Heroic Sacrifice

This weekend, here in the U.S., we celebrate Memorial Day. It is a day of remembrance, when we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; when we pay tribute to all the brave men and women who have lost their lives in armed conflicts over the years. Most of us know someone (or many someones) who we thank and honor for their service on this holiday, whether we spend the day itself visiting national monuments, leaving flags and flowers at cemeteries, or just spending time with those closest to us.

It may seem strange to honor fictional characters as well as real-life heroes, but I often think about the fact that literature and pop culture act as both mirror and tribute to the real world. Books, movies, and TV give us access to stories we might not otherwise be exposed to, and teach us lessons about ourselves and the world we live in. Through stories, we learn to be brave, to be selfless, to fight for the things we hold most dear, and to always stand up to injustice. We spend this weekend honoring and remembering real-life heroes, but here are a few of the most poignant and selfless fictional sacrifices in literature and pop culture that have inspired me also.

(No big spoilers for anything released in the last 3 years.)

Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities

Sydney Carton is a brilliant but depressed drunkard, full of cynicism and self-loathing for his wasted life. He falls deeply in love for Lucie Manette, but she marries Charles Darnay, Carton’s client and eventual friend who bears an uncanny likeness to Carton. When Darnay is imprisoned and set to be executed in Paris during the French Revolution, Carton smuggles himself into Darnay’s cell and swaps himself for Darnay, ensuring he will be executed in his place. I was always deeply touched by this dissipated character who trades his own life for the happiness of a woman who could never love him.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There were many sacrifices on this series *coughSPIKEcough* but none which brought on the waterworks like Buffy’s death in Season 5. In order to prevent the hell-god Glory from murdering her younger sister in ritual sacrifice, Buffy realizes her greatest gift is her ability to die for her friends, her family, and ultimately the world.

“She saved the world. A lot.”

Hodor, Game of Thrones

In one of the most affecting episodes of Season 6, we finally learn the background and history of Bran’s sweet but simple-minded ally, Hodor. When wights led by the Night King attack Bran’s hiding place, Hodor bravely holds the door to save Bran, losing his life in the process. But his heroic gesture ripples through time and space, and we discover it was this harrowing event that broke his mind many years ago.

Donna Noble, Doctor Who

Donna had one of the most inspirational character arcs as the Doctor’s companion, going from a spoiled and self-centered woman to a compassionate and empathetic time traveler. But when she develops near-godlike powers, she poses a threat to herself, the Doctor, and the world. Her mind must be wiped of all her memories with the Doctor, and all the growth and learning she did on her journeys. While Donna doesn’t technically die, her mind, personality, and growth are all erased, returning her to the person she was before she met the Doctor.

Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Star Wars has a number of heroic sacrifices to choose from, but Obi’s always struck me the hardest. In order to give his protégé Luke time to escape, Obi-Wan faces off against Darth Vader, ultimately letting Vader kill him. Obi willingly gives his life for the greater good, but Luke has to lose his friend, guide, and surrogate father in order to achieve his destiny, which is always a heartbreaking moment.

“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Lily Evans, Harry Potter

Another series with so many sacrifices to choose from! Yet the selfless sacrifice at the heart of these books is the one made by Lily Potter on the night Voldemort came to murder her infant son. Her willingness to die in Harry’s place works such powerful magic that Voldemort cannot harm him. She saves her son’s life, nearly kills He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and sets off one of the most iconic stories of our time, all with the power of a mother’s love.

The Iron Giant

*deep breath* I’m getting a little weepy just thinking about this one.

A lonely boy meets an enormous robot who is being pursued by the military. As their friendship unfolds, Hogarth explains to the metal behemoth that he doesn’t have to be the villain the army paints him as–he can choose to be a hero instead. So when a nuclear missile inadvertently hurtles toward their small town, the Giant says a heartfelt goodbye to his young friend before flying into the sky to intercept the bomb. He forces the missile out into space, and it begins to detonate, smiles and whispers:

“SUPERMAN.”

Who are the heroes you honor on this Memorial Day? Real or fictional, let me know in the comment section below!

A New Normal

The Cat's Eye Nebula, a planetary nebula forme...
The Cat’s Eye Nebula, a planetary nebula formed by the death of a star with about the same mass as the Sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s almost three in the morning, though you won’t see this until later. It took me this long to realize that I knew what I needed to write about. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about stories. What makes me engage with them. What makes me back away like I’ve touched a pane of bees with stingers at the ready.

Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones sort of prompted it, because it reminded me why I’d stopped reading the books. They’d violated something I felt they were obligated to maintain. I read a lot of fantasy growing up. Heaps of it. My favorite stories were always fantasy. As I grew older, those stories evolved.

I’ll be frank and say that I’ve had a severe case of reader’s block in the last year. I’ve been flailing at A Memory of Light for months. I have A Gentleman’s Game sitting next to my bed when it should be getting back to its owner. Maybe it’s circumstance, maybe it’s weariness, but television has been where I get my stories lately. There are any number of stories I engage with on a weekly basis, and even more every year. Dexter. How I Met Your Mother. The Vampire Diaries. Buffy (always). Supernatural. Star Wars. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. Two Broke Girls. The Bachelor/ette. True Blood. Homeland. New Girl. Workaholics. The Walking Dead.

On any given week, our DVR is filled with different stories. Some of these stories I’ve kept with for years. There’s something that keeps me coming back to them over and over.

I have managed to read a few books through in the past few months, and they share a common thread.

When you ask a storyteller to tell you lies, you’re asking her to make you believe them.

A great story replaces the world around you with a new one. A world with new rules, whether those new rules allow for gravity-defying pixy dust or simply a group of four friends always managing to sit at the same booth at their favorite bar.

They create a new normal.

The great stories make you sob when a character’s mind reaches out to touch a tainted power source because you know it will drive him mad. Even though no such thing is happening or even possible — that is the normal of his world made yours.

The great stories make you crow with glee and feel pangs of loss alike when a suffering, grieving vampire shoves the world’s only cure for vampirism down the throat of her enemy instead of using it to take back a life that was reft from her. Even though there are no vampires, and you can’t go home again — that is the normal of her world made yours.

The great stories allow you to destroy a Death Star or fly a broomstick or fight an ogre or make love to a god because they are making their normal yours.

Some people call it suspension of disbelief, but I think it’s more than that. Perhaps in the mediocre tales we suspend disbelief. The great tales leave us no say in the matter.

What worlds gave you a new normal? What universes would you choose to visit — or go to stay?