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In the Return of the King, Pippin collapses beside a blood-stained Gandalf as they both listen to the orc army chop away at the final barricade in Minas Tirith. Emotionally and physically depleted, Pippin looks over at Gandalf and says, “I didn’t think it would end this way.”
Gandalf looks just about as tired and scared as the little hobbit—and certainly they are in a seemingly-hopeless situation—but he perks up, sensing the same inauthenticity, the same falseness we feel when a story is too glib or too grim when it portrays death.
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path… One that we all must take,” Gandalf says. “The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… and then you see it.”
“What? Gandalf? See what?”
“White shores.. and beyond. A far green country under a swift sunrise.”
“Well, that isn’t so bad.”
“No, no, it isn’t.”
Tolkien explains that The Lord of the Rings is ultimately about mortality. In an interview with the BBC, he claims that all stories are really about death, quoting Simone de Beauvoir, “There’s no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man is ever natural. His presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.”
Death is an important theme in fiction, perhaps the most important theme. The stakes have to be high to keep people’s attention, and there’s nothing more exciting than a battle for life. The reason high stakes are so gripping is because, in the end, most of our art is consumed by thoughts of mortality.
And when a character appears immortal, we break free from the narrative.
The Song of Fire and Ice series is intoxicating because of its brutal treatment of characters and “no one is safe” rule. Characters are on the chopping block (sometimes literally) almost every chapter. There are no redshirts here, or more accurately, anyone could peel off their coat and find a crimson uniform underneath.
George R.R. Martin doesn’t shy away from the brutal truth: we know instinctively, deep down, that our time can be up at any juncture, any chapter.
But more than just the fascination with dying, viewers and readers are moved by sacrifice.
In the original Transformers film (the 1986 version), the most iconic Transformer, Optimus Prime, dies 20 minutes in. His death inspires Ultra-Magnus and the rest of the Auto-Bots to victory. Throughout the film, your mind returns to Optimus, wondering if he will come back, if he will be rebuilt. But he never is. The Auto-Bots end up winning, but their win costs them. They do not emerge unscarred because Optimus Prime is gone forever.
Fast-forward to 2007 and the Michael Bay version of the same franchise. Throughout the film, you hear the quote: “No sacrifice, no victory.” And Optimus Prime himself says, “[I am] a necessary sacrifice to bring peace to this planet” and “If I cannot defeat Megatron, you must push the Cube into my chest. I will sacrifice myself to destroy it.”
Everything in the rebooted Transformers points towards the sacrificial death of Prime. But in the end, Sam uses the cube to destroy Megatron and everything is right in the world. Optimus doesn’t die, and the death of Megatron costs so little that the victory feels superficial.
Sacrifice is often what makes a good story great.
Take Superman’s death; he sacrifices himself so someone else can live. Take Gandalf the Grey, who metamorphoses into Gandalf the White, or Peter Parker, who emerges from the death of uncle Ben changed forever.
Death doesn’t just raise the stakes to keep the audience engaged or increase tension, it is a truth of mortality that cannot be faked, and any narrative or fiction that tries to skirt the reality feels inauthentic and lame.
Similarly, when Christ dies to save humanity on a universal level, He transforms Himself and human history, returning with an authority only granted to one who has paid a price. The authenticity is both the pain and grittiness of death, but also the metamorphosis of sacrifice and return with power and authority.
Every story, every narrative, for it to be truly considered and appreciated as authentic must include these two aspects of death, both the sacrificial pain of mortality, and the metamorphic; death is both an end and beginning for heroes.