Immortality is one of humanity’s oldest storytelling traditions and therefore one of written art’s great themes. Why is it so persistent? To help us really nail its place in writing, let’s consider it in the light of human nature. Mortal nature.
I think universal angst over mortality can confront a young adult just as easily as a retiree. It underpins the appeal of fantasy immortals like vampires and angels in folklore and modern fiction. Perhaps also those quirky Benjamin Button type characters whose lives are fated to be odd and remarkable, yet universally accessible at the same time.
Travelling in China in late 2012, researching for new books, I was repeatedly confronted with reminders of this human fixation. Not only the Land of the Dragon but the world in general is littered with relics and monuments that echo the lives of rulers yearning to live forever. If not in this world, then in the next. History is so lush with amazing, idea-provoking backstories.
Obsessed with staying alive, the first emperor of China drank immortality potions, including ingredients like mercury, which modern science has proven is toxic to humans. But when the experimental medicine of the time and the assurances of his astrologers began to ring hollow, the master of the Middle Kingdom turned his attention to securing his afterlife. In it, he reasoned, there would still be enemies to face. If he was to remain proud and invincible, he would need to take both the jewels of his court – his wives and concubines – and his mighty army, into the afterlife with him, at least symbolically. Was fear of a post-death battle a huge factor in his thinking? By this stage, those mercury brews had most likely addled his mind.
It was an amazing experience to go to Xian, where part of the Silk Road started, to see the results of his dream face to face – literally. It has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. What a thrill to explore all three (so far) excavated pits containing the infantry, archers and horses of China’s Terracotta Army. In Pit 1, the largest of the digs, I was able to get quite close to individually modelled warriors. Each one, many experts believe, reflects a particular soldier who lived and served in an elite fighting unit. Jaw-dropping as the Terracotta Warriors are, they are also surely a potential warning to us about the nature of real immortality.
A thousand years from now, China’s first Emperor will doubtless be remembered, most likely for the sheer scale of his vision, his ambition and for forcefully uniting the warring kingdoms. But I think writers like George Orwell and Harper Lee will also be remembered… for significantly challenging the Western world’s thinking with powerful stories that have already been read, honoured and retold across generations, sparking useful debate.
So isn’t real immortality about leaving a positive, creative legacy? That, we can all partake of. Perhaps storytelling messages themselves best explain this enduring human obsession with living forever. In fiction, writers give us both villains and heroes, fated to live impossibly long or resilient lives, regenerate like Wolverine, renew themselves like Doctor Who (or James Bond, for that matter). One example is the character called The Deathless in the first of my Moonshadow ninja novels, Eye of the Beast. Most writers working with immortal or empowered characters try to show how lonely that wanderer’s life really is, and how deeply flawed their character and consequent decisions.
In other words, supermen, amazons and immortals are every bit as fallible and tortured as the rest of us. This is actually very comforting. Maybe it’s something people keep coming back to reflect on, through the tool of fiction, because it’s SO comforting. Millennia of oral tradition, then writing, now pop-culture, repeats the eternal message behind the immortality myth:
Don’t sweat it. Even the divine suffer. Heroes ultimately let themselves down, choose badly, or fall while striving on their quest.
Even the feisty Norse Gods cop Ragnarok in the end. So really, we’re all in the same longship.
No wonder we find that creating such people in high stakes conflict situations absorbs us endlessly. We see ourselves and our struggles micro-mirrored in the turbulent stories of people who are like us, yet endowed with far greater powers and facing more ultimate threats. But, in the end, are they really more powerful, or just both blessed and blighted, like everyone else, simply in a more grand and tragic way?
Stories with a point to them live forever. You can kill people but not ideas. So my advice is take up your quill rather than sword and share tales worth repeating until the stars turn to dust.
As Shakespeare’s endurance proves, readers and viewers love layered characters, timeless ideas, plots with intriguing levels and at least one observation or insight of substance to relish or reflect on later, when the joyous tumult of the heroic plot is done.
If we writers can recognise the great undying themes, make sense of their engine rooms, then creatively deliver, yet again, their high calibre essence to our readers, a kind of immortality is up for grabs.
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