In fiction, characters don’t just die. Death always serves a greater purpose to the narrative. Even in total bloodbath stories like Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games, the myriad deaths are there to underscore the cruelty or randomness of life or the meaninglessness of war. Death informs our storytelling because it’s inescapable, and therefore holds a cultural fascination for us in a way that other life landmarks do not.
In stories where magic plays a role, death can still provide this commentary while also having tangible side effects for the living. One of these that I’ve noticed is that being party to death in some way can open a character’s eyes. Literally—death-adjacency can give people magical “true” sight that they had previously lacked. This ability, like anything involving death in fiction, is used to underscore the message of the narrative by providing some kind of insight to the characters and readers.
The first story I encountered this trope in (as I’m sure it was for many of you, dear readers) was Harry Potter. In Harry’s fifth year, after witnessing the death of Cedric Diggory the year before, Harry discovers that the carriages that transport students to Hogwarts from the train station are not horseless, as he had assumed for the last four years. Rather, they have always been pulled by creatures called thestrals. Thestrals are gaunt, wraithlike equine creatures who can only be seen by people who have witnessed death. Luna, who witnessed her mother’s death by potioneering accident at a young age, has always seen them and explains as much to Harry.
In Harry Potter there isn’t much of an outward impact from receiving this sight. The thestrals become important later on, as they use them as mounts to travel to London, but the ability to see them doesn’t significantly change the course of Harry’s life in an active way. The thestrals could have been replaced by some other plot twist or magical ability—this is the book that introduced Legilimency and Occlumency, magic mirrors for communication, and a variety of new and strange stuff from the Department of Mysteries. Rather, they seem there more as a physical reminder of the tonal shift of the series: Voldemort—the thief of death, as his chosen name translates from French—has returned, innocent blood has been spilled for the first time on-page, and the threat of death is now, like the thestrals, tangible and unable to be ignored.
This trope also appeared in a fantasy novel I picked up last week called Wake of Vultures. In this series (only the first novel is out so far) the role of death in giving true sight is relatively active, which is to say, you don’t just have to be present for the death; you have to be the one doing the killing. The alternate Old West of this book is densely populated with a variety of otherworldly creatures—vampires, chupacabrae, skinwalkers, harpies—you name it. However, the average person can’t perceive these creatures in their true forms. It’s only once you’ve killed a supernatural creature that you can see them as they really are.
This gives the acquisition of the true sight an element of agency that Harry Potter lacks—you have to choose to kill the thing, not just be a passive observer of the death. It’s also far more central to the story, which could not have progressed in the same way or even really begun without the ability to see these creatures. In this case, protagonist Nettie’s coming into the sight by killing the vampire that was threatening her is more about her rejecting her cruel upbringing and claiming her own power and worth. It’s her initiation into a more complex and challenging world.
That said, I’m not trying to make a value judgment here; there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to use the death and true sight trope in a story. Each of these stories use it in a way that is complementary to the themes of the overall series. In Harry Potter, it would have been strange for the story to be derailed into a monster-fighting or -hunting story midway through the series. Using the thestrals and the ability to see them as a marker of the increased seriousness and maturity of the series—a reminder that death is closer than you had realized in your first four years at Hogwarts—therefore works to set the tone. It’s not something that Harry wants, but it’s something he must come to terms with as he grows up. Plus, as Dumbledore notes, death can be considered simply “the next great adventure”; it’s not, as Voldemort believes, something to be feared and avoided. Rather, it’s much like the thestrals, simply natural and neutral. In the final book, Harry takes this lesson and weaponizes it—by learning to accept death, he is able to defeat Voldemort.
For Nettie, the true sight is, ironically, a way to escape the hardships of her own life as a slave in all but name. Being thrown into a world where giant sentient owls steal and eat children is actually a release from the harsh treatment she faced on the farm where she lived, because she’s able to live in it openly and freely and explore her own identity. Killing a vampire to achieve this certainly wasn’t easy; Nettie didn’t have any particular training or combat skills that would prepare her for this encounter. However, in overcoming a creature who wanted to eat her, she learns the important lesson that she can reject other people’s plans and definitions for herself. She runs away from her homestead and begins to finally get to know herself. Her adventure to defeat an ancient evil is punctuated by her coming to terms with her heritage as a Black Comanche, with her gender, which she is certain is not entirely female but is still perceived as such by others, and with her sexuality as she realizes she is attracted to more than one gender. In gaining the true sight, Nettie is able to see both others and herself clearly for the first time. But she also learns that finding your place in the universe is difficult, and how to fight to achieve it.
The fact that death is tied to both of these is no coincidence. The mysteriousness of death combined with its cultural designation as something creepy and otherworldly makes it a wellspring for creepy and otherworldly powers in a way that reaching sexual maturity, or giving birth, or anything less culturally charged cannot. I find it fascinating that two very different stories can draw on this cultural obsession to use the same basic power in two very different ways. The way these two particular authors chose to use death in their books helped to underscore the themes that were already present, and I was pleased by how skillfully it was done. Death can be a grimdark part of a story or it can just be part of a story, and as much as character death makes me sad, I do appreciate when it is used well.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!