I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand character deaths that mean nothing. All too often, especially in modern books, characters seem to be killed simply because there are too many for the author to keep track of. It shouldn’t be this way. The character’s death should be proportional to their importance in the story. If their life hasn’t mattered, their death doesn’t have to. But if they matter in life, let their death matter.
The other day I was talking with a writing friend, and, though the topic was not writing good death scenes, I started thinking about that afterwards. She is writing a fantasy where the gods/goddesses compete with one another instead of cooperate within their pantheon. This reminded me of DragonLance, and I told her how the three subpantheons work. She has never read DragonLance, so the information was new to her. Though some things aligned with how things work there, several important things do not.
But the magic system isn’t what I want to talk about here. The second book of the Chronicles, Dragons of Winter Night, has one of the best death scenes I have ever read. If you have never read but plan on reading Dragons of Winter Night, you should not read further. There will be spoilers for the trilogy.
In the first novel, we meet Sturm Brightblade, a tragic hero. We are given clues from his first appearance that he is a tragic hero. Sturm is a Knight of Solomnia, an old and honorable order. Everything he does is guided by the Oath and the Measure. He will not break his word. He will not leave a friend behind. But there is something about him, he is despondent as if he has a major secret. Through the course of that novel and the next, we learn that Sturm is one of the last valiant knights. Oh, there are plenty of knights still on the roles (not as many as they used to be, but still a respectable number), but the valor that defined the group is gone. Where they once stood for truth and justice and were beloved by the people of Solomnia, the knights are now divided, gold seekers, holding on to their last few scraps of land.
Justice no longer drives the knights. Now, they obey the exact letter of the law, all the while breaking the spirit to bits and pieces. The lessons of Huma and the founders, gained through blood, sweat, and tears, have been forgotten. All that remains are the rules they made.
The knights are divided into numerous factions. Knights of the same rank scheme against one another, vying for power in the hierarchy. Knights of different ranks seek like-minded knights to solidify their positions against one another.
Sturm, by his actions, reminds them that this is not the way things are to be. Vinas Solamnus, their revered founder, created the Oath, “my honor is my life.” Those five words were to define every action a Knight took. The Measure was a multi-volume set explaining how the Oath applied in different situations. No matter the cost, a knight was not to break his honor. Even if this cost was his life.
In the first book, Sturm’s death was foreshadowed. A forest spirit told the adventuring companions not to mourn those “who die fulfilling their destiny” and looked pointedly at Sturm. I missed that the first time.
Sturm made a “mistake” in the second novel and got on the wrong side of one faction. He refused to play politics and so was brought to trial on charges of which he was technically guilty. Contrary to what he let others think, Sturm was not knighted when first introduced. He was only a squire. Yet, as a squire, he showed us a better knight than those who had taken the Oath and claimed to live by the Measure.
Accordingly, Sturm could have run at any time. He was not bound by the Oath and Measure. Once he saw the threat posed by the dragon armies, he could have quietly taken off his armor and melted into the populace. Sturm did not. He considered himself bound by the Oath and Measure.
For one to live by the Oath and Measure meant one was to be judged by the Oath and the Measure. The leader of the knights, a friend of Sturm’s father and also one of the knights who remembered honor, found Sturm guilty to the letter of the law. He then prescribed a punishment to the letter of the law. Sturm had to take off his father’s armor and command a squad at the High Clerists tower which the dragon armies would have to pass to invade. It was a suicide mission. The knights were too weak from their infighting to win. However, the punishment also meant that Sturm had to be knighted–a squire could not command a regiment of full knights!
On the journey to the tower, Sturm earned the trust of his regiment. They joined together as a unit. When the armies approached the tower, Sturm went to the top of the tower and challenged the Dragon Highlord to a duel. Armed only with his father’s sword (which he had been allowed to keep), Sturm fought and lost.
It was a beautiful Xanatos Gambit. Had Sturm won, the armies would have retreated. But his death brought unity to the knights. When they saw that Sturm was so committed to the Oath and the Measure that he would face impossible odds to fulfill his orders, they rallied. The pass was held. The armies routed. Sturm’s actions had bought time for other heroes, and they now controlled a relic that drove most of the invaders insane.
Sturm died at peace.
The ramifications of his actions were shown in later books. Not only did those knights rally to unity, the rest of the knighthood put aside their divisions. In times to come, Sturm was counted one of the three greatest knights: Vinas Solamnus, Huma Dragonsbane, and Sturm Brightblade.
Sturm lived a life of honor and died the same way. His death was important and served a greater purpose.
What’s the best death scene you’ve read?