Death, we deal it with every day of our lives. It’s a harsh and depressing topic at the worst of times, life affirming at the best of times. When we open our minds to the escapism that is fantasy we wish to enjoy the wonders of another world, sometimes another universe. I know that is what I want to do when I jump right in to J.R.R Tolkiens Middle-Earth, the Island of Surprises from The Wishing Chair series and the eccentric world of Robert Jordans, Wheel of Time series. These worlds have a wonderful and diverse cast of characters, each different and unique. Then came along the HBO series Game of Thrones,or as I dub it now, Fantasy Overkill.
I feel that as the decades have gone on, death has become more and more prominent in fantasy. Fantasy used to be about going to exotic and wondrous lands, meeting interesting characters and learning the unusual and often mind-boggling rules that governed their particular world. Now when death would inevitably come into most of these pieces of literature it was treated well in my opinion. For example Lord of The Rings, the epitomy of epic fantasy, has in my opinion some of the fewest named deaths in epic fantasy history. In The Fellowship of the Ring there are really only two key characters who die, Boromir, who died heroically saving Merry and Pippin and Gandalf the Grey who plummeted to his doom fighting with a Balrog.
The treatment of their deaths was superb and the proper amount of time was given to them. What makes it interesting is that within the rest of the series there are only three more notable deaths, Theoden, King of Rohan, Denethor, Steward of Gondor and Gollum….of the smelly wet caves. Compare this to A Song Of Ice and Fire which by A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series by the way, there are roughly twenty prominent deaths. This to me is ridiculous, at what stage does using death as a plot point just get pointless?
What is the point in becoming emotionally invested in a character when their deaths begin to become just simple cannon fodder? It is this horrible realization that the characters full potential will never be achieved that just puts me off George R R Martins work. It’s not that I don’t like his series and characters, I love them, I just wish that they lasted longer. I know what a lot of people will say,” it’s the fact that characters don’t achieve their full potential that makes it so real, edgy and interesting a read”. I don’t get that point, if you want real and gritty why are you reading a fantasy novel?
When you go to read a fantasy novel do you look for a realistic world that reads like a history tome or are you looking for a world that will knock you on your backside? With equal measures triumph and tragedy, I think that is what makes a truly memorable fantasy epic, with A Song of Ice and Fire does anyone honestly believe there will be a happy ending there? Really think about it and I think we all know the answer. Now take Wheel of Time, there could easily be any number of endings, ranging from the Dragon Reborn saving the world and restoring balance to the world, to the unraveling of the pattern and the breaking of the world. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire which in some peoples opinion has lost its way, A Wheel of Time has always had the quests end in sight.
In conclusion I feel that fantasy has now relied too much on the prospect of death and its impact on the characters within and not enough on the journey itself. Some writers have simply written in death after death for what I believe is sheer shock value. It’s not the sign of a good writer to kill a character but it is the sign of a great writer who can keep a character alive and relevant. I hope I have made an interesting case and I welcome all your comments and views.