This is an experimental thread - it seems to me that part of the advantage of having an Other Worlds Forum is being able to compare trends across many books. I hope this is OK. I think we had a similar thread - "Beyond the Veil" on the old board.
Second caveat - SPOILER ALERT: The following post will contain BIG SPOILERS from the Earthsea series (mainly from The Other Wind), His Dark Materials (mainly from THe Amber Spyglass), The Chronicles of Narnia (mainly from The Last Battle), and various writings of J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR, The Hobbit, The Silmarilion).
Now that I've made sure ABSOLUTELY NO ONE will read any further, I may commence.
The question'What follows death?' is an oft-explored theme in fantasy. I assume the writer's aim is to portray the experience of our own impending death and the death of our loved ones in a way consistent with our experience in the real world - which I feel is an impossible task. Most writers believe in some form of dualism: a person is formed of two parts, a corporeal body and an ethereal soul, and the soul maintains some form of continued existence even after the body has perished. In some cases, the body can exist after the soul is gone - but it is never a good kind of existence.
This fall I've read the Ursula Le Guinn's Earthsea series and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy in close succession, and was struck by the fact that both have plots revolving around freeing The Dead from a prison-like afterlife existence. In both of these worlds, after someone dies, their conscienceness, encapsulated in some less-than-corporeal shade of their former likeness, is sent to a murky, walled-in plane. In the Earthsea the city of the dead is on Dryland. It is dark, grey, ashy, and desolate. The dead walk the streets in a sort of daze, they do not recognize each other anymore and they do not speak. In HDM the world of the dead is what's left after the living world has faded from the sight of those who have recently perished. The dead's spirits ae sheparded to a dark city where they are guarded and harried by foul harpies.
In Earthsea, the Dead's imprisonment is an after-effect of the practice of magic. In HDM, the dead have been imprisoned this way by The Authority and their release portends his demise. In both cases, the dead beg for help from the living through a dream vision, and once the living heroes learn of the plight of their deceased loved ones, they make a perilous journey to the other side to release them.
After the dead are freed from their bonds, they cease to exist in any form of the person they were in life. In Earthsea they are now free to re-join the circle of death and re-birth. In HDM they dissolve into the fabric of life. Their selves are gone for good.
When good characters in the Narnia series die, they go to heaven of course (well, except for Susan who had "outgrown all this childish nonsense" as the author, who disapproves of her conceit, puts it. Vain Susan wants to live). What is heaven like? It turns out its a lot like our living world, and the living world of Narnia. It is a fuller, deeper, more substantial version. "Aslan's Country" is the real thing and the living world is a mere simulacrum, as Professor Diggory explains: "It's all in Plato". The heroes get new versions of their own bodies - younger, fitter, free of pain. The Narnian afterlife is vital but it holds no peril. For myself, I find this view of Heaven a tad too simplistic, to say the least.
J.R.R.Tolkien took a much subtler approach to the question of the afterlife. The issue is much more complax in Middle Earth. For one thing, Death means different things to the diffrent races. The very difference betweren the races is not just in their hight and features, but in what kind of Being they are. When Thorin the dwarf is Dying at the end of The Hobbit he tells Bilbo "I go now to the halls of waiting to sit besides my fathers until the world is renewed". The Elves never really die, even if they've been killed- they lose their footing in Middle Earth and travel to the Undying Lands. Sometimes they can come back. This is the sort of Death Gandalf the wizard experiences after he strives with the Balrog in The Lord of The Rings. Wizards are more like an elves than like men. When Mortal Men die they die unequivocably. Their spirits leave the world entirely- to go who knows where (Tolkien was constantly changing and rearranging his mythology so what I've said here may not be consistent with all of his writing). Hobbits are described as mortal, so I assume their fate is like that of men. We get glimpses of the Undying Land at the end of Return of the King, and a more involved view in The Silmarilion (A question that arises when reading about the elves and their fate - If the Undying Lands are do beautiful and pleasant,and they can go there whenever they wish, why do the elves bother with Middle Earth at all?).
Denizens of the Undying Lands get to keep their bodies, but those residing in Middle Earth may not be so lucky. Especially if they succumb to evil. Existence without a body a "half - life" "twilight existence" is what threatens Frodo when the morgul knife is lodged in his shoulder and when the ring seizes him. Such is the existence of the ring wraiths.
What does it all mean? I do not know if Le Guinn is a believing Christian, but I suspect she is not. Certainly Pullman is secular. Lewis and Tolkien of course were belivers, Protestant and Catholic, respectively. It's not hard to see why the first to authors reconcile the readers to the idea of letting their selves go after one lifetime, while the last two authors promise something further to come. None of these views rings true enough for me, but even though I am a secular person, I am most taken by Tolkien's descriptions. Perhaps it is the beautiful but melancholy mood he evokes and the true feeling of loss that accompanies leaving Middle-Earth.
I realise this is a very personal question, but has anyone on the board found a trully compelling view of the after life in a fantasy book? One that they find true to their world view? Or one that they deeply disagree with? Or someone that got it half right? Also feel free to disagree with and disprove any statement I have made.
For a really humourous but also compelling view of the afterlife, I can't think of a better one than Robert Heinlein's Job. The story is of a man on a cruise who takes part in some sort of firewalking and then finds himself transported to a different version of the reality he is in. Along the way he meets the love of his life and together they go into one parallel universe after another. They spend time in Mexico where the hero learns that he can earn a living better by dishwashing than becoming the preacher he originally aimed to be.
Along the way he learns to cope with these changes of situation by looking up info in whichever library he can find. He meets other people along the way. But finally he takes part in the final trump, shout and rapture, when he finds himself at an evangelical rally - one of those Bible belt things we normally leave to Billy Graham here. ;)
The heaven he visits along with many others, is a marvellous place. It has no libraries, no books, not even a bible, but you can still earn your living by washing dishes. There are buses, or something like, for transport, and angels organise and marshal people around. The hero decides he doesn't like heaven very much especially as the love of his life somehow misses out and he can't be with her. So he goes to hell instead to see where she might be. And finds that she is still alive somewhere else.
The conclusion the hero ends up making is to live for the present and enjoy the life he has with the people he loves, for the time that he can.
jem's got a great point -- descriptions and conditions for the afterlife in literature are as likely as not to be commentaries on the way we treat each other in/with our worldviews in this life.
I love this, and I am really grateful to Fridwulfa for coming up with this terrific topic. I have some thoughts about it -- as I've said before, it's one of the tangled waffling points that JKR has been playing with for a few thousand pages now, and I've about decided it's my conference paper for Salem in October. About LeGuin -- she may or may not be a practicing christian, what in the world ever that means (but we have a splendid fight thread for that, so not here! :rolleyes: ) but she is a hardcore Jungian and the daughter of a cultural anthropologist, so all bets are off anyway. She is coming a lot closer to a real belief in what she is saying than most people -- rather than a social commentary about the here and now. She actually came eerily close to Pullman in her last book (The Other Wind), as Frida pointed out, about the need to release the dead from a humanly-conceived or created eternal waiting room to nowhere, so that their elements can rejoin the totality of being in dispersed (and presumably recombinable) form. In both cases, it is human binding of powers that would do well not to be bound that has created this imprisoning condition for the dead -- whether it's formally institutionalized religion, or formalized magery that has become trapped within rules and no longer runs free (men's magic, women's magic. . . ).
Who knows, really? But LeGuin's is a reality I would espouse very happily, if it were to turn out to be the truth. And Pullman delighted me, as much as he annoyed or horrified many others, with his vision of a rotting divine bureauocracy taken apart by two ferocious little moral savages. I think what I love the most is the psychology of Will and Lyra -- they are distinctly differentiated male and female in the moral aspects, perfectly complementary, who in the end are content to wait for the time when they can be united not only with each other but with all existence, without self, because they have walked through the awful alternative personally and succeeded in blowing it open for everybody. The thing that makes it almost unbearably poignant is that they have a choice -- to continue to see each other for their mortal lives (one of which will be shortened as a result), or to let the one and only remaining door between the worlds be for the release of the dead, and not for their own use.
I think this is not just their story or condition -- I think it points to an admonishment for humanity to let go the idea of the integrity of individual self after death, with all the distorted belief systems and potential for abuse that so-human hope has created.
What do you think? is this a "healthy" (if subversive) idea to sneak into a book for young adults? Personally, I think it is, but I can sure see it swimming upstream against the current in Western cultures at least.
|the need to release the dead from a humanly-conceived or created eternal waiting room to nowhere|
Waiting for Godot? Samuel Beckett's play in both French & English? Two characters, Estragon with the smelly feet & Vladimir with the bladder problems.
Oh, yes -- or Sartre's No Exit (complete text below -- "hell is other people")http://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/hell/sart.html
But the afterlife in both Pullman and Le Guin is this dull, drab thing -- no torment really, just faded to dust and without any markers of time or place or event. In Pullman they still seem to know who they are though, whch is hellish in its own way.