Temporary Death

Back from the Dead

Bringing back the dead is a tricky business, story-wise.  For a major character to die adds gravitas.  It gains our sympathy; it makes us take the story more seriously.

But in adventure stories, characters who die have a pretty good chance of turning up again later.  This has become such a convention that we are often adjured not to assume someone’s dead unless you actually see the body.

There’s a strong temptation for a writer to save a beloved (and sometimes lucrative) character; yet the return undermines the impact of the death.  Are there ways to manage that dilemma?

The White Rider

Gandalf faces Balrog with sword and staffThe theme of one who was dead who turns up alive has a very long history—as we may note particularly in this Easter season.  For the literary trope, however, I think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings as the the ur-example.  Gandalf’s loss is appalling for the reader, and his reappearance is a classic example of the sudden turn beyond hope that Tolkien called “eucatastrophe.”

LotR comes early enough in the history of modern high fantasy that it may have been unexpected, at that time, for a character to really die and then come back.  Merely apparent death is much more common—even in LotR.  An article I read once observed how frequently someone is thought to be dead in the course of the story.  For example, Aragorn thinks Frodo has been killed by an orc-spear in the Mines of Moria (Book II, Ch. 5).  Sam assumes Shelob has killed Frodo, when in fact the spider has merely put him into a coma (Book IV, Ch. 10).  Éomer believes Éowyn is dead, but when she’s borne back to the city she is found to be alive (Book V, Ch. 6).  Et cetera.

Gandalf the WhiteGandalf, on the other hand, really does die at the end of his extensive combat with the Balrog.  But this isn’t as fatal as it seems.  Gandalf is a semi-divine spirit, one of the Maiar, and his mission in Middle-Earth is not yet complete.  He says:  “Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done” (Book III, ch. 5).  The “naked” is not simply a bodily description.  In passing “through fire and deep water,” he has given up his old self, Gandalf the Grey, and become an elevated version, Gandalf 2.0, the White Rider.

This is perhaps one clue as to what makes a return from death succeed, in a narrative sense.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t trivial.  Gandalf’s being “sent back” is extraordinary, and it changes him in deep ways.  To my mind, this death-and-reversal add to the depth and power of the story.

The Descent into Routine

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  If the return is taken for granted, then we aren’t moved or edified by the dying.  We don’t believe it in the first place.  In fact, reading or watching a death we know is reversible tends to make us cynical.  The writers are playing on our emotions, and we feel manipulated rather than moved.

Batman and Wonder Woman mourn SupermanIn the 2016 movie Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Superman dies at the end.  Did anyone believe for a minute this death would last?  No one is going to kill off such an iconic character.  If nothing else (here’s the cynical part), the future income stream from Superman stories is an irresistible lure.  Just as with the comic-book “Death of Superman” sequence from which the idea was taken, I suspect my reaction was shared by many:  here’s a cheap trick to get our attention.

To be sure, there are some affecting moments in the transition from BvS to Justice League (2017), in which Superman is revived—partly because reviving him is arduous and difficult, as further discussed below.  But those moments are not easily attained.  The artifice is too transparent.

Westley recovers from death with Inigo and FezzikI have somewhat the same reaction, for a different reason, to The Princess Bride—one of the flaws in that admirable tale.  Goldman’s narrator makes a great deal out of telling his son (in the movie, grandson) that Westley dies (ch. 6).  Really.  He’s not faking.  And naturally, the boy is outraged.  The hero isn’t supposed to die!  Yet he did.  —But no, the author has tricked us.  Westley isn’t really dead.  Miracle Max tells us, “there’s different kinds of dead:  there’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead.  This fella here, he’s only sort of dead . . .” (ch. 7).

That’s cheating.  We may be willing to accept the trick in The Princess Bride because it’s already such a roaring stream of clichés, so enthusiastically devised and appreciated that we never do take the story quite seriously.  But we aren’t really moved.  Our appreciation is of a different order:  we’re laughing fondly at the author’s willingness to indulge with such unreserved gusto in the most absurd fairy-tale stereotypes and gimmicks.

If we’re commenting on Batman v. Superman, we really ought to say something about Avengers:  Infinity War/Endgame.  But it’s too soon—too many spoilers.  Maybe another time.

Variations

Incidentally, the routine return can apply to villains as well as heroes.  A hero’s recurring nemesis may also be an iconic character, and the fact that the nemesis keeps coming back is a convention we rather enjoy.  TV Tropes refers to it as “Joker Immunity.”  Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom:  if any of them appear to be dead in the comic books, we can be pretty sure they’ll be back.  On the other hand, movie series don’t run on forever in the same way that comics series do.  The screen adapters of Spider-Man can thus afford to “expend” the Goblin, or Dr. Octopus, because they’re only going to make three or four films in a given series.  There isn’t time for repeated recurrences of an arch-enemy.

Doctor Doom is rescued by the Ovoids

On the other hand, it’s notorious that we hear Emperor Palpatine’s sinister laughter at the end of the most recent Star Wars IX trailer (4/12/2019). immediately following Luke’s voiceover line, “No one’s ever really gone.”  Some movie series do go on that long . . .

Once revival has become routine, it’s a noteworthy exception when an author is willing to let a main character go permanently (Killed Off For Real; see a list of film examples, and also the trope Deader Than Dead).  J.K. Rowling, for example, killed off Albus Dumbledore for good, well before the end of the Harry Potter saga.  Veronica Roth’s Divergent series allows the heroine herself to die at the end, though this seems to have been omitted from the corresponding movie.

In Star Wars, the regular appearance of “Force ghosts” provides a sort of compromise.  The fallen heroes don’t come back to life, but they do hang around to provide advice, commentary, and snarky explanations.

The Search for Spock

Let’s return to an instance where a temporary death does work to see if we can determine what makes that possible.

Spock's death in Star Trek 2Along with LotR, my other go-to example is Star Trek II:  The Wrath of KhanWrath is generally considered to be among the best of the Trek movies (for example, here, here, and here), and a sizable part of its draw is the death of the beloved Spock.  Like Gandalf, Spock perishes heroically, subjecting himself to a fatal overdose of radiation to make a crucial repair that saves everyone else on the Enterprise.  And his loss is fully realized by his long-time friends, along with the new characters we’ve just gotten to know.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but Kirk’s eulogy at Spock’s funeral has always struck me as a genuinely moving moment.

At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind when I first saw the film that Spock would be back.  The whole atmosphere of the final scenes in Wrath—hopefulness so intense you can almost taste it—lent itself to anticipating eucatastrophe rather than a final end.  The shiny “casket,” nestled in the burgeoning growth of the Genesis planet, seemed to promise some kind of resurrection.  What made us feel Spock’s death so effectively, even though we were morally certain we’d see him again?

Part of it is that these characters had had such a long history together.  We’d seen their relationship grow over three TV seasons, and we’d been recently reminded of that history in the first Star Trek movie, flop though it was.  To the numerous loyal Trek fans, at least, these were truly iconic characters, and we were emotionally invested in them.  The history had built up a kind of emotional potential that the death sequence could draw upon.

Spock's funeralEven more important, the other characters were visibly affected.  They didn’t know Spock would be back.  We grieved for Spock through his friends.  The screenwriter and director wisely gave us enough time, in the final sequences, to absorb and appreciate that grief with the other characters.  I suspect this, more than anything, is what makes a provisional death effective:  a powerful portrayal of other people’s response to the loss.

Finally, the heroism of Spock’s final acts, and the overwhelming sense of something wonderful that’s been achieved on the Genesis planet at the end, lend depth and further feeling to the event.  We respect his sacrifice, and it means something.  The hope for new life doesn’t necessarily erode the gravity of the death.

Moreover, the sequels navigated the difficulty pretty well.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock did unavoidably undercut the resolution of Wrath a bit.  The Genesis planet is unstable; it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought.  The adversaries in Search are much more mundane than Khan (who had his own history with the Enterprise crew).  And the death isn’t permanent.

Yet the complex, gradual, effortful reconstitution of Spock manages to become something wonderful in itself, rather than just a reversal of the loss.  The notion that Spock’s katra or spirit survives adds an element of the mystical or sublime to the science-fiction texture of the series.  The notion that it survived in McCoy’s head gave the situation humor and irony.  The unconventional expedients the Enterprise crew must use to get McCoy back to Genesis provide both adventure and a maverick sense of, well, enterprise.  Meanwhile, the scenes of Spock’s body re-growing from childhood to adulthood as accelerated by the Genesis effect have their own sense of wonder.

Spock is rebornWhen the Vulcan ceremony of reintegration rejoins Spock’s spirit with his body, the impact of the result is heightened by the fact that Spock is clearly changed by his passage through death.  (The final film of the trilogy, Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, continues this theme by showing Spock visibly struggling to get used to life again.)  The return, which takes two whole movies to complete—a quest in itself—is far more than a handwave.  It’s an achievement.

Conclusions

From these examples I think we can pick out some factors that help a story to make good use of a temporary death, as opposed to a routine we-know-they’ll-be-back.

  • The death is heroic; it means something.
  • We care about the lost person—and so do the other people in the story.
  • The other characters experience the death fully, even if the reader or viewer knows that it won’t be permanent.
  • The deceased character is absent long enough to let the loss sink in.
  • The deceased character earns the return. It doesn’t come easy.
  • The returned character is transformed in some way by the experience.

When an author can incorporate these elements, we the audience can extend our “willing suspension of disbelief” to sympathize with the rest of the cast in their loss, even when we are aware in propria persona that the beloved dead aren’t gone for good.

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The Master Contriver

Some stories—especially comedies—include a character who seems to have the job of making sure everything comes out right in the end.  Let’s call them the Master Contrivers.

“I manage things a little”

The Contriver doesn’t force things into place.  Rather, she pulls strings.  A good deal of finagling, a certain amount of chicanery, and a talent for talking people into things are generally involved.

Dolly Levi dances with waitersDolly Levi of Hello, Dolly! is a familiar example.  The show starts with an array of dissatisfied characters.  Horace Vandergelder wants a wife.  His niece Ermengarde wants to marry impecunious artist Ambrose Kemper.  Horace’s clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, want to escape their humble jobs for a day—and maybe fall in love.  Their opposite numbers, Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay, are also eager for a spree and a romance.  Dolly herself, a self-proclaimed meddlesome widow, is ready to settle down with a new husband.

With magnificent confidence, the ebullient Dolly takes on the task of resolving all these plotlines.  She suggests, cajoles, misdirects, confuses, and manipulates until everything works out.  We enjoy how all this frivolity and chaos converges magically to a neatly satisfying outcome, like a sleight-of-hand trick.

Hardly anyone else knows quite what they’re doing at any given time, but Dolly has everything under control.  Even where she lacks a specific plan, she is an expert improviser.  The other characters can safely rely on her to solve all problems.

Wodehouse’s Maestros

Stephen Fry as JeevesThe Master Contriver frequently pops up in P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies.  The best-known example is the imperturbable gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves.  No matter what sort of absurd scrape Bertie Wooster gets into, Jeeves can always find a way to get him out again.  Half the fun is watching to see exactly how Jeeves will pull it off this time.  (The other half is simply listening to Bertie narrate, which is a joy in itself.)

But Jeeves is far from the only Wodehouse example.  At Blandings Castle, the fiftyish but dapper Galahad Threepwood lives up to his name by spreading sweetness and light in the form of good fun, lovers united, and overbearing aunts thwarted.  The lively and irreverent Uncle Fred (Earl of Ickenham) plays a similar role in other tales, to the alarm and embarrassment of his nephew Pongo Twistleton; sometimes these adventures also take place at Blandings.  (It’s too bad Wodehouse never brought Gally and Uncle Fred onstage at the same time—ideally with Bertie and Jeeves as well.  The mind boggles at what wackiness might develop with three Master Contrivers simultaneously at work.)

All the above examples are middle-aged men or women.  The sublime Rupert Psmith (“The p . . . is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) represents a rare younger version of the merry manipulator.  He actually becomes a protagonist, with his own romantic plotline, in Leave It To Psmith (1923)—at Blandings, naturally.

SF Contrivers

Science fiction abounds in exceedingly clever manipulators, but most of them fit the mold of the trickster-hero rather than the master contriver:  they are frequently the protagonists, and their stories tend to be more serious.  Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, Salvor Hardin, Gandalf the Grey (in The Hobbit), and Seth Dickinson’s Baru Cormorant are good examples.

But the comic contriver is not unknown.  In Heinlein’s rollicking family yarn The Rolling Stones (1952), Hazel Stone, the superficially crusty grandmother figure, is often the one who “arranges things”—including appearing in court to get her grandsons off the hook in a tax case on Mars.

Masters and Matchmakers

The Grand Sophy, coverThe Master Contriver is perhaps most at home in romantic comedies.  Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances feature a few such characters.  Sometimes they’re the romantic interests of female protagonists, since genre romances are fond of dominant “alpha male” heroes.  But one of the most enjoyable is the titular female lead in The Grand Sophy (1950).  Like Psmith and Dolly, young Sophy cheerfully arranges a romance for herself at the same time as she resolves other characters’ star-crossed affairs.

In the musical Oklahoma! we have Aunt Eller, the spiritual counterpart of Uncle Fred.  She’s perfectly capable of pulling a gun to halt a burgeoning brawl (see this clip at about 3:05), but her main job is to guide her niece Laurey to a happy resolution of her uneven romance with the expansive cowboy Curly.

The Warrior's Apprentice, coverAs the third-party plot manager for a romantic comedy, the Master Contriver often functions as a matchmaker.  Hello Dolly! was based on a Thornton Wilder play literally titled The Matchmaker.  Even Miles Vorkosigan, in a gently comic scene in The Warrior’s Apprentice, briefly burlesques the role of a traditional Barrayaran matchmaker for his own lifelong crush Elena and the man she’s fallen in love with.  (Miles’ own romance does not develop until several novels later.)

The Character of the Contriver

A third-party Master Contriver naturally falls into the niche of the benevolent uncle or aunt—a kindly older person who isn’t typically a player himself, but an enabler of other characters’ fulfillment (though we’ve seen some counter-examples above).  In fact, this position is not unlike the role of the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

The role resembles that of a mentor, although, unlike the Missing Mentor of whom we’ve spoken before, this mentor-manager is generally very much present, in the thick of the action.  Yet the Contriver is a little detached, not as directly involved as the principals; she can take things a little lightly.  She can thus be more jolly, less earnest.

Since the Contriver is generally working toward other characters’ happy endings, not her own, she lends the story a sense of generosity.  This is why we don’t mind a character who might otherwise seem manipulative.  We typically think of “maniuplative” as a troublesome trait, not an appealing one.  But an avuncular figure who can be trusted to manipulate people only for their own good becomes an asset rather than a problem.

The Atmosphere of the Story

It helps make a comedy pleasant when there are people disinterestedly spreading sweetness and light.  This is why the Contrivers play so well in comedies of manners and romantic comedies, where the plots have to be intricate, but light-hearted.

Since we’re typically dealing with interpersonal relations, not slam-bang action plots, Master Contrivers achieve much of their effectiveness by influencing other people.  For this reason, they generally possess considerable personal magnetism or “charisma.”  This, again, adds to the general air of genial good-fellowship in a comedy.

But the greatest effect on the atmosphere of the story, I think, is that it’s reassuring to have someone around who can be trusted to untangle all plotlines to a happy ending:  “till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”  We come into a comedy expecting things to turn out well.  The more the happy ending is in question, the more the story begins to look like a thriller rather than a comedy.  If Dolly or Gally is on the scene, we can rest easy on that score, and enjoy the ride.

The Missing Mentor

[Discussing stories in detail inevitably involves some spoilers.
The ones in this post, however, should be fairly mild.
]

Gandalf, polygon art portrait

Image from desktopimages.org

The wise old mentor is a staple, not only in fantasy, but in all kinds of stories.  From a narrative point of view, though, these mentor figures are rather an inconvenience – which is why they so frequently go missing.

Gandalf the Grey, the very archetype of the mentor in an adventuring party, is kept offstage by other engagements for much of The Hobbit.  In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien goes so far as to have him perish (not permanently, to be sure).

In the Harry Potter stories, Albus Dumbledore tends to be curiously inactive – he’s not around when the crises occur – though this changes over the course of the series, until he’s fully engaged toward the end.

Professor X, of the X-Men, is generally confined to a wheelchair, which keeps him out of the action.  In the first couple of X-Men movies, he’s also hors de combat much of the time.

Gordon Ashe, the main character’s mentor in Andre Norton’s Time Traders­ series, often happens to be sick or injured.

And of course Obi-Wan Kenobi dies about a third of the way through Star Wars:  A New Hope – even if he keeps popping up periodically through the three original episodes as a Force ghost.

Why does a writer introduce these characters, only to shuffle them offstage as soon as possible?  Consider what the mentor contributes:

  1. Power.  The mentor is often a fully-developed version of what the hero is becoming, as in Star Wars.  If not, like Gandalf, he is typically a powerful figure in his own right.
  2. Knowledge.  Gandalf knows how to terminate trolls and how to open the doors of Moria (Frodo helps in the movie, but not the book).  Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) know how to train in karate.  Obi-Wan knows where to find Yoda.
  3. Wisdom.  The mentor often advises the hero about life – not specific information, but how to live in a more global sense.  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”

Here’s where the problems start to arise.  If the mentor is a powerful figure, why isn’t the mentor out fighting the battle, rather than sending the hapless (hero) apprentice?  The more impressive the mentor’s abilities, the harder it is to avoid having the mentor displace the hero.  With the mentor in action, things would be too easy for the main characters.  (There’s a parallel problem in children’s adventure stories – how to get the children away from parents and other caregivers so they have to act on their own.)

Knowledge poses a lesser problem, but a good storyteller still rations the mentor’s advice closely.  It makes for better drama if the hero doesn’t quite know what to do and isn’t fully trained.  (The tagline for the first World of Warcraft game expansion was:  “YOU ARE NOT PREPARED!”)  Luke Skywalker is more thrilling as a brash but vulnerable neophyte facing Darth Vader than he would have been as a fully seasoned Jedi knight.  The writer may prefer to have the hero not fully informed – if only to enable a shocking surprise at the right moment.

The problems are not as severe with the mentor’s third role, as dispenser of wisdom – though it still falls to the hero to implement the teacher’s wise counsel, when the crisis comes.

Authors thus expend a lot of effort to keep mentors out of the action, leaving the heroes on their own to apply what they have learned – or fail to do so.

Gandalf dies in Moria; he returns, but by that time he’s cut off from Frodo and Sam, who most need his guidance.  (“Its name was Cirith Ungol . . . Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them.”  The Two Towers, ch. IV.3)  Gandalf is present, however, for the big battle scenes, and is ready to take on the Witch-King at Minas Tirith.  In effect, Tolkien has held Gandalf’s might in reserve:  as the enemies get bigger and worse over the course of the story, it makes sense to bring the powerful mentor back in, to even the scales.  We see the same kind of progression in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore takes a more direct hand as the story goes on (though he’s removed to make the final battle more challenging).

In the Silver Age comics, the wheelchair was enough to keep Professor Xavier out of the action most of the time.  In the movies, his range and power is vastly expanded, and he has to be rendered comatose to keep him out of the fray.

George Lucas managed to eat his cake and still have it.  He opts for the drastic solution by killing off Obi-Wan for good.  But Obi-Wan’s continuation as a ghost allows him to keep providing occasional advice – not to mention retconned explanations (“From a certain point of view”).

E.E. Smith’s classic Lensman series gives us an entire species, the Arisians, as mentors.  One character, a “fusion” of four Arisians, is actually known as Mentor.  Smith crafts his story to produce fairly subtle and plot-central reasons for keeping the Arisians out of the main conflicts.  At first they need to conceal their existence from their Eddorian adversaries.  Later, they need to keep their vast powers under wraps so as not to undermine the confidence and self-reliance of the Galactic Patrol.  But the Arisians do emerge in time for the climactic battle – which could not be won without both the Arisians and the Patrol (and the Children of the Lens, but that’s another story).

The mentor isn’t always missing in action.  A writer can engage the mentor figure in the story, if proper caution is employed to dodge the above problems.  For example, the social conditions of The Karate Kid mean that Mr. Miyagi can’t simply obliterate the adversaries.  He has to equip Daniel to fight a duel, in which third parties aren’t allowed to intervene.

Another way of handling it is to have the hero and mentor fighting on separate tracks.  Thus, in The Mask of Zorro (1998), the older Zorro is supposed to be dead and has to stay in disguise for most of the story.  But during the climax he is revealed and takes on his old nemesis, while the new Zorro is saving lives and fighting his own opposite number.

One of the reasons the absent mentor appeals to us, I think, is that it reflects something we experience in real life.  As we grow older, we do leave our mentors behind.  Generally, we outlive them – and sometimes feel inadequate without the advice and assistance of those who seemed towering figures in our youth.  Yet, just as in a story, this is necessary if we are to grow up.  In the end we succeed our mentors, and become the heroes of our own stories — and, in turn, mentors to the next generation.