Monday, October 7, 2013

The Needs of the Many

Whatever Spock's political orientation, no one can doubt
that he is a hero.
In the wake of certain political events in Washington D.C. this past week, author David Gerrold posted this image of Spock saying his last good-bye to Kirk on Facebook. It promptly made the rounds among politically aware and FB-connected trekkies.

Irrespective of arguments about Spock's political orientation, the reminder of his heroism in The Wrath of Khan got me thinking about heroism/heroinism in general, and especially how the ultimate sacrifice, my life in exchange for saving the lives of my companions, returns to us in many different forms in some of our favorite stories.

Of course, it does not always take delivery of the ultimate sacrifice in order to achieve a heroine's or hero's goals. Oftentimes, the resolute willingness to accept a challenge that might demand that sacrifice is enough. 

We have the classic story of Frodo and his burden of destroying the Ring, made all the more compelling by the fact that Frodo was one of a host of characters in LotR who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the effort to save Middle Earth from Sauron.

In Nemesis, Data saves Picard's life and the lives of all their crew,
but unlike Spock and Kirk, they don't get the opportunity to say good-bye.

A generation after Spock exposed himself to lethal radiation in order to save the crew of the Enterprise, Data would follow in his footsteps by rescuing his own crewmates at the cost of meeting certain doom during the explosive climax of Nemesis. 

In the last Harry Potter film, we were led to believe for a handful of compelling scenes that in order to kill Voldemort, Harry himself, who carried a part of Voldemort's spirit, would have to die. 

The denouement of Ender's Game is a disturbing
application of weighing the needs of the many
against the needs of the few.
We are but a month away from the premier of Ender's Game, the long-awaited film adaptation of Orson Scott Card's classic science fiction novel.  While Ender will not confront the decision to end his own life, as the pre-adolescent commander of an interstellar war fleet, he will grapple in a very real way with the inherent conflict that exists between the needs of the many and the needs of the few.

These are some of the most famous examples, though I'm sure you can come up with more -- and I hope you do! One thing they all have in common is the promise of resurrection.  Thanks to the Genesis Project, Spock was returned to us in the next Star Trek movie.  Frodo survives Mound Doom, and though he never returns to his former life, he is given an everlasting home among the elves.  A part of Data lives on in his less-developed but promising brother, B4.  And Harry, as we all know, didn't have to die after all.

Is the promise of resurrection somehow inherent to the trope of the ultimate sacrifice?  Are we so reluctant to kill our heroes and heroines that we must always find a way to grant them immortality?  Or is the possibility of resurrection simply a metaphor for the staying power of such formidable heroes and heroines in our memories and in our imaginations?

I'd love to hear what you think about ultimate sacrifice, resurrection, and the role both play in our favorite stories. 

- posted by Karin Rita Gastreich


David Hunter said...

As my pedantry is in need of exercise: isn't Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm the most obvious sacrifice/resurrection in LotR? Also, Frodo isn't actually granted an everlasting home amongst the elves, he remains mortal but gets some kind of long-but-limited respite over the sea (though granted that's not obvious from LotR alone). In the Silmarillion you also have Beren (uniquely amongst men, I think) restored to life upon the intercession of Luthien, although Beren's death wasn't really a self-sacrifice in the sense you mean.

Supporting characters are allowed to self-sacrifice pretty freely without it all being some kind of mistake. Boromir, obviously, but also Theomeris Glyn - he was a nasty old man - in the Pastel City, though of course sometimes the author cops out a little and has them turn into a tree or suchlike . . .

There's no self-sacrifice for others in a fair amount of fantasy -- Moorcock's Eternal Champion series being an obvious example, which may be one reason why they're a little to smug-feeling and lacking poignancy despite the fairly high body count.

I suppose you might say Ned Stark is a sort of self-sacrifice although his was more for an ideal than any practical purpose.

Terri-Lynne said...

Sacrifice and redemption! You've touched upon two of my favorite themes.
Guy Gavriel Kay's "The Summer Tree" depicts one of the best self-sacrifice scenes I've ever read. (Actually, one of my favorite books. EVER.) Then there's "The Giver" by Lois Lowry (another favorite.)
And then there's the world's most famous "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few" scenes of all time--Jesus.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hello David & Terri,

Sorry it's taken a while to get back to you guys. Last week was midterm crunch time at Avila.

Yes, absolutely, Gandalf is an excellent example of self-sacrifice & resurrection. He's one of the characters I had in mind when I mentioned how the willingness to put one's life at stake permeates the culture of the characters in LotR.

And of course, not all fantasy carries themes of self-sacrifice; but some of the most memorable stories do.

Terri -- talk about reading lists! I have yet to get to anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, but I better soon because it looks like he will be GoH at World Fantasy in 2014.

Death & resurrection is a focal theme of a lot of religions. I thought about mentioning Jesus in my post, but figured it'd probably get me into trouble if I included him on my list of 'memorable fantasies'. ;)