that was central to his spiritual development and which his own writing has inspired in countless readers. The death of Balder (or Baldr), for those not well versed in Norse myth, is, like much of Norse myth, a story of beauty, sorrow, and the utter impossibility to overcome fate. Despite his mother’s efforts to protect him, Balder is killed by a sprig of mistletoe (every other plant and object in the world having sworn not to harm him) thrown by his blind brother, Hod, at the insistence of Loki (MCU fans: this is much more the malicious version that unleashes aliens on New York and kills large numbers of people than the interestingly repentant version/variant? he becomes). Even then, all hope is not lost, because Balder could return to Asgard and be restored if only all creation would mourn him, but the stubborn refusal of one holdout (probably Loki in disguise) means he will remain dead, never returning to Asgard, and Ragnarok looms on the horizon. It’s doubtful that the video game requires players to run about Baldr - Wikipediatrying to convince everyone and everything to weep for Baldr to free him from death (unless all that fighting is trying to make all the enemies cry for Baldr by using force. That’s a neat idea, but unlikely), so I doubt the game follows myth carefully (and video games seldom do, only using the bits that work for gaming). Instead, I imagine there is some way to rescue Baldr, one of the few characters in mythology who does appear to be really dead (not just mostly dead), in defiance of the myth and even the catchy song used to market the game. Though everyone does die, even gods in Norse myths, the immortality afforded to videogame characters does reinforce that idea that when death occurs in myths, it is not permanent.


Alternate Realities

Like the myths on which they are often based, comic-book hero stories, including their popular film versions, often present worlds in which death is not permanent. Even if the physical feats the heroes perform don’t kill them (as they undoubtedly would kill any human subject to the actual laws of physics), other challenges seldom actually finish off the mighty heroes, and, if they do, those heroes often return from the dead. While this is often the type of resurrection we see in Harry Potter’s story, a resurrection that, of course, has its inspiration from The Story, another type of death-defying plot device is extremely popular of late, the alternate reality. Sometimes this is an alternate reality that occurs in some sort of magical limbo, like that of WandaVision (I know; I promised more blogs on that one, but I have been distracted!).  Other times, the alternate reality is truly another universe, one that mimics the one we know, but with some changes (like Mr. Spock with a beard or a beloved hero or terrible villain who someone escaped death in this other universe). While science-fiction stories, like C.S. Lewis’s odd, unfinished, and mysterious Dark Tower fragment, and shows, particularly Star Trek, have long employed the idea of an alternate reality, the multiverse is now the major playground of the MCU, from the popular What If? and Loki series to the blockbuster new Spiderman: No Way Home. In these alternate universes, storytellers and filmmakers get to experiment with what would have happened if one different choice or circumstance had occurred. The subject of the multiverse is a fascinating one, both for the freedom it allows storytellers (rather than being limited to the events of a previous story, they can set their version in another universe), and for the philosophical questions it raises (Who is the protagonist of Loki really? Is he more or less redeemable/valuable/necessary than the other versions of himself he encounters?). It also allows for a particular way death can beWhat If...? (TV series) - Wikipedia avoided in stories. On What If?  for example, one character, who is the sole survivor in a particular universe, instead of returning to that lonely existence, is placed in a universe where that character was killed. Of course, franchises wish to keep their properties/characters going for as long as they possibly can, but even the ancients, who didn’t have licensed merchandise or countless sequels to promote, seldom wanted to lose a good character, and had no qualms about recycling figures from Thor to Robin Hood.

Since it often seems that our world, like Voldemort, fears death above all else, it should not be surprising that video games and other media often create realities in which no one ever dies. I frequently note that one reason my students struggle with the concept of consequences is that they don’t even lose a quarter when they “die” in video games anymore. Celebrities try to fight off the inevitabilities of death and age with their seemingly limitless resources, and a vast array of products are offered to us to make us forget that we are all, in fact, dying. Great stories, though, often offer a different perspective, the perspective that comes from The Story, that reminds us death really is not the worst thing that can happen to us, that evading death, via Horcruxes or any other morally reprehensible act, is not the goal. The goal is to live well, to love, to give, to make a difference, so that we become Real, and when we die, to enter that better country which is, indeed, the best of realities, the most Real reality of all.


Thoughts? Comments (but no Spiderman spoilers!)?


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