Valar Morghulis: “All men must die.” All of human culture grapples with this unavoidable fact, from Game of Thrones to millennia-old world religions. Death looms large in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Wars, executions, gods of death, and even the walking dead all play key parts in the drama. Martin’s infamous for killing off beloved central characters, which instills a unique sense of realistic danger into his fantasy.
But Martin is definitely not the first to seem to fixate on death in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. The genres have a preoccupation with death. This is seen most clearly in the sub-genre of apocalypse.
In the modern era, sci-fi took over the religious genre of apocalypse to give us pictures of global disaster that come not from divine wrath, but from human hubris. The Day the Earth Stood Still and Terminator 2 are classic examples. But the fear of death is most perfectly reflected in the sub-genre of zombie apocalypse. The living are pursued by the rotting corpses that they will inevitably become. In succumbing to the zombies, our heroes become death personified. In defeating them, they defeat death itself.
Fighting death itself provides a world of thematic possibilities. Dawn of the Dead shows us how human will can be deadened by consumerism; The Walking Dead asks us to examine what makes life worthwhile in the face of hardship; farces like Zombieland provide us with the catharsis of seeing death defeated in increasingly bizarre and sadistic ways.
“All men must die,” the zombie apocalypse reminds us through a horrific vision of the rotting corpses that we are all destined to become.
But another fantasy genre asks, “Must they?”
The vampire is the other side of the coin. It personifies our fear of death not by showing us a horrifying, walking corpse, but by fulfilling our death-denying fantasies. The vampire is eternal youth and beauty. And the vampire is always seductive. They tempt us because we too have a desire to cheat death.
Yet vampires are horrific because their immortality and beauty is ultimately a lie. They have not escaped death, but in fact thrive on death. In order to live forever, the vampire mythos tells us, we must become death. There is still no escape from the reality of mortality, and to attempt escape is to become a monster.
This is all quite grim, and makes it seem like sci-fi and fantasy don’t have a very healthy relationship with death. But I would argue that the genres also provide us with beautiful pictures of the inevitable. “After all,” says Albus Dumbledore, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
Harry Potter does not give us answers to what lies beyond the veil, but it shows us that the preoccupation with escaping death leads us to miss out on life. In the wizarding fairy tale “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” we see that it is impossible to escape death, but that we can find peace in being able to “greet Death as an old friend” when our time comes.
The Lord of the Rings also provides beautiful imagery. In the film version of The Return of the King, Gandalf says:
The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
But for my money, the most creative picture of death comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. In his graphic novels, Death is personified as a friendly goth girl.
This unlikely picture of Death fits so perfectly because she is both older than the universe and as young as today, she simultaneously personifies the final End to all things and a mysterious beginning to what may or may not be Beyond.
In volume 7 of the series, Brief Lives, Death encounters a man named Bernie, who has magically lived for thousands of years. She tells him something that gets to the core of her character, and humankind’s experience of her.
“You lived what anybody gets. You got a lifetime.”
Death isn’t something to run to, or to run from. But she’ll be there for all of us.
Sandman doesn’t give us easy answers about death, but it shows us that it’s not something to be afraid of. She greets us not with a hood and scythe, but with black eyeliner and a friendly smile.
All men – and women – must die. But first, we get what everyone gets. We get a lifetime.