What – if anything – happens after death? A fantasy world, no matter how beautifully constructed, lacks something if there’s no thought given to what happens when characters die, or at least to what beliefs they hold about what may happen. We live not only in the physical universe but in our mental construction of it. Death is a huge subject for humanity, and so not unnaturally Life and Death are recurrent themes in some of the fantasies I love best – The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia stories, Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and the Old Kingdom novels of Garth Nix.
To begin with Tolkien: though mortal, Hobbits don’t seem to have a theory of the afterlife. Innocent, rural, physical, they thoroughly enjoy this life’s pleasures and die with a sense of fulfilment: a long life well lived. Can Bilbo outlive the Old Took? He will if he can. We are told nothing of Hobbit funerals except at the very end of The Return of the King where the hobbits who fell at the Battle of Bywater are laid together ‘in a grave on the hillside, where later a great stone was set up with a garden around it.’ Their names live on in memory, but there’s no speculation about a hobbit heaven, just a practical disposal of the mortal remains – and an equally practical interest in inheritance.
Dwarves are mortal too. From the evidence of Balin’s tomb in Moria they build, as you’d expect, good solid stone monuments to commorate their dead. Again there’s little evidence of a dwarfish belief in an afterlife, but a mystical streak is apparent in Gimli’s hints about their creator-ancestor Durin, a hero-king asleep under the stone, who will one day awake – and who, according to Appendix A, is occasionally reincarnated in a child of his line. Then there are the Ents. Though some, like Treebeard, are immensely ancient, Ents are probably not immortal. Since they have lost the Entwives there can be no more Entlings and their race will dwindle. Some Ents become more and more like trees, and even the oldest tree eventually dies, though a truly tree-ish Ent may hardly notice. The Elves are immortal unless killed in battle, or unless like Lùthien and Arwen they choose mortality – but the trees of Lothlorien are in eternal autumn, their springtime long passed, and more and more of the Fair Folk are heading for the Grey Havens.
The point about Mortal Men in Middle-earth is that they are mortal. The Riders of Rohan view death as a feasting-hall of the brave, like the Norse Valhalla; their poetry is full of Anglo-Saxon melancholy, laden as Legolas says, ‘with the sadness of Mortal Men’:
‘Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk and the bright hair flowing? Where is the hand on the harpstring and the red fire glowing?’
In accordance with the Norse heroic code, Théoden on the Field of Pelennor dies contented, knowing he leaves behind him a good name: ‘I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent.’ Sad though it is, his death makes sense as part of a fitting and seamless succession which is emphasised by the stretcher-bearers’ response to Prince Imrahil:
‘What burden do you bear, Men of Rohan?’ he cried.
‘Théoden King,’ they answered. ‘He is dead. But Éomer King now rides in the battle: he with the white crest in the wind.’
When the Men of Gondor die, or at least their kings and stewards, they are laid to rest in tombs of stone in Rath Dínen, the Silent Street under Mount Mindolluin. It appears from Denethor’s words that they think of death as a long solitary sleep rather than ancestral companionship in an eternal feasting hall – but this may not always have been so:
‘No tomb for Denethor and Faramir! No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West…’
One way or another, Mortal Men must accept death. Clinging on to this world may lead to the worst possible thing that can happen: they may become wraiths like the Barrow-wights on the Barrow-Downs, or like the Ringwraiths.
Finally, for the Ring-bearers Frodo and Bilbo (and possibly later for Sam) there’s the unusual opportunity to go bodily into the West on an Elven ship. Unlike the film, in which Gandalf comforts Pippin with a description of Eressëa or possibly Valinor, the book makes clear that this is a special privilege. As Frodo’s ship passes into the West,
… it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
But to Sam the evening deepened into darkness as he stood at the Haven, and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West.
A deep vein of nostalgic sadness runs through the heart of The Lord of the Rings. Except for Men, all of the different races are doomed either to fade or pass from Middle-earth. And in the process of his journey, Frodo leaves behind not only the comfortable rural beauty of the Shire, but the very person he was. Suffering, and his immense struggle with the Ring change him into someone different – nobler, wiser maybe, but maimed, changed, sadder. We can only hope that the West will heal him. We will never know.
The Narnia books contain little of this nostalgia. C.S. Lewis is very clear about life after death: it’s Aslan’s country, and several of his characters actually go there in life – Jill and Eustace start out for Narnia from Aslan’s holy Eastern mountain, for example, and the heroic Reepicheep sails there in his coracle.
Remarkably, through the first six books of the Chronicles this certainty does not negate the sorrow of mortality. Death, when it occurs, is given emotional weight. Aslan’s death in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is genuinely moving, partly because of the depth of grief of Lucy and Susan, and so is Caspian’s death in The Silver Chair, witnessed from a distance by Jill and Eustace. The very old King lifts his hand to bless his long-lost son, then falls back –
The Prince, kneeling by the the King’s bed, laid down his head upon it, and wept. There were whisperings and goings to and fro. Then Jill noticed that all who wore hats, bonnets, helmets or hoods were taking them off – Eustace included. Then she heard a rustling and flapping noise up above the castle; when she looked up she saw that the great banner with the golden Lion on it was being brought down to half-mast. And after that, slowly, mercilessly, with wailing strings and disconsolate blowings of horns, the music began again: this time, a tune to break your heart.
Aslan blows all these things away ‘like wreaths of smoke’ and the children find themselves once more in Aslan’s country ‘among mighty trees and beside a fair, fresh stream’. But the funeral music continues.
And there, on the golden gravel of the bed of the stream lay King Caspian, dead, with the water flowing over him like liquid glass. His long beard swayed in it like water weed. And all three stood and wept.
Their tears are shed, it seems to me, as much for age and feebleness and the sorrows of life, as they are for the fact of death. The deliberate parallel is with the New Testament story of Jesus weeping over Lazarus’s tomb: even though he knows he is about to bring Lazarus back to life. So too here. Caspian’s death is about to be reversed by a drop of Aslan’s blood. For me, this works. It’s not a facile trick. To obtain the blood, Eustace must drive a thorn ‘a foot long and as sharp as a rapier’ into the great pad of Aslan’s paw: we feel the cost and the pain. But at the end of The Last Battle, where Narnia itself is replaced by what we are meant to believe is a greater and better Kingdom, Lewis’s attempt is an artistic failure. The Christian agenda takes over; he tries to do too much: heaven isn’t Aslan’s holy mountain any more, it’s Narnia and Archenland and Calormen and England combined. It’s messy. I far prefer that numinous glimpse of mountains behind the rising sun at the eastern rim of the world, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Heaven, a place of reward for a good life or of union with a good God, is not quite the same thing as the ‘land of the dead’ – that twilight place where ever since classical times the shades of the departed have swarmed in voiceless, strengthess hordes, unable to speak unless given a drink of sacrificial blood. (The notion that a blood sacrifice gives life to the dead must be one of the most ancient of beliefs.) Visiting Persephone’s kingdom beyond the Stream of Ocean, Odysseus attempts to embrace his mother’s shade, but she flutters out of his arms like a shadow and ‘sorrow sharpened at the heart within me’. This is what happens to everyone, his mother tells him, for once
‘the sinews no longer hold the flesh and the bones together,
and once the spirit has left the white bones, all the rest
of the body is made subject to the fire’s strong fury,
but the soul flitters out like a dream and flies away.’
The Odyssey, XI, 219-223, tr. Richmond Lattimore
Famous too is the rebuke of the dead hero Achilles when Odysseus tries to console him by telling him of the fame he has won among the living.
‘O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plough as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on
than be a king of all the perished dead.’
The Odyssey, XI, 488-491, tr. Richmond Lattimore
|Odysseus in the Underworld, Johannes Stradanus|
This type of afterlife, a shadow-life devoid of human meaning, is found in Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. In A Wizard of Earthsea the young wizard Ged splits open the fabric of his world in arrogant anger to summon the spirit of the beautiful Elfarran, a thousand years dead. Through the gap he has made scrambles a ‘clot of black shadow’ which leaps at him and rips his face. It hunts him from one side of the Archipelago to the other, and not until Ged learns to confront his own darkness can he undo his deed.
The Earthsea books are deeply concerned with the interdependence of light and darkness, life and death, and in the early titles the land of the dead is conceived as a necessary counterweight to the world of the living. It’s a place of dust, darkness and silence, divided from life by a low wall of stones ‘no higher than a man’s knee’. The dead are passive, passionless:
No marks of illness were on them. They were whole, and healed. They were healed of pain, and of life. They were not loathsome as Arren had feared they would be, not frightening… Quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope.
Instead of fear, then, great pity rose up in Arren, and if fear underlay it, it was not for himself, but for us all. For he saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it, nor even look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the street.
The Farthest Shore
Terrible as this is, it possesses a poignancy reminiscent of the Odyssey. In the three early Earthsea books you can’t have life without death:
Only in dark the light, only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.
The message of The Farthest Shore is that death is a natural and necessary end. The mage Cob is so terrified of dying that he tries to put an end to it, ‘to find what you cowards could never find – the way back from death.’ In doing so he threatens the balance of Earthsea and himself becomes an eyeless, nameless sorceror who belongs to neither life nor death. Mere continued existence, it turns out, is a curse. ‘You cannot see the light of day, you cannot see the dark,’ Ged tells him. ‘You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self.’
In the two later books, Tehanu and The Other Wind, Le Guin revisits Earthsea and remakes some of what she has done. Dragons and their relationship with humankind become important, and the very nature of the land of death is re-examined. In The Other Wind Alder, a young sorceror whose wife has died, is tormented by dreams in which she and others of the dead come to the wall of stones and beg to be set free. He tells Ged,
I thought if I called her by her true name maybe I could free her, bring her across the wall, and I said, ‘Come with me, Mevre!’ But she said, ‘That’s not my name, Hara, that’s not my name any more.’ And she let go my hands, though I tried to hold her. She cried, ‘Set me free, Hara!’ But she was going down into the dark.
These dead are neither passive nor passionless, and they recognise and commune with the living man Alder. Instead of maintaining the mystical equilibrium of Earthsea, the land of the dead is now seen to be upsetting it. Humankind and dragons were once one race which divided the world between them. Humans chose to own and make things; dragons chose freedom to fly ‘on the other wind’ in a timeless realm beyond the west. However, ‘the ancient mages craved everlasting life’ and used ‘true names to keep men from dying’. And – so the dragon Irian cries –
‘by the spells and wizardries of those oath-breakers, you stole half our realm from us, walled it away from life and light, so that you could live there forever. Thieves, traitors!’
It now seems the land of death is a dreadful compromise, an everlasting trap. It divorces those in it from the universe, which is the only life. The solution is to pull down the wall of stones and let the dead go free. Some rise up ‘flickering into dragons’ on the wind, but most come ‘walking with unhurried certainty’ to step across the ruined wall and vanish, ‘a wisp of dust, a breath that shone an instant in the ever-brightening light.’ And where have they gone? As Alder said, ‘It is not life they yearn for. It is death. To be one with the earth again. To rejoin it.’
It’s lovely, but I don’t think it quite works. It’s too complicated, too different from the earlier books. It takes a lot to undo the quietly terrible beauty of the dead land in A Wizard of Earthsea, its inhabitants ‘healed of life’. The dying child whom Ged fails to heal in A Wizard of Earthsea runs ‘fast and far away from him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill’ – and that eagerness feels right. In these early books, the dead are shadows with no internal life. They feel no pain because they are already gone. It seems to me a mistake to reinvent this metaphor, and the events of The Other Wind make nonsense of the rebuke Ged delivers to Cob in The Farthest Shore.
The impulse to harrow hell and bring out the souls is felt also by Philip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the trilogy His Dark Materials. Like Lewis, Pullman has an agenda (Darwinian and anti-religious) and like Le Guin he turns to what one might call the Wordsworthian ‘back to nature’ view of death – the dissolution of personality and the blending of the body and its atoms with the physical universe.
No motion has she now, no force,
She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’, William Wordsworth
The problem is to convince the reader that this is an acceptable personal outcome. Does that sound frivolous? My own belief, if you want it, is that Wordsworth and Pullman and Darwin are right. I don’t think there’s a life after death. I don’t find that scary, but neither does it give me joy. Only life can do that. In fiction, paradoxically, it seems the best way to make the no-afterlife option appear positive is to contrast it with an afterlife, but an unpleasant one – thus making the point via a sort of authorial sleight-of-hand. (‘You can have an afterlife, but you won’t enjoy it.’)
|Aeneas and the Sibyl in Hades|
Pullman’s land of the dead is a considerably less attractive proposition even than Le Guin’s. It is modelled on the Hades of Virgil’s Aeneid, rather than on Homer’s Odyssey. In the Aeneid, after sacrificing to Night, Earth, Proserpina and Hades, Aeneas ventures underground guided by the Sibyl. He passes gates guarded by monsters and crosses the river Styx with the ferryman Charon, who at first refuses to carry a living man over:
is a realm of shadows, sleep and drowsy night.
The law forbids me to carry living bodies across
in my Stygian boat…’
The Aeneid, tr. Robert Fagles
In The Amber Spyglass, there are perhaps rather too many stages to death. Lyra and her friends begin their exodus from life via a farmhouse kitchen of the recently slain, following their shocked ghosts into a grey and ever-darkening landscape, ‘thousands of men and women and children … drifting over the plain’, drawn onwards and down to shantytown suburbs of death on the shores of a mist-bound lake. In my opinion the refugee metaphor gets away from Pullman and over-complicates the narrative. Living officials – I’m not sure why they’re alive – demand to see papers, and direct the travellers to ‘holding areas’ past ‘pools of sewage’. Taking shelter in a shanty, Lyra learns that each ghost must wait until his or her personified ‘death’ gives them leave to cross over the lake, so Lyra must call up her own death before she can continue. She does, but there is a further complexity. Returning to the classical norm, the ferryman refuses to carry Lyra across the lake unless she leaves behind her beloved daemon, spirit-self and other half, Pan:
‘It’s not a rule you can break. It’s a law like this one…’ [The ferryman] leaned over the side and cupped a handful of water, and then tilted his hand so it ran out again. ‘The law that makes the water run back into the lake, it’s a law like that.’
The Amber Spyglass
After this anguished parting Lyra, Will and the dragonfly-borne Gallivespians cross the river to land at a wharf and rampart. They pass through a great gate guarded by screaming harpies and find beyond it a vast and dismal plain crowded with listless, voiceless ghosts who, as ever, require blood.
They crammed forward, light and lifeless, to warm themselves at the flowing blood and the strong-beating hearts of the two travellers…
Once they can communicate, Lyra asks to be led to her friend Roger (for whose death she feels responsible), but when she finds him ‘he passe[s] like cold smoke through her arms’. Determining to release all the dead from this Hades, Lyra consults the alethiometer and explains to the ghosts what will happen to them:
‘… it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. … But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. … You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.’
‘It’s true, perfectly true’. Here Pullman himself speaks through Lyra, pleading and passionate, promising no lies, no deceit. The science-based truth of this account of death is indisputable. The body does indeed return to the earth that gave it. The difficulty is that these ghosts’ bodies must – most of them – already have disintegrated, yet here their spirits inhabit an afterlife in which personality and personal memories survive as some form of post-mortem energy. Accepting Lyra’s offer, one of the ghosts says,
‘… the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing...’
But is this true? Compared with Le Guin’s dark, neutral world under the unchanging stars, Pullman’s land of the dead is a place of punishment. As Roger’s ghost tells Lyra:
Them bird-things… You know what they do? They wait till you’re resting – you can’t never sleep properly, you just sort of doze – and they come up quiet beside you and they whisper all the bad things you ever did when you was alive … They know how to make you feel horrible … But you can’t get away from them.
The harpies have been set by the Authority ‘to see the worst in everyone’ and to feed on them. Lyra and her companions come up with a solution. From now on, instead of lies, each person who dies must nourish the harpies with a truthful account of all the things they’ve seen and heard, touched and learned. Experience of life, in other words, trumps death. I like this, a lot: and Roger’s final release into the physical universe, with a laugh of surprise and a ‘vivid little burst of happiness’ is moving. Nevertheless the effect of this joyful annihilation very much depends on Pullman’s depiction of the afterlife as a distinctly worse option.
Garth Nix, in his series of ‘Old Kingdom’ novels beginning with Sabriel, has so far as I can tell no particular religious or scientific points to make, and his fantasy has a corresponding air of freshness and freedom – even playfulness – all of its own. Life and Death are of paramount interest, since the Old Kingdom is a magical land under continuous threat of necromancy. It is divided by a Wall (perhaps suggested by Le Guin’s, though this is not a Life/Death boundary) from the non-magical southern land of Ancelstierre. I don’t know what happens to Ancelstierrans when they die, but those who die in the Old Kingdom cross an unseen border into the state of Death itself, a coldly flowing river without banks which sweeps them away through a series of nine Gates. In the stretches of river between these Gates – the Precincts – it’s possible for some Dead to cling on or even retrace their steps:
It had been human once, or human-like at least, in the years it had lived under the sun. That humanity had been lost in the centuries the thing spent in the chill waters of Death, ferociously holding its own against the current, demonstrating an incredible will to live again. ... Its chance finally came when a mighty spirit erupted from beyond the Seventh Gate, smashing through each of the Upper Gates in turn, till it went ravening into Life. Hundreds of the Dead had followed and this particular spirit… had managed to squirm triumphantly into Life.
The Lesser Dead, such as this one, need to take over human or animal bodies for their use. The Greater Dead who come from beyond the Fifth Gate are sufficiently powerful to exist in Life without a physical body. (A further danger are Free Magic Creatures, perilous elemental beings outside the ordered power of the Charter, but these are not the Dead.)
The returning Dead are uniformly malevolent, and it’s the job of the Abhorson – Sabriel herself – to return them to Death and send them down the River and past the Ninth Gate. This she does by means of a set of seven enspelled bells, infused with beneficent Charter Magic created – or perhaps discovered or formalised? – long ago by the immortal Seven Bright Shiners, each one of which is represented by a named bell.
The idea of a River of Death is hardly a new one; it goes back to ferryman Charon rowing souls across the Styx, and further still to the boatman Ur-shanabi in the Epic of Gilgamesh – but what Garth Nix has done with it is different: instead of a boundary which must be crossed, his River of Death is a dynamic process – a progression, a vivid natural force which grasps the dying soul and sweeps it away. As such there is a ‘rightness’ about consenting to its power and a corresponding ‘wrongness’ when the dead struggle literally to swim against the stream. More than that, as a metaphor for death a river is nothing like the static, dusty dead lands which so trouble Ursula K Le Guin and Philip Pullman. A river is about motion, exhilaration and strength. A river has a direction and a purpose.
Not until the third book in the series, Abhorson, do we really learn the geography of Death as Nix takes the reader all the way down the River through every Gate with Lirael, the Abhorson-in-Waiting, along with her inseparable companion the Disreputable Dog. Each Gate has its own character, each Precinct its own perils, not only sneaking souls and monstrous foes but the River itself:
The Second Gate was an enormous hole, into which the river sank like sinkwater down a drain, creating a whirlpool of terrible strength.
While beyond it in the Third Precinct –
The river there was only ankle deep, and little warmer. The light was better too. Brighter and less fuzzy, though still a pallid grey. Even the current wasn’t much more than a trickle around the ankles. All in all, it was a much more attractive place than the First or Second Precincts. Somewhere ill-trained or foolish necromancers might be tempted to tarry or rest.
If they did, it wouldn’t be for long – because the Third Precinct had waves…
Lirael and the Dog battle through mists, waterfalls, metamorphic waters, a ‘waterclimb’, floating flames – and finally the Ninth Gate, where the River finally does what rivers always do. It flows out into something greater than itself, ‘a great flat stretch of sparkling water’ – along with the souls it carries. Overhead is an immense sky ‘so thick with stars that they overlapped and merged to form one unimaginably vast and luminous cloud.’
Lirael felt the stars call to her and a yearning rose in her heart to answer. She sheathed bell and sword and stretched her arms out, up to the brilliant sky. She felt herself lifted up, and her feet came out of the river with a soft ripple and a sigh from the waters.
Dead rose too, she saw. Dead of all shapes and sizes, all rising up to the sea of stars.
This at last is the ‘final death from which there could be no return.’
For me, this is inexpressibly moving. There’s no judgement. Whatever has happened before, whatever the dead may have done during Life and after it, from this perspective looks insignificant. The journey through Death may be full of terrors; a spirit may go kicking and screaming all the way down the River, struggling to turn around and go back to Life. But once beyond the Ninth Gate the sight of the stars is revelatory and transformative. Letting go of Life at last, the dead fall serenely upwards into a tranquil universe.
All the classic fantasies I’ve looked at in this essay engage with the fact of death and what happens after, and all attempt answers. Tolkien and Lewis were both Christians, but their answers are very different. Tolkien’s Mortal Men have no assurance of an afterlife, for the immortality of Middle-earth is in the Undying Lands, and passage there is in the gift of the Elves. Gondor’s dead pass to an eternal sleep; the Rohirrim feast with their ancestors. For Narnians, there’s the happy certainty of Aslan’s country, a place which Lewis wishes to assure us is not less but more real than life: the Platonic solid of which the mortal Narnia is but a shadow. In Ursula K Le Guin’s early Earthsea books, the land of the dead is the darkness which is the other half of light: you can’t have one without the other. She rethought that in the last book, turning the duality into a unity from which the spirits of the dead evanesce into light. No more darkness. For Philip Pullman, passionately concerned to do away with what he considers to be the lies of heaven and hell, Lyra’s journey through the land of the dead becomes a sort of allegorical exposition in which the afterlife is shown to be a cruel and hollow sham and the truth of dissolution is the best happiness. And in Garth Nix’s metaphor of the river – with all its adventures, snags, gates, rapids and waterfalls – death is a natural force, to resist which is to become unnatural. In the end, the river will always win and sweep us on into vastness.
My final thought: we cannot think about death without making pictures.
Digory and the Tree of Life, from 'The Magician's Nephew', Pauline Baynes
Night Falls on Narnia, from 'The Last Battle', Pauline Baynes
Odysseus in the Underworld, by Johannes Stradanus, 1523-1605
Aeneas and the Sybil in Hades, Anon, Wikimedia Commons
Charon, by Gustave Dore
Crossing the Styx, by Gustave Dore