Monday, January 9, 2012

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Killing A Main Character In Science Fiction And Fantasy

Spoiler alert:  I am about to discuss the most compelling deaths from four of my favorite science fiction and fantasy series:  Star Wars, Dune, A Song of Ice And Fire, and Harry Potter.  R.A. Salvatore, Frank Herbert, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling have murdered some of my most beloved characters.  I hope you have the stomach for these despicable acts of literature.  

Let me start with my greatest trauma:  Chewbacca is dead!  Damn you R.A. Salvatore.  Or, to be fair, damn you George Lucas for telling Salvatore to kill Chewbacca.  When Vector Prime came out in 1999 I didn’t buy it after I heard about this travesty.  Many of us lifelong fans thought what Lucas did was akin to euthanizing the family puppy.  And I was already mad enough at him for ruining the Force with his ill-conceived concept of midi-chlorians in Episode I.  My Star Wars addiction went cold turkey and I devoted myself to being a fan of The Matrix.

The late great Frank Herbert also pulled the carpet from under my feet.  Paul Atreides, the genetically enhanced superbeing known as Muad’Dib, is trained to fight with a knife on his home-world of Caladan.  He even has this slick body shield that only a slow moving weapon can penetrate.  He then becomes even more proficient at knife fighting with training from his Bene Gesserit witch mother, Jessica.  Moreover, the desert hardened Fremen of Arrakis teach him the use of Shai’Hulud’s sandworm tooth known as the crysknife.  It’s like a lightsaber.  The crysknife will take your hand off.  So if you pull a weapon on Paul, especially a knife, you’re dead.  So who could match Muad’Dib with his fearsome killing arts?  I couldn’t wait to find out.  By the third book of the series, Children of Dune, Paul becomes the blind Preacher who wanders the desert and ultimately comes to the Temple’s stairs to denounce his sister’s blasphemy.  And what happens?  A mere human pulls a weapon on him.  You’d think a superbeing with foresight could have defended himself, but no.  The greatest crysknife fighter in the UNIVERSE gets randomly killed by, you guessed it, a crysknife.  What the hell?

The hype from the HBO series A Game of Thrones inspired me to finally begin George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire series in 2011.  Since I do not have access to HBO, the onscreen adaptation didn’t spoil the first book, but that’s what friends are for.  All my fantasy loving confidants told me, “I didn’t like it.  The main character dies.”  I was never given the chance to get upset.  I knew that the Lord Eddard Stark was doomed when King Joffrey was supposed to show mercy in exchange for his admission of treason.  What I find ironic is that the recent cover of A Game of Thrones has a picture of Ned Stark sitting with his sword and looking like a carbon copy of Boromir, another character portrayed by actor Sean Bean who bites the dust with dramatic flair in Lord of the Rings.  Moreover, Bean plays the role of Ulrich (another carbon copy of Boromir) in the movie Black Death, and, as the pattern continues, gets killed by a witch.  I call this the Boromir Curse, but I digress ...  

I have saved the ultimate heartache for last.  Severus Snape kills Albus Dumbledore.  What?  Why?  Why would Snape try to protect Harry Potter in the Quidditch match in book one, as well as defend the sorcerer’s stone from Professor Quirrell/Voldemort?  Every Potter book seemed to follow this pattern:  Snape seems to be the bad guy, but in the end he is misunderstood.  Well book six, The Half-Blood Prince, ended that scenario.  Snape KILLED Dumbledore with a blast of his wand.  “Avada Kedavra!”  And just like that, the most powerful wizard Hogwarts has ever known is dead.   This put me in such a state of disbelief I predicted Dumbledore’s return in book seven, The Deathly Hallows.  Any wizard so powerful would not succumb so easily.  I was sure Snape and Dumbledore had worked out a plan to fool everyone.  Then The Deathly Hallows came out and Dumbledore was quite dead.  I kept thinking, when is Dumbledore going to make his triumphant return?  He never did.

So what good could come from murdering all of these beloved characters?  The answer, at least for me, is that Chewbacca, Paul Atreides, Ed Stark, and Albus Dumbledore needed to die for these stories to succeed.
Chewbacca’s death was necessary to raise the stakes as high as the original Star Wars: A New Hope when the Death Star mass murdered everyone on Alderaan.  I didn’t want Chewie to die, but if he was not safe, then every main character was at risk throughout the The New Jedi Order series.  Chewie’s death also set the plate for a tremendous advance in the Star Wars storyline:  the invasion of that galaxy far, far away by the Yuuzhan Vong, aliens from ANOTHER galaxy.  What a concept.  These bio-religious fanatics not only caused the death of the mighty Chewbacca, they went after everyone.  Even the loveable C-3PO and R2-D2 could be sacrificed because the Vong hated all inorganic technology.  They destroyed droids, starships, etc. with their own living, breathing organics.  Even Mara, Luke Skywalker’s wife, used the Force to fight a losing battle in her cells because the Vong could even perfect microscopic killer organisms that could do in a Jedi.  That whole concept redeemed George’s midi-chlorians because it inspired me to look at the inward possibilities of the Force, not just the outward.  Vector Prime is the best of the Star Wars books I’ve read, and I’m talking shelves full of paperbacks.  It also set up The New Jedi Order to be the most fantastic book series in the Star Wars pantheon.  I rewarded R.A. Salvatore’s creativity by buying all of his Forgotten Realms: The Legend of Drizzt books because I knew this author was worth reading.  He killed Chewbacca, but I can’t hate him for it.

Paul Atriedes death was infuriating from my point of view, but it had to happen to make way for his twin children.  The superbeing, the Kwisatz Haderach, had to be perfected because in the future, without the Kwisatz Haderach, humanity would be wiped out.  Paul’s foresight led him to the ultimate point of martyrdom.  And, for his character, it was a relief.  The burden of seeing the future and manipulating it to produce the Kwisatz Haderach took its toll on him.  The death by crysknife was his way out.  There are many religious implications of his sacrifice, but I’m not going to write them here.  If you read The Hunters of Dune, the final book in the series by son Brian Herbert and popular science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, an argument can be made as to the pointlessness of Paul’s death, or to the super cool concept of bringing his cells back to life as a child Paul Atriedes.  But that is a debate for another time.

Eddard Stark.  What a fool.  How could he be so blind to Lannister treachery?  I wanted Eddard to kick butt, but he was thwarted at every turn.  By being outwitted, his daughter Sansa was held hostage by the Lannisters.  His other daughter Arya was left in constant danger as she tried to escape North.  His son Robb, only fourteen, had to leave Winterfell to lead the armies of the North.  And that left Winterfell vulnerable so that the remaining sons Brandon and Rickon were at risk.  And his wife Catelyn was separated from all her children.  Thus, Eddard’s beheading was a must so that all hell could break loose in the Seven Kingdoms as well as in the Stark family.  I would argue that if the Lannisters had not committed this final act of injustice then A Game of Thrones would not be set in motion.  The sequel A Clash of Kings needed this driving impetus to fuel all the subplots.  Everyone who wished to be a king now played the game.  The Boromir Curse was inevitable to make this series compelling.  

And it goes without saying why Dumbledore had to die:  there had to be a showdown between Voldemort and Harry Potter.  Dumbledore and Voldemort had already fought to a draw in the Ministry of Magic.  Moreover, the Hogwarts headmaster was the only one whom Voldemort feared.  With Dumbledore out of the way, the climactic conclusion of the series could go forward.  I did not care for the manner in which the headmaster died, forcing Snape to kill him, but that also shaped the finale, when Severus came off as a bleeding heart for Lily, Harry’s mother.  It turns out that Snape had more sympathy for Harry than the Machiavellian coldness of Dumbledore.  I should have known that the pattern would repeat where Snape is, in the end, misunderstood.  He acted heroically, protecting Harry’s life by sending him the patronus to find Godric Gryffindor’s sword.  Dumbledore was dying anyway, so why not fool the Dark Lord by having Snape commit the horrid killing?  How could we have known that the whole series rested on Snape’s love for Harry’s mother, Lily?  The drama of Snape’s conflicting actions gave every Harry Potter fan a roller coaster ride.  Would any of us find the ending as powerful if Snape had not killed Dumbledore?  The headmaster, without question, had to be sacrificed.  For he played the ultimate game of wizard’s chess.  And like Ron Weasley riding the knight in The Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore sacrificed himself on the back of the Half-Blood Prince in order to checkmate Voldemort. 

Chewbacca, Paul Atriedes, Eddard Stark, and Albus Dumbledore had to die.  I still regret their deaths, but like the lyric in that Def Leppard song "Rock Of Ages," “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.”