Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Immunity to death, or at least to death by natural causes (Invulnerability is a different quality), is an attribute of most Gods and Demons, conferrable on human beings upon their whim – sometimes as a gift and sometimes as a Curse (see Accursed Wanderers). The notion that humans might discover a magical means to that end independently is a central prop of Alchemy, one of whose quests is for the Elixir of Life, and a motivator of Quests for the Fountain of Youth and its analogues. Hope, allied with faith, sustains the idea that Souls might possess the immortality which bodies do not, either in some form of Afterlife or by means of serial Reincarnation.

Most tales of immortality are cautionary, often – like the myth of Tithonus, in which immortality is not accompanied by immunity from ageing – involving some unforeseen sting allegedly worse than death's. Notable tales in this ironic vein include St Leon (1799) by William Godwin, Auriol (1850) by W Harrison Ainsworth, She (1886) by H Rider Haggard and The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician (1891) by Edwin Lester Arnold. But boredom, alienation and the continual loss of soulmates seem to be relatively modest prices to pay for the reward of eternal life, as is deftly acknowledged in The Girl and the Faun (1916) by Eden Phillpotts. When the immortal condition seems perfectly satisfactory in itself, however, the world tends to be found wanting, as in Pharaoh's Daughter (1889) by Edgar Lee and This Above All (1933) by M P Shiel. Immortality is also, of course, one of the principal rewards claimed in tales of Pacts with the Devil.

The cautionary pattern laid down by the above-mentioned works and others was casually violated by such breezily lackadaisical fantasies as The Vizier of the Two-Horned Alexander (1899) by Frank R Stockton and Flaxius (1902) by Charles Godfrey Leland, and decisively broken in the trilogy begun with My First Two Thousand Years (1928) by George Viereck and Paul Eldridge (1888-1982). Abbs, His Story Through Many Ages (1929) by C J Cutcliffe Hyne (1866-1944) and The Lost Garden (1930) by George C Foster (1893-1975) immediately took the hint, but ambivalence and dark suspicion remained commonplace when the motif was taken over by Science Fiction.

The quest for well earned immortality still plays a significant role in much Heroic Fantasy. Problematic kinds of immortality have, however, retained a special interest; a notable cautionary parable in which immortality must be paid for in the currency of death is The Book of Skulls (1972) by Robert Silverberg, and the kind of recomplication featured in this story is echoed and cleverly intensified in many recent Vampire stories, which focus intently on the way in which qualified immortality becomes Bondage, since sustained by the blood of innocent victims. It is this eccentric moralizing which displaces them from the genre of Supernatural Fiction into that of fantasy. [BS]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.