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The death of a character can be a powerful storytelling mechanism. From the death of Fives, the murder of Aerith, or Boromir’s sacrifice, death shows that there is always a price to pay and ultimately we do not emerge from our struggles without scars. However, what does it mean when storytellers defy death and bring character back from the dead?
Resurrection is dangerous territory for a storyteller and needs to be handled wisely; if someone’s death needs to mean something then perhaps their resurrection needs to mean that much more.
Sometimes, resurrection is confused with other plot elements, so let’s begin by defining what resurrection isn’t.
Resurrection != Respawn (or multiple lives)
Most video games fall under this category. Should you actually “die” the clock is reversed and you have the chance to redo what you did (or didn’t do). The overarching story is completely unaffected by whether or not you died.
Resurrection != Reanimation
Zombies are reanimated, not resurrected, beings. In stories that involve reanimation (like that one episode of Star Trek Voyager where Ensign Lyndsay Ballard is reanimated by an alien race), it’s usually clear that what makes a person human goes beyond their memories, mannerisms, and corporeal being.
Resurrection != Adding to 0 HP
Take the latter Final Fantasy games or even Dungeons and Dragons; just because you fall to 0 HP does not mean you’re actually dead. So when that Phoenix Down hits you or your cleric finally gets their act together, it’s more realistically described as going from incapacitated to capacitated.
Moving on, here are a few powerful examples of true resurrection found in geek culture.
The Cylons come back, the very next day
Toasters die only to wake up with all their consciousness intact in a completely new body.
What it means: The intangible and unexplainable of what make us human is worth more than any physical form.
Buffy dies and dies again
Leave it to Joss Whedon to kill off his lead not once, but twice (and I’m not even including her “death” in Season 1, because I’m not sure it really counts as resurrection).
Season 5 is a different story, however. Buffy sacrifices herself to save Dawn and she is dead. Like, dead dead. After being ensconced in the after-life, Buffy is unceremoniously ripped from heaven and returned to the land of mortality by her friends.
She returns broken. Her friends write it off as damage from the after-life (thinking she had been in Hell) but the truth is, Buffy had a taste of heaven and her mortal life now seems like hell in comparison.
What it means: Life after death is greater than we can comprehend.
While Whedon seems to prefer quality deaths over quantity deaths when it comes to killing of major characters, Martin’s tactics are the exact opposite. That isn’t to say his characters’ deaths carry no weight—I mean, who wouldn’t want Ned Stark brought back?
No Stark is returned though. Instead, it’s Khal Drogo who is brought back, and his resurrection is anything but celebratory. Drogo becomes a fraction of who he once was and the cost of his return was great. Daenerys wanted it all, and instead it cost her the life of her unborn child as well as Drogo’s sanity and self.
What it means: The cost of life and death must be paid.
Harry Potter rises above death
Hit with the killing curse from Voldemort, Harry finds himself between life and death in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. At King’s Cross, we discover that it is because of Harry’s sacrifice that he is able to rise above and defeat death, and ultimately triumph over the evil one. The Christian undertones here are not lost.
What it means: Before good truly prevails, death must be conquered.
The Lion is reborn
No, not Simba. Aslan. Written by C.S. Lewis and published in 1950. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe recounts the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy’s discovery of the mystical land of Narnia ruled by Aslan the lion but threatened by the White Witch. Edmund is deceived and finds himself facing his own execution. Aslan steps in and offers himself as a sacrifice for Edmund’s crimes.
After Edmund’s price is paid in full, we learn that the death of an innocent killed in place of a traitor will be the key to saving the world. In another book in the series (and my favourite), The Horse and his Boy, we see Edmund fighting for mercy on behalf of the treacherous Rabadash; “Even a traitor may mend. I have known one who did.”
What it means: The cycle of death is broken through the blood of a pure innocent.
I can’t fail to mention the meta-resurrection of the Firefly series, which was made into movie and continues to live on in the hearts and minds of all those that love it.
What it means: Because of love, it is never really dead.