The Best Fantasy Has No Sacred Cows
The shock was immediate. That damned Martin. He can’t kill off Robb!
OK, he can. And obviously did! But it feels like I’m just happily sinking into the series and he’s killed off the bloody hero who’s supposed to carry this epic to the end. Or not. And at a wedding. Must admit, though blindsided, I’m impressed. Old Marty’s got some brass ones. I’ll say that much for a louse who doesn’t seem inclined to finish writing what he started. (And that’s all I got to say ’bout that.) Still … when Robb’s father was killed the presumption was that the fight would go on in Robb. Now what?
And so began a journey of reading delight where not a page was turned that I didn’t dread with gleeful anticipation another character’s untimely demise. Of course, the author was George R.R. Martin and the epic was A Song of Ice and Fire which HBO would re-title, Game of Thrones, and at least they seem to have the moral decency to complete the story in this coming season. (Yeah, I’m kinda down on old Marty boy.)
Still, for my two cents, this one, epochal death pulled Martin’s epic fantasy from the swamp of “Snow Whitedom” fantasy – like nobody ever dies unless they’re evil – into the realm of honest, albeit fantastical, reality. Even the mighty, the good, and the innocent are mortal.
This has always been my one and only beef with Lord of the Rings. Tolkien did it honestly in all his other writing, but here, ya gotta be a real scum bag of a character to actually die. The one exception being an elf lord who dies heroically. Oh, and Gandalf sort of died and then came back as a white wizard. Really? But the Balrog was good. The movie did that beasty up right.
Stephen Donaldson was my first true introduction to honest fantasy (as well as a very flawed protagonist) in his Thomas Covenant epic. Steven Erikson carried the torch with his grand epic, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I mean, the characters he kills off, and after they had filled book after book, page after page, I was stunned, bummed out, and hoping that somehow, someway … but no, dead is dead. And the reading was better for it too.
I want to point out the one glaring, demanding constant that all these deaths shared. Warfare. How can all the heroes not suffer some deaths within their ranks with chaos and mayhem swirling around them in a cloud of swords, arrows, spears wielded with evil intentions by enemies, false friends, and some pretty kick-ass demons and such? For me, this is a teeny, tiny weak link in the stories’ telling. But a good battle or two or three seems to be the meat and potatoes of fantasy/sword and sorcery. This happens despite our living experiences with war. In our own lifetimes. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Where next? Heroes’ deaths are somehow clean, epic, sanitized(?). The truth of war speaks differently. Fathers die. Mothers die. Brothers and sisters. Children die. Everyone is maimed in some form or fashion. War is our worst plague and nightmare. I like my fiction, sci fi, and fantasy just like I want my history. Real.
Brave words maybe. My own writing doesn’t live up to this as much as I’d suggest. So perhaps it’s a goal, a strivence unattainable in its fullest sense. But worthy in the effort.
One final comment on the true fiction of character immortality.
When I was fairly young, six or seven-ish, there was a photograph in a Life book on the Second World War that touched me far deeper than I realized at the time. Now I’m an Army brat. Raised in patriotism and battle lore through the fifties and sixties. Grew up battling Indians, Germans, Japanese, and anybody else my friends and I thought needed a good whip-assing from the U.S. of A. We endlessly refought our fathers’ wars in skirmishes all over the posts where we lived. No hill went un-fought over, no creek uncrossed through bullets and bayonets.
So pure was our certainty, not a drop of the blood we shed ever raised any questions in our dark little souls. Not even our own Civil War confused us. Granted, I was born in a hospital in Munich. But the parents were Southerners which cleared up any confusion about which side I fought for.
So, back to the Life photograph.
It was of two girls, teenagers. One was lying in a field, her blouse front stained dark grey with blood. One hand covering the wound. Kneeling beside her, the other girl reached out to her. The dead girl had blond pigtails I think, and the photo captured the emptiness of death in her pose. The picture confused me.
The caption said she had been killed by a strafing Stuka dive bomber. But I never, not even as a child warrior, doubted the horror, tragedy, and wrongness of her death.
More on the role of warfare for good or ill in fantasy and sci fi in my next blog. How it generates more inner turmoil and conflict that even romance can cook up. And maybe that’s why we find it or its aftermath in so much of the really good writing.