As per last week, I’m following along in Nathan’s footsteps as he wanders through his copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. This week: Immortals. The Guide splits this into three subtypes: Gods and the like (who cannot die unless people stop believing in them); Elves, Dark Lords and so forth (who cannot die unless they are killed); and immortal humans.
Since there are just so many immortals in genre novels, even in the relatively small number that I’ve read (and the smaller number that I remember), I think I’m going to do three lists, one for each of those categories. Even then, the second and third lists may be a little long…
Oh, and last week someone said that my picks were a little eclectic. I’m hoping to continue that theme!
So, let’s start off with ‘Gods’. I’m including here anything that can’t be killed, and that is in some way a fundamental part of the world (i.e. not just an invulnerable human). Here’s my slightly recondite five:
1. K’z’k – Sluggy Freelance (Pete Abrams)
K’z’k’s status is somewhat unclear: perhaps a mere world-ending demon, perhaps the quintessential embodiment of destruction itself. What does seem clear (although that may change in the coming days, thanks to timing…) is that he/she can’t be killed. The annoyingly cheerful bug-monster just sort of seems to shatter into pieces, lodged in texts or in people’s minds, waiting for a chance to rise again, piece by piece. Some of those pieces are themselves sentient, so I suppose theoretically there’s a whole bunch of K’z’k’s wandering around at times. Anyway, despite being found in the lowly and disreputable local of a mere webcomic, K’z’k deserves to be on this list both for the hydra-like mechanism of his/her immortality and for her/his sheer force of psychotic personality – Abrams manages to make his Big Bad into something inhuman, funny, monstrous, strange, and really irritating in a creepy way. The fact it can raise hordes of the undead helps too.
2. Odin – The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul (Douglas Adams)
Lots of books have the ancient gods living among us, either in some sort of tangential world that intersects with ours, or else surviving in some hidden places. Sometimes those gods are powerful; sometimes, they’ve fallen on hard times. In Adams’ book, however, Valhalla is St Pancras Station, and many of the Norse gods live as tramps. The patron of that clan, the all-wise, all-knowing Odin, is currently residing in a nursing home, where he sleeps 22 hours a day, and while he may think he’s still got his wits, it’s not entirely clear that he’s up for dealing with all the complexities of the modern world – such as lawyers.
3. Tzadkiel – The Urth of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe)
What is Tzadkiel? Who knows. I think it’s probably some sort of interdimensional angel-robot constructed by a doubly-ascended ‘earlier’ iteration of humanity, but your mileage may vary. Whatever it is, it’s able to reside is the superdimension of Yesod and as the power to judge humanity, and control major astrophysical parameters. It’s also something that exists in many fragments, at least one of which has been banished (by itself? who knows?) to a place beyond (or between) realities. It may also be a boat. It’s a Gene Wolfe novel, what do you expect, clarity?
4. The Lady of Pain – The Planescape RPG setting (various)
The Lady of Pain has a very spikey face. She may or may not be a god. At some point in the past, she arrived in the toroidal portal city of Sigil (which floats at the top of an infinitely tall spire), and quickly disposed of the god that previously ruled there. Since then, she’s ruled with an iron, and very spiky, but somewhat absenteeist, fist. Humans get on with their own business, and as long as they don’t cross certain metaphorical lines, she gets on with hers – whatever that may be. In a setting, and a city, where gods and archdevils wander about the streets getting in drunken brawls, it takes a lot to be mysterious and aloof, but the Lady certainly is. Those who cross her – by molesting her mindless ‘dabus’ servants, for instance, or worst of all by praying to her – come to unpleasant ends. I believe flaying alive has been involved on some occasions. What she’s most famous for, however, is the punishment of ‘mazing’ – teleporting an enemy to a small personal prison-dimension from which escape is almost impossible. Yes, the Lady may be a plot device, a virtually omnipotent dea ex machina, but she’s a memorable one, and her inscrutable danger and strange appearance perfectly set the tone for the magnificently baroque setting.
5. Counter-flow – Interesting Times (Terry Pratchett)
When you say ‘gods who don’t die unless you stop believing in them’, everyone will think of Pratchett. And it’s tempting to include Om, or Angus (the personal god of one mad stylite), or P’tang-P’tang, or Offler the Crocodile God, or the Verruca Gnome, or Teg the Horse-Headed God of Agriculture, or Fate and the Lady, Death, Myria St Jean, or Mr Safe Way. Gods and immortals are everywhere in the Discworld. But that very ubiquity is why these more famous deities don’t capture the essence of Pratchett’s setting. Instead, I’ve gone for one of the most obscure, demonstrating just how omnipresent immortality is in this world: a round of applause if you please for Counter-flow, one of the Four Dread Horsemen of Public Holidays!
Now, how about ‘elves’? In this category I’m including everything that doesn’t naturally die, but that can be killed – things that start out immortal, not that become so in some way. Here are five examples:
1. Artanis – assorted works (J.R.R. Tolkien)
We can’t talk about elves without mentioning Papa Tolkien. So which elf should we pick? Feänor has the most personality, I think. Or perhaps the continually overlooked Cirdan, oldest of the elves in Middle-Earth? But I’ll go with Artanis, who in The Lord of the Rings is known as Galadriel (a translation of the ‘pet name’ her husband calls her by). Artanis is fiery and headstrong from the beginning, friend and kinswoman to Feänor – the Silmarils are apparently inspired by the way her hair caught the light of the Two Trees. It’s not made explicit whether she participates in the fratricidal massacre Feänor carries out, but she does leave Valinor with him – true to her strong will, she picks a middle course, refusing to abide by the will of the gods, but also refusing to swear oaths to Feänor or to his quest for the Silmarils. If Feänor is an image of Lucifer (the brilliant light-bringer who falls through his own pride and is exiled from heaven), that makes Artanis the elven equivalent of (some versions of) Mephistopheles, the not-fully-aligned ambassador of Lucifer. Artanis largely ignores the whole ‘battle for the fate of existence’ thing going on in the Silmarillion, instead settling in the isolationist kingdom of Doriath, where she picks up a somewhat weak-willed boy-toy, Celeborn, and settles down into marital bliss. When Morgoth is defeated and a general amnesty is handed out to the exiles, Artanis, despite not having done anything particularly unforgiveable, refuses to accept the pardon of the Valar (which would mean accepting that they had authority over her), and instead stays in Middle-Earth. Eventually, as wars gradually kill off almost all the great elves, she’s left as one of the most important, and finally decides to take matters into her own hands, taking the ring Nenya and migrating to the forest of Lorinand, where she appoints herself as queen (dragging Celeborn along with her for company) and sets out to create her own imitation of Doriath. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Artanis is apparently the being in Middle-Earth closest in power to Sauron and most dangerous to him – which given that she’s competing against a bunch of demigods (Gandalf, Saruman, etc al) is saying something. Her story reaches its turning point when she is offered the One Ring – if she accepts, she will be able to achieve her ambitions, destroy Sauron, and set herself up as Goddess-empress of the world, turning the whole of Middle-Earth into a fascistic garden-state. By now, however, she has come to doubt her own wonderfulness enough to realise that she doesn’t have the wisdom (or just plain niceness) to rule creation benignly (interestingly, her relationship with Celeborn is an inversion of expectations not just because she’s more powerful than him, but because he, ‘the Wise’, is there to flatter her and give her sensible advice in private, while she’s the one who does all the ruling, fighting, and general decisioning), and turns it down. Instead, she uses her power to purify the Necromancer’s fortress at Dol Guldur, and then swallows her pride and returns to Valinor.
2. Leonardo – the Shadowrun setting, and particularly the novel Black Madonna (various, and particularly Carl Sergeant and Marc Gascoigne)
Shadowrun, like Middle-Earth, is packed full of elves. Some of them have been born recently. Some of them are mutated humans. Some of them were freaks born before magic returned. Some of them are very, very old. One of them is Leonardo da Vinci. Black Madonna begins with Leonardo, now the world’s greatest computer hacker, causing attention-getting mayhem; the novel then follows a team of mercenaries as they attempt to unravel da Vinci’s code, both in the current day (i.e. a magic-infested corporate dystopia in the near future) and through understanding his art works (particularly some strange features in his painting of the Last Supper) – a trail Leonardo has cunningly left to lead them to a theological truth about Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene. A truth the Vatican don’t want anyone to know – leaving the mercenaries dodging the attentions of both the Jesuits and the Priory of Sion (both of whom use magic and heavy weaponry). You know, I suspect that if somebody were to flagrantly steal the plot of this novel and then re-write it in a less bizarre, non-elfy setting (say, the real world), it could be a real publishing success. Anyway, Leonardo da Vinci as an immortal elf who is also a genius computer hacker, a cult leader with a secret compound, a wizard, and a heresiarch archnemesis of the Vatican… that’s an immortal who sticks in the memory!
3. The King of the Elves – Lords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)
Most of the beings in Pratchett are derivative of fantasy tropes; his elves, however, are an intentional inversion – psychotic, animalistic, predatory. The easy pick here would be their Queen, a fairly straightforward moustache-twirling villain; but I’d prefer to acknowledge her husband. Where the Queen and her court are reached through open-air healthy-womanhood-ritual-hosting stone circles and reside in a cold but elegant world, the King’s retinue are reached through the sweaty, dark, hot recesses of underground barrows. The King is basically a deus ex machina, and it takes quite something both to make that role feel justified and to make him seem up to the task: Pratchett does it with very few words by tapping into something primal, making his Elf King an admixture of devil, pagan god, and folk tale spirit – something at once powerful, malevolent, familiar, and strangely pitiable.
4. R. Daneel Olivaw – various novels (Isaac Asimov; also Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, David Brin, and possibly others)
We first meet R. Daneel (the ‘R.’ stands for ‘robot’) in a future version of earth, playing the by-the-book half of a buddy cop pairing in a murder mystery; but even then, it’s clear that the robot has much more intelligence and individuality than we might first assume. We last meet him… well, let’s just say it’s a long time later, in a very different role. I’m not sure whether he’s officially immortal, but his ability to replace parts of himself to prolong his lifespan, and to continually improve himself (he’s basically the entire Singularity in one person) make him effectively so, unless somebody manages to kill him. But to do that, they’d have to find him…
5. Ungoliant – The Silmarillion (Tolkien)
It’s probably cheating to include two by the same author, but this one really isn’t an elf… in fact, nobody knows what she is. She may be a Maia (a lesser goddess, effectively), or she may be an incarnation of absolute and primal darkness and nothingness who predates Creation itself. Either way, she’s a great big spider. Ungoliant kicks off the main events of the Silmarillion by smuggling Melkor into Valinor and, with his help, devouring the light of the Two Trees and of the Wells of Varda. Her insatiable hunger, however, leads to some conflict with Melkor, as she’d really like to eat the Silmarils. By this point, she’s become so dangerous that she’s on the verge of killing and eating Melkor himself, before his henchgodlings show up to help him out. She spends the rest of the book birthing monstrous spiders and generally terrifying people in her chosen nesting place, before fleeing to other parts of the world. One theory has her killed by Eärendil, but the official text leaves her fate unspecified, so she may still be around. Alternatively, it’s suggested that she eventually becomes so hungry that she dies… by eating herself. One of her great-great-(etc)-granddaughters is Shelob, who we meet in The Lord of the Rings.
6. Turiya – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (and sequels) – Stephen Donaldson
Donaldson’s covenant books have a lot of problems, but they also have some fantastic elements. Turiya, along with his brothers Moksha and Samedhi, collectively known as the Ravers, are among the best. Essentially the Nazgul to Lord Foul’s Sauron, they’re much more memorable and frightening than the originals: they’re not just supernatural psychopaths, they’re also body-snatchers, able to enter into the minds of lesser beings and control their bodies. This means that pretty much anyone can be a Raver, and Donaldson plays up the horror both of their power as fifth column traitors and of their power of possession (which I remember being fatal, although perhaps there are exceptions). Turiya (also known as ‘Herem’, ‘Kinslaughterer’ and other things) and his brothers are generally behind everything horrible and inhuman that happens in the books, and given how dark Donaldson goes at times, that makes these three some seriously unpleasant villains. It’s not even clear whether it’s possible to destroy the brothers (who have existed since time immemorial, and have a peculiar hatred of trees), although they can be rent into incoherent shreds… possibly.
And, finally, humans. OK, so ‘human’ can be a relative term in genre, but I’m going to use it to mean anyone who starts out mortal and ends up immortal, but excluding those who end up gods. Turns out there are still plenty of those.
1. Zifnab – The Death Gate Cycle (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman)
Although it may be tempted to think that Zifnab, a seemingly derranged old wizard, is the same person as Fizban, a seemingly derranged old wizard who is secretly the ultimate god of good in Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance novels, it may alternatively simply be the case that he’s a really old, really geeky guy from Earth’s 20th century, who likes making allusions to D&D, and Merlinesque anachronistic references. If this is the case, given the setting, he’s probably immortal.
2. Vecna – various works in the Greyhawk and later Ravenloft settings (various authors)
D&D’s lich king. I think he may end up a god at some point, but until then he’s just a guy who really hates the thought of dying, so turns himself into an undead abomination. He’s not nice. Of course, D&D, and particularly Ravenloft, is crawling with undead. I was tempted to to suggest Jander Sunstar, the trying-to-be-good vampire elf who first introduces us to Ravenloft, or Count Strahd von Zarovich, the setting’s admirably no-nonsense Dracula clone and hero of two volumes of his own vampire-autobiography, or Azalin, his lich archnemesis. In fact, I think all the Dreadlords of Ravenloft are immortal, even those who are theoretically human – so perhaps Dominic D’Honaire, the mind-controlling Darklord of Dementlieu, or obscure Thakok-An, High Priestess of a sleeping dragon-god in Kalidnay. But no, despite my affection for Ravenloft, it has to be Vecna, on the strength purely of the names of the three main Greyhawk adventures in which he appears: the excited Vecna Lives!, the cautious Vecna Reborn, and the furious Die, Vecna, Die!, a title which, if any does, surely deserves to be shouted. Incidentally, if you didn’t like third edition D&D, blame Vecna – apparently his conflict with the Lady of Pain (see above) is what caused the changes between editions…
3. Lazarus – A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.)
Miller’s post-apocalyptic analysis of religious faith is set in three time periods, spanning more than a thousand years; yet in each one of them, a ragged, wandering Jew appears, all three very similar in appearance. The strong suggestion is that the three are the same man – perhaps even the Leibowitz of the title. No reason is given for why he might be immortal.
4. Oasis – Sluggy Freelance (Abrams)
I know it seems excessive to have two characters here from the same webcomic (even if they do feel like they’re almost from different worlds, given how varied the comic is), but I can’t address this topic without mention Oasis, the mysterious brainwashed gymnast-assassin. The details of her nature remain shrouded in mystery; but we do know that, as well as being astonishingly good at killing people, she’s received clearly fatal wounds on several occasions – including being shot in the head. Nonetheless, the girl keeps coming back. Does she have incredible powers of regeneration? Is she some sort of possessing spirit that turns people into more of her? Is she only one of an army of clones, with her personality and memories continually being uploaded into new bodies? Is she perhaps some sort of deity in a disguise so good she’s fooled herself? We shall see.
5. Zedar – The Belgariad (David Eddings)
Zedar is the proximal villain of the seminal YA fantasy saga (his master, the evil god Torak, being out of sight for most of the time), but he’s played more as a victim of the universe. Zedar begins as a disciple of Aldur, the wise god who is the patron of the good sorcerors, only to turn to the dark side later in life (having by this time already achieved immortality); that doesn’t mean he has anything more than contempt for most of his new allies. As the spiritual brother of the lead good guy, he is essentially the Judas of the series, and Eddings allows us to ponder similar questions to those surrounding Judas: given that this is a world with binding prophecies, and that Zedar is never much more than the tool of far more powerful forces, how much free will does he really have in his betrayal, and what does that mean for how the reader feels about him? He even seems to regret causing any pain to the heroes. That, however, doesn’t do him any good in the end. Because, SPOILER: the reason he merits inclusion on this list isn’t his moral ambiguity or his standard-issue magic-user immortality, it’s what the good guy does to him: pushes him into a rock. Zedar gets to spend the rest of his immortal eternity trapped forever, completely immobile, in a stone. There are downsides to not dying…/SPOILER
6. Winston Rumfoord – The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut)
Winston Rumfoord, and his dog Kazak, have no magical powers. They just happen to have an unfortunate encounter with a chronsynclastic infundibulum – which, naturally enough, means that they now exist through all of time, but only in a very thin ribbon stretching between the Sun and Betelgeuse, only briefly visible to anybody else when the earth happens to cross their path. They are therefore immortal, because there isn’t any time when they aren’t – although there are times when they are not observed.
7. Robert Gadling – Sandman (Neil Gaiman)
A veteran back from the Hundred Years War gets drunk in a tavern one day and has an argument with his friends, in which he suggests that death is just a habit: “The only reason people die, is because everyone does it. You all just go along with it. It’s rubbish, death. It’s stupid. I don’t want anything to do with it.” Fortunately for him, Death herself is listening, and grants him immortality. He also meets her brother, Dream, and agrees to meet up with him once every hundred years. We see him throughout 600 years – the first and last meetings both featuring gripes about the recently-introduced poll tax…
8. Wowbagger the Infinitely-Prolonged – Life, the Universe and Everything (Douglas Adams)
Hobb Gadling wants immortality because he doesn’t want to die; and so far, he still hasn’t regretted it. But not all immortal characters are quite so pleased with themselves. One of those is Bowerick Wowbagger, who gains immortality in an unusual accident involving elastic bands. Driven to the point of madness by his inability to think of anything interesting to do on Sundays (an allusion to the famous quote on the subject by Susan Ertz), he finally decides to express his anger at the universe in the most absolute, yet pointless, way possible: he resolves to visit every single living being in the universe and insult them, one by one. Well, it’s something to do, innit?