Sunday, July 22, 2007

On Death

Death has been a theme running through the last few books in the Harry Potter series. In the toilet (of all places) just now, I found myself thinking about this and other instances of deaths in novels.

I think the question is not really about whether or not a character dies, but why and how he/she does. I ponder three instances, two of which I've read and one of which I've learned from friends.

The death that binds the reader

Li-Shia said she cried at the end of 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' by John Irving. I have since transferred ownership of the book to her; I bought it in Form 3 but never quite got past the first chapter.

She said she knew he would die but because it was such a long book she grew so close to him that she'd rather he didn't die. As I thought about it, I realised how unusual a character Owen is (anyone who's watched the movie Simon Birch, which was based on the book, will know this), and yet sometimes we can identify ourselves with those most unlike us.

Maybe for a moment their deaths became more real than our lives.

The death that isn't quite death

'Big Fish' ends as it begins; the main character Edward Bloom's death is as mythical as his birth. He unmistakable dies an unspectacular death in a hospital ward at the end, but at the same time it is a spectacular transformation in which he becomes a fish. Author Daniel Wallace doesn't distinguish between the two.

I wonder about the deaths in fantasies and myths, in which characters are definitely dead, yet also more alive than they have ever been.

The death where everyone dies but that is not the point

I have yet to see a children's book in which more characters die (and are resurrected) then C.S. Lewis's 'The Chronicles of Narnia'. Here virtually all the good guys die, and yet they are all alive at the very end.

Maybe it is summed up best in Aslan's words at the end of the sixth book, 'The Silver Chair': "Most people have [died], you know. Even I have. There are very few who haven't."

Lewis describes deaths in a very matter-of-fact way, neither as the epic end of a hero or villain nor as the conclusion of some climactic battle. It's almost as if the death is not the point, but rather the life (or lack thereof) after death.

We are told that the main characters are all involved in a railway accident in the last book, but then it is not elaborated further. Instead, their life after death becomes the dominant reality.

No, I don't know much about death. But something tells me that death is tragic because it puts us face-to-face with the unknown, and because the ones who die have come to mean so much to us. Death is comical because we have seen joy which no death can overcome.

And for what it's worth, we don't have to mask death in any way because we can look it squarely in the face and know that through tears we have triumphed over it in Jesus' name.


Angeline said...

Hey! i like the way u put your thoughts here :)

Btw, how are u doing in uni now?

Suzanne said...

simon birch!i cried like a baby watching that movie!!! never read the book though..hehe..