Death: the undiscovered country. Why is it undiscovered? Because once you cross over into the Great Beyond, there’s no going back. As a result, those who are left behind in the world of the living have no way of knowing what’s coming next.
That’s the way it is in real life anyway. Things aren’t quite so straightforward in fantasy fiction, which frequently features characters dying and returning to life.
Sadly, fantasy authors are no more privy to knowledge of life after death than the rest of us, so these forays into the afterlife usually end up just telling us something about the character — a mere emotional truth, not a literal one about the nature of death.
Still, let’s see what some of the more interesting and famous of these fantasy resurrections have to tell us, shall we?
Xena Warrior Princess (in “Fallen Angel”)
At the end of the fourth season of Xena: Warrior Princess, Xena and Gabrielle both died — victims of Caesar and the culmination of a prophecy given to Xena by the evil shaman Alti at the very start of the season.
Unlike most fantasy “deaths,” the “Fallen Angel” episode shows us exactly what happens to Xena and Gabrielle after they die: the episode is actually set in the world of heaven and hell. But Xena being Xena, she just can’t help getting involved in the eternal struggle between good and evil. I could write for pages about this wonderful episode, but suffice to say: it was a thrilling, knock-our-socks-off moment when we learn that Xena sacrifices herself, choosing to spend all of eternity in hell, not for Gabrielle (as we might expect), but for her uber-nemesis Callisto. Since Xena “created” Callisto, it makes perfect sense in retrospect.
Of course, Xena died other times over the course of the series — six times total, according to some estimates. And the last time she, um, didn’t come back to life. But it’s best not to think about that, right?
Aslan (in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
In one of the most famous “Christ” metaphors in all of literature, the god-lion Aslan allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch in exchange for the life of the traitor Edmund, which belongs to the witch as a result of “deep magic from the dawn of time.”
But surprise! As a result of “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which says that death is reversed when someone willingly sacrifices himself for another, Aslan comes back the next morning — which is really good, because otherwise the witch was going to kill them all anyway!
I know this story has profound meaning for Christians, which I respect, but as a non-Christian, I gotta say: this storyline has always struck me as a bit of clunky metaphor and a colossal plot-cheat. Wouldn’t it have been better if the Pevensie kids had been more active players in their own story?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in “The Gift”)
In the sixth season musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy famously sings, “Hey, I’ve died twice.” But her most significant “death” may have been in the 5th season episode “The Gift,” when Buffy sacrifices her life to save her “new” sister Dawn by diving into (and closing) an inter-dimensional portal created by a god.
Later, Willow and the others perform a spell to “save” her … or do they? In the aforementioned musical episode, we finally learn why Buffy had been so depressed all season long: she was in heaven, finally at peace, and her friends ripped her back out again! Needless to say, the decision by Buffy’s friends to bring her back to life ends up having major ramifications, which — duh! — is exactly the way it should be.
Ged (in The Farthest Shore)
The Wizard Ged has it rough in Ursula le Guin’s The Earthsea Cycle series of books: first, he unleashes a shadow-being into the world that is impossible to “destroy.” And in The Farthest Shore, the third book in the series, he must cross the “wall” between life and death in order to stop an evil wizard who has opened a breach in the wall so that he may live forever.
Ged closes the breach, but it comes at a great cost: he loses his ability to do magic. Ged survives his fantastic (and very effectively written!) foray into the land of the dead, returning to the world of the living, and le Guin gives the character two endings: in one (later developed in subsequent books) he returns home, but in another, he sails off into the ocean, never to be seen again. The latter is a less optimistic, but bolder ending, implying — truthfully — that in any confrontation with Death, human beings ultimately always lose.
Thomas Covenant (in Fatal Revenant)
At the beginning of the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson, Thomas Covenant, still in the “real” world, is stabbed in the chest by one of Lord Foul’s minions — but he and Linden Avery are transported into the magical “Land” before he can actually die. When, at the end of the three-book series, the main characters returns to the “real” world, Covenant is, in fact, dead.
Or is he? Linden hears his voice in the first book of the next series, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and eventually encounters a being who looks very much like him — although looks can sometimes be deceiving. Has Thomas Covenant really come back to life? Not yet, but he does later in the second book, once again by command of the all-powerful Earthblood.
In fantasy literature, humans never seem to learn some lessons, namely, that we should leave the damn dead alone! Oh, and drinking the all-powerful Earthblood is generally a bad idea too.
Frodo (in The Two Towers and The Return of the King)
Okay, so Frodo isn’t really killed by Shelob’s poison in his trek into Mordor over the Ephel Dúath mountains — he’s merely paralyzed by her venom so she can keep him “fresh.” But Sam, of course, thinks Frodo is dead and carries The One Ring on without him, and I’m including the encounter here because it serves as a example of the function that resurrection often serves in fantasy fiction: that of metaphorical rebirth. When Frodo and Sam both emerge from this encounter, they are different people, having learned important truths about themselves and even more determined to continue forward.
Interesting fact: The Two Towers includes material from Shelob’s POV, and these passages make it very clear that the giant spider is trying to “kill” Frodo with her bite, not just “paralyze” him. It’s later we learn (when Sam overhears the guards) that the venom is not fatal. A cheat on Tolkien’s part?
Harry Potter (in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
Does Harry “die” at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or is he merely killed, but before he “dies” is given the opportunity, by magic, to decide whether to live or die? Then again, it’s been established that Harry can’t kill Voldemort without dying himself, so it’s pretty clear that Harry has to be truly “dead” in at least some respect.
Speaking of plot cheats … I’m not trying to get into any arguments here, and I’ll grant that J.K. Rowling did, if you squint, just barely make her whole epic saga hang together in the end.
But Voldemorte accidentally made Harry a horcrux when he was a child and now can’t kill him, because he somehow also incorporated Lily’s protective charm into him? And brilliant mind and fantastic magic-user that he is, he didn’t figure any of this out (but Dumbledore did)?
Okay, that’s not strained at all. I do, however, buy the bit at the very end of Deathly Hallows, with the Elder Wand — that Harry might figure out who the wand’s true owner is and that Voldermort, in his supreme arrogance and over-confidence, would refuse to believe it, effectively condemning himself to death.
Which brings up another fantasy “resurrection”: that of Voldemort himself. He too had died previously and come back to life. In fact, plenty of fantasy villains — Voldemort, Lord Foul, Sauron — have “died” (or been vanquished) and somehow eventually reformed themselves and returned to “life.” Evil is never really “dead,” right?
But, alas, those resurrections will have to be the subject of another article!