Transcending Death: Mortality and Immortality in Fantasy Literature

Paisid Map Aramphongphan '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

"Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux."
[People die, and they are not happy.]
--Caligula, Albert Camus

decorated initial 'F' or centuries, writers have pondered human beings' mortality. Why does one have to die? What comes after death? Can one escape death? Questions like these have often come up in the intellectual history of the human race and certainly in literature. The theme of mortality and immortality, well thought out and sometimes subtly presented, appears in the works of many well-known figures in fantasy literature, especially C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter S. Beagle, Stephen R. Donaldson, and Gene Wolfe. Though these works often begin by presenting death as fearful and portraying immortality as desirable, ultimately they attempt to transcend death, answering the question why one should not fear it: because the after-life can be wonderful, because mortality in fact provides more advantages than immortality, and because death and life form a cycle of life; without one or another, the stage of life would become incomplete.

Most people view death with fear, and many works of fantasy literature reflect this attitude. Both C. S. Lewis and Peter S. Beagle use death as a suspense maker in their narratives, creating excitement and fear in the reader's mind. In Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, part of The Chronicles of Narnia series, the main characters experience "two narrow escapes" in their journey to "the End of the World" (121). The sudden attack by the Sea Serpent, threatening the main characters' lives, proves effective in gripping the reader's attention. Reepicheep, one of the characters in the journey "nearly killed himself," trying to put the ship out of the loop made by the Sea Serpent (126). In the following passage, the struggle to survive and the fear of death, which the reader can relate to, create a sense of urgency and suspense.

Very soon the whole ship's company except Lucy and the Mouse (which was fainting) was in two long lines along the two bulwarks, each man's chest to the back of the man in front, so that the weight of the whole line was in the last man, pushing for their lives. For a few sickening seconds (which seemed like hours) nothing appeared to happen. [126]

Not long after the first narrow escape, the company faces another. They come across a pool, "made of large grayish-blue stones" (133). Hinting that the pool is not a regular one, Lewis writes: "On the bottom lay a life-size figure of a man, made apparently of gold." The main characters, young and adventurous, become excited. Caspian enthusiastically wonders out loud, "Can we get it out?" To which Reepicheep replies, "We can dive for it." Edmund, another member of the company, decides to lower his spear into the water to test its depth. Lucy remarks that the spear all of a sudden becomes gold (134). Then, Edmund shouts, "Get back! Back from the water. All of you. At once!!" The color of his boots' toes has changed. The water, as the characters discover, "turn things into gold" (135).

"What a narrow shave we've had," said Edmund.

"Narrow indeed," said Reepicheep. "Anyone's finger, anyone's foot, anyone's whisker, or anyone's tail, might have slipped into the water at any moment." [135]

The characters come close to death without realizing it until the last moment. Lewis cleverly drops hints, strange occurrences in the story, before the characters discover the truth and their peril. Because of the danger that the characters face, because of the possibility of death, this part of the book effectively gives the reader a sense of suspense.

Like Lewis, Beagle uses death, or the fear of it, to create suspense in The Last Unicorn. When the Unicorn encounters her hunter, the Red Bull, she was "frozen as a wave about to break," even though she "had never been afraid of anything" (95). Even though she is immortal, "she could be killed." The Unicorn knows that the Red Bull seeks her, and so "fear blew her dark, and she ran away." In narrating the escape, Beagle creates suspense: "Now she had room to race, and a unicorn is only loping when she leaves the hunter kicking his burst and sinking horse. She moved with the speed of life . . . swifter than anything burdened with legs or wings" (96). The use of the phrase "speed of life" particularly gives an idea of the struggle for life. It suggests that the Unicorn runs as fast as she can to survive, to escape death.

In addition, fantasy authors like Lewis and Ursula K. Le Guin allude to death in their writing in order to produce particular responses in the reader. In Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, part of The Earthsea Cycle series, describing the treasury of the Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin writes: "No light, no life; no least stir of spider in the dust or worm in the cold earth" (125). Ged, the protagonist, observes, "This. . . this is a deathly place" (126). Like Le Guin, Lewis in The Last Battle uses the idea of death in his work with the implication that death is horrible. To convince Jewel the unicorn of the situation's bleakness, the King compares it to death:

"Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death? . . . That would be nothing, nothing at all. Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for?" [32]

In another instance, to convey the extreme need to look on the face of Tash, Emeth alludes to death: "For gladly would I die a thousand deaths if I might look once on the face of Tash" (139). The phrase "a thousand deaths" stands for the most horrible thing one can face in order to achieve something that one desires. The assumption underlying the quotations from The Last Battle clearly is that hardly anything equals death in terms of its unfavorable characteristics.

Unlike Lewis and Le Guin, who incorporate the idea of death in their writing as a narrative technique, J. R. R. Tolkien gives the reader a clear picture of death, loss, and grief in narrating a battle between good and evil. In The Return of The King, during the battle of the Pelennor Fields, Éomer, son of Théoden, sees his father succumb to death. Then he sees Éowyn, his sister, lying still and thinks that she too has died. The sight devastates him.

He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white, and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.

"Éowyn, Éowyn!" he cried at last. "Éowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!" [826]

By portraying death and its psychological effects on the living, Tolkien effectively narrates the battle and affects the reader's emotion. The possibility of sadness brought by the loss of loved ones touches upon the reality of human beings' mortality, to which every reader can relate.

However, Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring also uses the notion of death as a narrative technique when narrating the chase of the fellowship by a Balrog, a horrifying creature, in the Mines of Moria. Without immediately giving the reader the Balrog's physical description, Tolkien cleverly creates a sense of suspense by giving the reader instead the sound of the Balrog's arrival, "doom, doom, doom," the phrase which he repeats throughout chapter five (320). Certainly Tolkien does not choose the word "doom" by chance to describe the sound of the deadly creature.

The fear and the generally negative view of death make immortality a seemingly desirable choice; unsurprisingly the human race has often dreamed of immortality. Just as it reflects the general attitude toward death, fantasy literature also reflects the desire of becoming immortal. Indeed, immortality means not having to worry about death. In addition, Le Guin equates immortality with sacredness in The Tombs of Atuan. Describing the throne of the Nameless Ones, the immortal, ancient gods, Le Guin writes: "The three highest steps directly before the throne . . . had never been climbed by mortal feet" because of its sacredness (4). This statement also implies that mortals are not equal to immortals, to which Beagle and Donaldson agree.

In The Last Unicorn Beagle points out that immortals like the Unicorn, "know nought of need, or shame, or doubt, or debt -- but mortals take what they can get," creating a sense of immortals' moral supremacy (35). The Unicorn, having been turned into a human being before returning to her true form, remarks rather sadly:

I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret. [207]

In the quoted passage, Beagle associates human beings with tears, hunger, the fear of death, and regret, all of which immortals have none, all of which make mortals inferior to immortals. Whereas "unicorns are for beginnings, for innocence and purity, for newness," Beagle portrays human beings as corrupted and consumed by greed, especially in chapter seven of The Last Unicorn. In the chapter, the citizens of a town called Hagsgate always worry about their fleeting wealth. Because of the prophecy that the hero, who will destroy Haggard's tower and stop Hagsgate's prosperity, can only come from Hagsgate, they "allow no strangers to settle" in their town (87). In hoping to protect their fortune, they even decide not to have children. When a child appears one winter's night, "lying on a butcher's block," the people "leave [the] child out in the snow" for fear of losing their wealth if the prophecy comes true (91).

Stephen R. Donaldson similarly portrays immortals as morally superior to mortals. In Lord Foul's Bane, the Bloodguards become immortal because of their "pledged loyalty" to the Lords; however, they also have to sacrifice a great deal. Thomas Covenant, the protagonist, becomes horrified, "with nauseated sympathy" when he learns that the Bloodguards live "ascetic, womanless, and old" (252). Yet Bannor, one of the Bloodguards explains, "We have sworn the Vow. The Vow is life. Corruption is death," telling Covenant "You cannot corrupt us" (253). Covenant, a mortal, expresses his thought in a somewhat cynical manner: "Well of course I understand. You live forever because your pure, sinless service is utterly and indomitably unballasted by any weight or dross of mere human weakness." Corruption for Donaldson means death and "human weakness" like need, greed, and sin makes human beings mortal as well as morally inferior to immortals.

However, as much as one dreams about immortal beings, human beings can never escape death. Mortality confronts fantasy writers as a reality in life. This reality inspires many fantasy writers to come up with ways of accepting death and mortality. Lewis portrays what comes after life beautifully, so one does not have to worry about death. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he gives the reader a glimpse of the wonderful land where one goes after death. Lewis refers to this land as "Aslan's country" (268). Aslan is the name of the Christ figure in the Narnia series, giving the notion of life after death religious implications. Aslan's country, in other words, is heaven. Slowly approaching the land,

One or two of the sailors who had been oldish men when the voyage began now grew younger every day. Everyone on board was filled with joy and excitement, but not an excitement that made one talk. [255]

Then the characters on board the Dawn Treader saw white "blooming lilies" everywhere (257). The boat was "amidst the whiteness," whiteness "shot with faintest color of gold." The flowers then "rose a smell which Lucy found it very hard to describe; sweet, yes, but not at all sleepy or overpowering" (258). The sun "turned into wonderful rainbow colors" and a breeze "brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound" (265). With such land as a destination after death, one hardly has to fear death. In The Last Battle, when the main characters finally reach Aslan's country, Lewis, after some clever foreshadowing, reveals that all of them have died, yet in Aslan's country, "the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that [he] cannot write them" (228). Interestingly, Lewis suggests that the world the reader lives in is just a "shadowland" and Aslan's country is real, a "world within world" (226). And in this inner land, "no good thing is destroyed."

Like Lewis, Tolkien in The Return of the King gives the reader a wonderful land, "the Grey Havens," inhabited by the Elves, immortal beings (998). Tolkien, however, does not suggest that mortals, like the Hobbits, simply go to this land after death. In fact, the mortals who get to go to the land, Frodo and Bilbo, travel there alive. But, like Lewis, the notion that one has to meet certain condition before one can go to the land exists. For Lewis, one dies first. For Tolkien, the answer may not be as clear.

"Where are you going, Master?" cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening."

"To the Havens, Sam." Said Frodo.

"And I can't come."

"No, Sam. No yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come [1006]

Tolkien establishes the reason why Frodo and Bilbo go to the Havens: they have had the duty of bearing the Ring. Although Sam has too, Frodo, and presumably Bilbo, "have been too deeply hurt." For mortals, it seems that only the wounded go to the Havens. Frodo indeed is wounded, and "it will never really heal" (1002). Still, even though Tolkien does not explicitly mention death, one might say that Frodo, or at least part of him, has died. One can view the Grey Havens as Tolkien's version of the after-life, like Aslan's country in The Last Battle. Before leaving the Shire, Frodo tells Sam, "You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do" (1006). Unlike Frodo, Sam remains "solid and whole." Tolkien associates wholeness with being alive and being mortal -- explicitly the opposite of Frodo's state, wounded, and, in a sense, dead.

Like Tolkien, Le Guin touches upon the notion of mortal wholeness. In The Farthest Shore, Cob, who wants to become immortal, in the end suffers from the "inability to die, more horrible than any dying" (241). When Ged, the protagonist helps Cob by killing him, he says, "Be thou made whole." By associating wholeness with mortality, Le Guin argues that mortality is ultimately superior to immortality.

Not only does mortality mean wholeness, it also means that one has emotions and human qualities like kindness and love. Many fantasy writers mention this point in their works, suggesting also that being mortal means being truly alive to experience all that life has to offer. In The Last Unicorn, when Molly observes that the Unicorn, now in a form of human being, treats Prince Lir rather cruelly,

"Cruel?" she asked. "How can I be cruel? That is for mortals." But then she did raise her eyes, and they were great with sorrow, and with something very near to mockery. She said, "so is kindness." [133]

In the quoted passage, Beagle affirms the value of humanity and mortality. Only mortals like human beings possess kindness. Furthermore, some immortals cannot experience life the way mortals do. The Skull, which Schmendrick meets in Haggard's castle, has died but still lives, "hanging in the dark watching over Haggard's property" (164). When the Skull asks for wine, Schmendrick replies, "And what use have you for wine, with no tongue to taste it, no ribby palate to savor it, no gullet to gulp it down?" (166). The Skull, still living and defying death, cannot experience certain things in life anymore. Lastly, although the Unicorn in a human body has complained, "This body is dying. I can feel it rotting all around me. How can anything that is going to die be real? How can it be truly beautiful?" once she learns to love, her view changes (107).

"Everything dies," she said, still to Prince Lir. "It is good that everything dies. I want to die when you die. Do not let him enchant me, do not let him make me immortal. I am no unicorn, no magical creature. I am human, and I love you" [178]

Beagle values humanity and uses it to argue against immortality: "You are truly human now. You can love, can fear, and forbid things to be what they are, and overact . . . One good woman more in the world is worth every single unicorn gone" (179). Like Beagle, Gene Wolfe in The Shadow of the Torturer, affirms the value of humanity, greater than death: "No intellect is needed to see those figures who wait beyond the void of death . . .The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great" (191). "We," mortals, transcend death by the "great forces" that we encompass. As for Donaldson, in Lord Foul's Bane, although mortality may mean "impotence" (234), he emphasizes the role of Covenant, a mortal, in fighting Lord Foul, the evil antagonist, not the immortal Bloodguards. Interestingly, because immortals are not consumed by greed, doubt, regret, are "sinless," and "pure," which might seem like an advantage, both Beagle and Donaldson eventually argue that the difference, in fact, makes mortality a more promising option. For Beagle, a human being can love, and for Donaldson, a human being does not live "ascetic and old."

Lastly, Le Guin offers a different approach to mortality. In The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin portrays death as a natural stage of life, with a hint of a belief in reincarnation: "All human beings were forever reborn" (55). Death for Le Guin represents a part of the cycle of life, which, along with other things, constitute the balance of the world. And in The Farthest Shore, when one craves immortality and tries to upset the balance, "the world is swayed, and ruin weighs heavy in the scale" (46). Explaining the cycle of life to Arren, the young prince, Ged says,

There are two, Arren, two that make one: the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth. [179]

Le Guin implies that without death, life does not exist. Life without death, "life unchanging, everlasting, eternal" is just "death without rebirth." Donaldson briefly reflects this point in Lord Foul's Bane, when Foamfollower the giant and Covenant discuss the notion of hope from power and power over death. Foamfollower wisely observes that "the power over death is a delusion. There cannot be life without death," which Covenant "recognized [as] a fact" (385). Both Le Guin and Donaldson argue that death and life go together and that human beings cannot choose to have only one without another.

The question of death, mortality, and immortality always stays in our collective consciousness. Unlike realist fiction, bound by a need to explore real social conditions and human beings' limitations, fantasy literature can explore philosophical questions that transcend the realm of the real. Fantasy writers, therefore, often bring up the issue of mortality and immortality in their works. Though they often portray death as fearful and dream about immortal beings, a reflection of the general attitude of most people, fantasy writers still face the fact that human beings, no matter how they view death or crave immortality, cannot escape death. These writers, then, try to offer an answer, an explanation of mortality in different ways. The merit of each explanation in relative to another may depend on personal belief, but the central message is clear: Embrace your life, and indeed your mortality, not only because you cannot escape death, but because mortality is, in fact, a positive part of your life.


Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Roc/New American Library, 1991.

Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Foul's Bane. Part I of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

---. The Tombs of Atuan. New York: Simon and Schulster, 1971

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1952.

---. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: HarperCollins, 1956.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Rings in The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966

---. The Return of the King in The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966

Wolfe, Gene. The Shadow of the Torturer in Shadow & Claw. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1981.

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Last modified 18 May 2004