Immortality in fiction
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Immortality is a popular subject in fiction, as it explores humanity's deep-seated fears and comprehension of its own mortality. Immortal beings and species abound in fiction, especially fantasy fiction, and the meaning of "immortal" tends to vary.
Some fictional beings are completely immortal (or very nearly so) in that they are immune to death by injury, disease and age. Sometimes such powerful immortals can only be killed by each other, as is the case with the Q from the Star Trek series. Even if something can't be killed, a common plot device involves putting an immortal being into a slumber or limbo, as is done with Morgoth in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion and the Dreaming God of Pathways Into Darkness. Storytellers often make it a point to give weaknesses to even the most indestructible of beings. For instance, Superman is supposed to be invulnerable, yet his enemies were able to exploit his now-infamous weakness: Kryptonite. (See also Achilles' heel.)
Many fictitious species are said to be immortal if they cannot die of old age, even though they can be killed through other means, such as injury. Modern fantasy elves often exhibit this form of immortality. Other creatures, such as vampires and the immortals in the film Highlander, can only die from beheading. The classic and stereotypical vampire is typically slain by one of several very specific means, including a silver bullet (or piercing with other silver weapons), a stake through the heart (perhaps made of consecrated wood), or by exposing them to sunlight.
Mythological beings are often used in modern fiction as characters, as a plot device, or even just as "window dressing". Such beings are often either immortal or associated with immortality.
Tezuka Osamu's lifework Phoenix (known in Japan as Hi no Tori) had a phoenix whose blood would provide immortality. In various ages, many "heroes" and "heroines" would strive for immortality only to realize that there is something beyond eternal life. In one story titled "Rose Ham" (lit. "Next World Story") the last remaining human male who survived a holocaust, blessed (or cursed) with immortality through the phoenix blood, would create another beginning of life. In his immortal form, he would see a race of slugs, after gaining intelligence, destroy themselves in another holocaust. He would seed the earth with life that would become present day humans, and finally leave the earth to join his lover, who died billions of years ago, in heaven.
In the Cthulhu Mythos created by H. P. Lovecraft, there is a race of "Fish-Men" known as Deep Ones. They stop aging after reaching adulthood and can breed with humans to birth offspring with this "eternal youth." This is a faustian bargain, as after reaching the age of 20, the Deep One Hybrids undergo a transformation from normal humans into Deep Ones. They also lose all concept of humanity and morality and go to live in the ocean with the Deep Ones and to worship the undersea deity Father Dagon, the Ruler of the Deep Ones and consort to Mother Hydra.
Since immortality is seen as a desire of humanity, themes involving immortality often explore the disadvantages as well as the advantages of such a trait. Sometimes immortality is used as a punishment, or a curse that might be intended to teach a lesson. It is not uncommon to find immortal characters yearning for death.
In some parts of popular culture, immortality is not all that it is made out to be, possibly causing insanity and/or significant emotional pain. Much of the time, these things only happen to mortals who gain immortality. Beings born with immortality (such as deities, demigods and races with "limited immortality") are usually quite adjusted to their long lives, though some may feel sorrow at the passing of mortal friends, but they still continue on. Some immortals may also watch over mortal relations (either related to or descended from them), occasionally offering help when needed.
In legend, most famously in Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman, a ship's captain is cursed with immortality after attempting to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in a terrible storm. He is doomed to sail around the Cape forever.
In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, some of the inhabitants of the island of Immortals (near Japan) don't die, but they age and become ill, demented, and a nuisance to themselves and those surrounding them. Swift presents immortality as a curse rather than a blessing.
In general, a theme seen with many variations, is the notion of an essential world weariness akin to extreme exhaustion for which death is the only relief. This is inescapable when immortality is defined as (half) infinite life. Immortality defined as finite but arbitrarily long per the desire to exist does not, as a definition, suffer this limitation. When a person is tired of life, even death is shut off to them, creating an endless torture.
The undead are fictional people who have died and still maintain some aspects of life. In many examples, the undead are immune to aging or even heal at an accelerated rate. Dracula is one of the most famous examples of the undead.
Immortality can be achieved in fiction through scientifically plausible means. Extraterrestrial life might be immortal or it might be able to give immortality to humans. Immortality is also achieved in many examples by replacing the mortal human body by machines.
There are many examples of immortality in fiction where a character is vulnerable to death and injury in the normal way but possesses an extraordinary capacity for recovery.
The long-running British science-fiction series Doctor Who focuses on a character called the Doctor, a member of the alien Time Lord race, who can "regenerate" instead of dying or aging; however, rather than simply healing wounds, this results in a Time Lord's entire physical appearance changing when fatally wounded or terminally sick. Most Time Lords are only capable of doing so twelve times before finally dying for good, but the Doctor and his friend-turned-foe the Master have each gone beyond this limit, the Master possessing others before the events of the Time War led to him and the Doctor being granted a new cycle of regenerations for helping their people in the conflict.
There are numerous works of fantasy fiction dealing with spiritual immortality in the form of reincarnation or a world of the dead.
The list is in chronological order for the first appearance of the fictitious character.
- The Wandering Jew appears in a series of legends, starting in the 13th century, about a Jewish man who is made immortal in the time of Jesus, and cursed to wander the Earth until the second coming.
- 1706-1710. In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the title character encounters the human struldbruggs on the island of Luggnagg. They are immortal, but continue to age, and are considered legally dead when they turn 80.
- Ashabero, the 2000 year old titular character of José Gómez de Arteche's 1875 novel A Spanish soldier twenty centuries old. Ahsabero is an iberian who has been a soldier since he was born around 50 B.C.
- Ayesha, the 2000-year old titular character of H. Rider Haggard's 1886 novel She: A History of Adventure.
- Dorian Gray, who stays young while his painted portrait ages terribly in Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
- Valdar, the hero of Valdar the Oft-Born: A Saga of Seven Ages (1895) by George Griffith is immortal by repeated reincarnation.
- Emilia Marty in the 1922 play The Makropulos Affair, later adapted into an opera by Leoš Janáček, is a 300 year old opera singer on whom a potion of immortal life had been tested when she was a child.
- Anton York (Conquest of Life, Thrilling Wonder Stories August 1937 by Eando Binder) Anton York was injected with a chemical formula that would halt his aging until the universe was double its current age. At that point he could presumably produce and drink a second dose, if he so desired. A series of Anton York stories were written which were later collected in the anthology Anton York, Immortal in 1965.
- Shining Hawk, (The Gnarly Man June 1939 by L. Sprague de Camp) A Neanderthal Man over 50,000 years old who is living as a circus artist.
- Robert Hedrock, The Weapon Shops of Isher 1941 and The Weapon Makers 1943 by A. E. van Vogt. A man accidentally becomes immortal, and secretly runs an organization that provides exclusively self-defensive weapons to people and runs a parallel justice system.
- Woodrow Wilson Smith, also known as Lazarus Long, Methuselah's Children 1941 by Robert A. Heinlein. A fairly early 'Howard', Smith becomes the Senior of the Howard families, who are named for Ira Howard (founder of a project to extend the human lifespan). He is mentioned in four other Heinlein novels, most notably Time Enough for Love.
- Vandal Savage (Green Lantern vol. 1 #10, Winter 1943) Caveman Vandar Adg was bathed in the radiation of a mysterious meteorite, granting him intellect and immortality. In subsequent years, he claims to have been or advised dozens of world leaders.
- Raimon Fosca, the cursed subject of Simone de Beauvoir's 1946 novel All Men Are Mortal.
- Nero (1947). The main protagonist of The Adventures of Nero is a regular man. In "De Bronnen van Sing Song Li" ("The Sources of Sing Song Li") (1951) he drinks an elixir which gives him eternal life. In "De Wallabieten" (1968) he drinks a pill which makes people 1.000 year old and in "De Nerobloemen" ("The Nero Flowers") (1978) he drinks another elixir that gives him eternal life. A wizard in "Zongo in de Kongo" ("Zongo in the Kongo") (1970) gives him immortality as well.
- Gilbert Nash, the hero of Wilson Tucker's The Time Masters (1953, revised 1971) is the present-day name of an immortal alien who has been stranded on Earth for several thousand years - prior aliases include Gilgamesh.
- Jadis, the White Witch (The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is an inhabitant of Charn, but is brought in to Narnia. She has survived the destruction of Charn by putting herself in eternal sleep, but then eats a silver apple from the Western Wild, and becomes immortal, but is later killed by Aslan.
- Immortal Man (Strange Adventures #177, June 1965) Gaining immortality from the same meteorite that granted longevity to Vandal Savage, the Immortal Man instantaneously reincarnates when he dies.
- Conrad Nomikos (…And Call Me Conrad, 1966 by Roger Zelazny. Later expanded to the novel This Immortal).
- Ra's al Ghul (Batman #232, 1971) Ra's maintained an unnaturally long life through the use of natural phenomena known as Lazarus Pits. Other characters given some measure of immortality by the Lazarus Pit include al Ghul's father Sensei, his daughters Talia al Ghul and Nyssa Raatko, and his agent Whisper A'Daire.
- Captain Scarlet (1967), in the British Supermarionation science fiction television series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, was turned nearly immortal (the actual term is "virtually indestructible;" the process which makes him so is called "retro-metabolism") after undergoing Mysteronization, from which he either escaped or was released. Captain Black, also in this series, is presumably another Mysteronized immortal; however, he remains under Mysteron control.
- Gilgamesh the immortal (1969), from the Argentine comic of the same name, was an ancient king turned immortal by advanced technology.
- Casca Longinus (Casca: The Eternal Mercenary, 1979) Casca is the Roman soldier who plunges his spear into the side of Jesus on the cross at Golgotha and is cursed to wander the world forever until the two should meet again.
- Nathan Young (Misfits) Nathan is given community service where he is caught up in a storm which gave him the power of immortality.
Lists of immortals
- Elves in Middle-earth, such as Elrond Half-elven. (The Hobbit, 1937, and The Lord of the Rings.) Elves are immortal, and half-elves can choose mortality or immortality.
- Vampire literature
- List of fictional robots and androids
- List of fictional angels
- List of fictional demons
- List of deities in fiction
- List of fairy and sprite characters
- "How To Kill a Vampire - The Only 5 Methods Known To Man". Retrieved 30 December 2016.
- "Un soldado español de veinte siglos". Administración de la Revista científico-militar. Retrieved 27 January 2018.