When a favourite character dies in a fantasy novel, movie or TV show, our sense of sadness or shock is often tempered by that niggling question that immediately presents itself… are they really dead?
And we can’t be blamed for asking it. Since Lord of the Rings (or perhaps even earlier if you see fairy tales like Snow White as forerunners of the genre) the “they’re-not-really-dead” reveal has been a staple of fantasy. It’s a classic way to dash readers’ hopes and fill them with sadness, then swoop in for an uplifting reveal.
It’s not only fantasy novels and movies that do this – other genres make use of the trope too. However, few do so as extensively as fantasy (excepting perhaps comic books and superhero fiction, in which resurrections became so common people started using the term ‘comic book deaths‘) . The trick comes in many shapes and sizes, so I thought I’d have a look at a few:
Missing, Presumed Dead
This is perhaps the softest form of the false-death trope, because we never see concrete proof of death and it allows more room for us to doubt. Think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: all the characters presume he is dead because that’s what all the signs indicate… he told them to go on without him, then fell off a precipice with a deadly flaming Balrog. But they didn’t actually see him die. Admittedly, Gandalf’s death was a particularly convincing use of this type of scenario (when I read it I really thought he was dead!), but there have been many less convincing fantasy deaths of this variety.
Sometimes, a character might take a potion, or use some glamour or magic (or just really good acting) to appear dead. It’s the Romeo and Juliet scenario, except usually with a less unhappy ending. I hesitate to give modern examples here, as it’ll be a field of spoilers, but suffice to say I’ve encountered plenty of books, films and TV shows where characters fake death, lie in coffins, or otherwise stage their own demise to trick the villain. Sometimes the audience is in on the ruse, sometimes they are not.
This type of false-death is rather more convincing, because we usually have the proof of a body and someone confirming the lack of life/pulse. The character is truly dead… but this is fantasy fiction, so anything is possible! Perhaps it’s only a few minutes or hours later, or maybe it’s days or weeks, but our beloved character is resurrected and returned to us, usually by magic of some kind. The classic example that comes to mind is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Aslan is murdered and later resurrected by an ancient magic tied to his self-sacrifice. And of course, TV shows like Buffy and Supernatural have regularly resurrected characters.
Living in Another Form
This is akin to resurrection, though slightly different, in that the character returns to life in a different body, as another creature, or as an undead life form. It’s common in vampire fiction, zombie fiction, and Gothic fantasy in general (shows like Charmed and The Vampire Diaries made regular use of it) but it happens in epic high fantasy too. With Game of Thrones‘s white walkers, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a little of it there – this article explores a few possibilities for a character resurrection in future Game of Thrones seasons (though if you haven’t seen the latest season and don’t like speculating as to what might happen in future ones, you should avoid reading it).
Then there is this classic form of – very literally – reversing a death. A key character dies, and other characters have to go back in time to save them. Admittedly, this is usually used in science fiction (Doctor Who, Galaxy Quest) but it’s also occasionally brought into play in fantasy. The most well-known example is probably Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Hermione, Harry and Ron use the Time Turner to travel back in time and rescue the Hippogriff Buckbeak before it is executed.
False deaths can add a lot of drama to a fantasy story, but if used too much they can also drain tension, because we stop fearing the deaths of the characters (e.g. the TV show Supernatural started resurrecting characters so regularly I stopped caring when they died). However, on the whole I believe it’s one of the advantages of the fantasy genre that anything is possible and nothing is unbeatable, even death. It can explore death, life, rebirth and resurrection in interesting ways that a more realistic genre couldn’t.
Above are the 5 kinds of false deaths I regularly come across, but if you’ve encountered another kind that’s not on the list, feel free to mention it in the comments.