On the fear of death in two fantasy series

I (somewhat) recently finished a reread of Chris Walley’s Lamb Among the Stars series, and it was just as good as I remembered it. It’s a thoroughly Christian sci-fi story, somewhat in the vein of Lewis’ Space Trilogy (which is also very good).

While I was reading the third and last book (The Infinite Day), I was suddenly struck by a thematic connection between LAtS and Harry Potter, which I’d finished a few days prior. Both series feature antagonists who are driven by and obsessed with a fear of death.

I have written of my suspicion of the etymology of Voldemort’s name before; I think it may be French (maybe crude/incorrect? I don’t speak French) for “flight from death.” This interpretation makes a lot of sense, given Voldemort’s drive to attain immortality—it is the main driver of all Voldemort’s acts. He refuses to go the way of all flesh. He is so obsessed with avoiding death that he commits evil acts for the sole purpose of tearing his soul apart, thereby ensuring survival, of a sort.

This idea isn’t original to me. (I doubt that any commentary I make on Harry Potter will ever be original—there’s such a huge fan base that has preceded me.) It’s mentioned (for instance) in episode 33 of the Fountains of Carrots podcast (around minute 15-16), where host Haley Stewart notes how Voldemort fails to realize that there are fates worse than death, which allows his obsessive fear to drive him right into one of them—committing acts of horrendous evil and deliberately tearing his own soul apart. A life devoted solely to prolonging itself is barely worthy of the name.

In Walley’s series, the Dominion is a civilization of humans long separated from the larger Assembly. Bereft of the benefits of God’s Intervention, they are (unlike the Assembly) still plagued by strife, division, war, power struggles, greed, selfishness, etc. In the course of the series, they come into conflict with the much larger, but less weaponized Assembly. Through the trilogy, one theme keeps coming back—that the inhabitants of the Dominion, unlike those of the Assembly, are terrified of death. It shows, for instance, in the things they make, especially in certain sentient machines called Allenix units, which can comprehend both the idea of a soul and the reality that they do not have one. Thus, they are all afflicted with existential terror. One of the Assembly humans notes that this is both cruel, and yet only a reflection of their makers’ own flaw.

In another instance, the lord-emperor of the Dominion at one points uses a sort of astral projection to scout out the Assembly forces. While doing so, he decides to attempt to terrify the crew of a ship—and succeeds. However, the manner in which he does so is instructive, to the Assembly humans and to us readers. The lord-emperor appears as Death—not a benign or peaceful escort, but as horror, emptiness, and forsakenness. Not having encountered this feeling before, the Assembly crew is particularly affected by it, panicking, and even causing a serious accident. But later on, another character asks: when one wishes to frighten someone else about whom they know nothing, what do they use? The answer is “whatever frightens them.”

And so it is. The lord-emperor (spoiler alert) is in fact a figure from legend, long thought dead, but kept alive by the Powers (read: demonic forces). Once again, the theme of escape from death, at all costs.

What frightens the people of the Dominion most is death. Thus, they project the same fear onto the Assembly, assuming that they must share it as well. But (and this is the critical point) they don’t. Instead, they trust in the sovereignty of the Most High and hold firm to what they believe, even when actually facing literal death.

Incidentally, this all reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Flying Inn, specifically of a rather cultish commune of people who, endeavouring to live as long as possible, subsist on a diet consisting entirely of milk. Deliberately ridiculous, this nevertheless succeeds in making the same point as the more serious examples already discussed—that life is to be lived. More, it is to be celebrated. (This is a central concept of Chesterton’s thought.)

Voldemort and the lord-emperor both exemplify the classic trope of making “deals with the devil.” They call to mind Goethe’s story of Faust, and many other characters, real and fictional, who (were said to) make similar deals, with various outcomes, often horrific. They all serve as warnings that some deals are better left untaken; that you have to know when fold ’em, hold ’em, and when to run; that “we may never do evil that good may come of it.”

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Author: anunendingsuicidenote

I am a student, currently of philosophy. I seek profundity. My interests include reading, especially fantasy; philosophy, especially metaphysics; religion, especially Christianity; and working out, especially the Big Three lifts.

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