“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…” – Sydney Carton, The Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
There are many heroic ways to die: for a cause you believe in, in defence of your country, or going to the aid or rescue of others. Circumstances may force us to risk our lives to save others, but the most powerful expression of heroic virtue is where someone offers their life so another may live.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:13.
“Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved.” – Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
Self-sacrifice is recognized in religious and secular circles alike as the pinnacle of human virtue. You only have to look at how we honour the sacrifice of those who have fallen in the line of duty on Remembrance Day in The Commonwealth countries, on Memorial Day in the United States, and on similar commemoration days throughout the world. Little wonder it has become a powerful theme in story after story: Aslan offers his life in Edmund’s place in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so that he can save the children of Narnia; Sydney Carton is guillotined in the place of his condemned look-alike in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities; Gandalf urges members of the Fellowship to “fly, you fools!” before letting go and falling into the abyss, taking the demonic Balrog with him.
Self-sacrifice is a poignant theme of many movies, too. Who can forget Spock’s death from radiation poisoning in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when he enters the Enterprise’s radioactive warp core to fix the ship’s drive so it can escape the destruction of the Genesis Device? Or how the Vietnam veteran Russell, in Independence Day, flies his plane into the alien ship when his missile malfunctions. In movie after movie, from Spartacus to Avengers: Endgame, characters become heroes by sacrificing their lives for a greater good.
What links all these heroes is that they put the interests of others above themselves, in contrast to villains who are often consumed by power, greed, and their own desires. It sets Harry Potter apart from Voldemort—the idea that selflessness is a marker of goodness and virtue.
Self-sacrifice is considered a noble act, and surviving it does not diminish its heroism as long as the hero is willing to die for a person or cause. Such survival arcs recur often in storytelling—a character makes a heroic sacrifice, only to be spared or resurrected. This is what Aslan, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Tony Stark (Iron Man) have in common, to name but a few.
But self-sacrifice is more than a heroic gesture. The story of Jesus of Nazareth suggests it may be healing, cleansing, and lead to redemption. According to the New Testament, not only was Jesus resurrected; his followers believe his death redeems them from original sin. Such redemption arcs are not exclusive to religion. They occur time and again throughout literature and the cinema. Consider how Edmund is fully redeemed of his betrayal through Aslan’s self-sacrifice. And how the weather-beaten and careworn Gandalf the Grey re-emerges more powerful from the abyss as the immaculate Gandalf the White. A redemption arc is a great way to redeem a villain or anti-hero, even the ultimate bad guy from Star Wars, Darth Vader, who slays the Emperor to save his son’s life, and loses his own in the process. Vader’s decision to sacrifice himself atones for his past, restoring him as Anakin Skywalker to the Light Side of the Force.
The Grail Quest
The Holy Grail is closely associated with sacrifice on the Cross and has become one of the most iconic symbols of purity and salvation. In Arthurian Grail mythology, not only is it the panacea for curing sickness and decay, it will not allow a ‘tainted’ person to possess or touch it. Only Percival and, in later versions, Galahad were deemed pure enough. All the other knights had a flaw in their character that meant they were not worthy of receiving the Grail.
In the medieval period, honour, valour, and loyalty lay at the heart of a knight’s chivalric vows, and self-sacrifice was one of its guiding principles—to be a champion of good against evil, to protect the weak and defenceless, and to give up their life in pursuit their cause. No wonder this ideal is a cornerstone in Arthurian Grail Quest stories. Self-sacrifice can expiate failings and faults, and is an indicator of worthiness, a concept that is entrenched in Graëlfire and Graëlstorm, Books One and Two of my Cather Grail Quest Saga.
The will to live is one of our primal instincts, and so choosing to sacrifice one’s life is not something most of us would do. The ultimate in selflessness, such acts capture our attention and arouse powerful emotions. They inspire stories that make our blood tingle.