The death of a character can have a profound effect on a reader, and all of those who devote time to devouring the written word know the feeling all too well of saying goodbye to a favorite character. But there are some rare moments when death is not that simple. As George R.R. Martin says, all men must die. But these few—for better or for worse—return to the world of the living.
Reader beware: Major spoilers below.
Think One Direction fans are over the top in their reaction to Zayn leaving the band? They don’t have anything on the devoted fans of Sherlock Holmes. In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle released a story titled “The Final Problem.” Wanting to spend his time working on “better things,” Conan Doyle decided to kill off his beloved creation. The fans, however, did not consent. Strand Magazine lost 20,000 subscribers, readers joined “Keep Holmes Alive” clubs, they flat out demanded that the detective be brought back to life. It’s rumored that people took to the streets wearing black armbands, as if the death of a living and breathing person had occurred. Even Conan Doyle’s own mother begged him to have mercy. In 1903, he gave in to the demands and published “The Adventure of the Empty House,” a story where Holmes reappeared with a clever explanation of how he had survived the should-have-been-fatal fall.
It’s a tried-and-true adage: Be careful what you wish for. Few literary characters know this better than Mr. and Mrs. White from W. W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” The two come across a magical monkey’s paw which grants three wishes to anyone who possesses it. They ignore warnings of danger and instead wish for $200, the exact amount they owe on their home. Later that day, their son is killed in a machinery accident and his employer compensates them with $200 exactly. Stricken with grief, Mrs. White demands that they use the paw to wish for him to come back to life. A knocking at the door proves their wish is granted, yet Mr. White knows how mangled his son’s body was in the accident and knows that the person at the door will not be the boy they remember. He uses his third wish and the knocking stops.
As astute readers know, C.S. Lewis intended for Aslan to serve as an incarnation of Jesus Christ. This theme permeates the entire Chronicles of Narnia series, though it is never more clear than in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life for that of humanity’s sins is mimicked in Aslan’s willingness to trade his life for Edmund’s when the White Witch comes seeking revenge. But Aslan knew something the Witch didn’t: Magic runs through Narnia that can reverse death when an innocent offers his or her life in the place of a traitor’s. To the joy of many young readers, Aslan rose again.
Oh, Westley. What a man. First he was an impossibly sweet and good-looking farm hand, then he was a pirate known for never leaving any of his captives alive, and then he defied death despite undergoing extensive torture at the hands of a pretty monstrous machine. And while this machine should have killed him, happily, Westley (who was, to be fair, acting very deceased) was only “mostly dead” after the torture stopped. Miracle Max delivers this happy news, and helps speed up Westley’s recovery with a special pill that is supposed to kick in within a quarter of an hour. At the end, he’s happy enough to say “As you wish” to Buttercup for years to come.
Where would the Fellowship be without Gandalf? Well first of all, they never would’ve escaped the Balrog. Gandalf stayed behind and fought the creature for two days and nights to allow the others to escape, and he lost his life in the process. Thankfully, the powers that be (probably Eru) decided to sent the wizard back to the land of the living and dressed sharped than ever. After upgrading from Grey to White, Gandalf joined his friends just in time to stop the attack on Helm’s Deep.
They don’t call him The Boy Who Lived for nothing. But in the final book in the series, things get particularly real for Harry Potter during the Battle of Hogwarts, when Harry finds himself face to face with Lord Voldemort yet again. Voldemort kills Harry with the Elder Wand, one of the Deathly Hallows, and fans everywhere stopped breathing for a minute when they reached this part in the beloved novel. But Harry wasn’t really gone. He finds himself in a white, foggy train station that looks a lot like King’s Cross, and has a choice to either turn back to finish the battle or to move onwards. Harry knows he has to go back to finish off the Dark Lord, and once he has returned to his body, he plays dead and waits for his moment. The rest, as they say, is history.