It all started with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Sure, I liked the magical wardrobe and the kids and the talking animals, but it was Edmund, the boy who sold out his family for hot chocolate and Turkish Delight who captured my imagination. And Edmund Pevensie was just the first in a long line of characters in need of redemption who have captured my imagination and my heart.
What makes a good redemption story?
First of all, redemption is only possible if the character has done something for which he needs to repent. In other words, the character has to do something that’s trulybad rather than just having his motives misunderstood by others while actually being a good guy. (For example, Francis Crawford in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles is seen as a bad guy by his friends and family for a large part of the series, but we, the readers, know his motives are pure, so he isn’t so much in need of redemption as in need of better PR.)
And the best redemption stories are also love stories. Arguably, all redemption stories involve love in one way or another, but I’m talking eros, full-on romantic love, not agape, the love that Aslan, say, bears all the beings of the world, which leads him to sacrifice his life for Edmund.
Since Edmund, I’ve been fascinated by the redemption arcs of, among others, Spike from the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”, Logan Echolls from “Veronica Mars” and Jaime Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” which will soon be an HBO series, Game of Thrones. (I have to give honorable mentions to Sydney Carton, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Mr. Rochester, Boromir of Gondor, and Angel of “Buffy.” I love you all, boys, but I just don’t have space to do your stories justice!)
1. Spike the Vampire
Spike is a terrible former-poet and current vampire who has no qualms about the trail of bodies he’s left in his wake (his nickname comes from his habit of torturing people with railroad spikes.) At first, Spike is just a sarcastic villain who, surprisingly, allies with the forces of good to save the world at a critical juncture. Eventually though—after a series of misadventures that leave him unable to attack humans—Spike falls in love with, of all people, Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer and the one girl in all the world who’s anathema to his kind.
Because of his love for Buffy (and, let’s be honest, his deep-rooted love of mayhem), Spike turns his hand to killing his own kind, fighting side-by-side with Buffy and her gang to defeat vampires, other monsters and even a god. But according to the complicated (and sometimes contradictory) moral scheme laid out in the Buffyverse, Spike can’t truly repent or be redeemed without a soul. Because of this character flaw, Spike reverts to his old self and tries to rape Buffy, who deservedly kicks his ass. In his horror and shock at what he’s almost done, Spike sets out to get himself a soul, with its attendant burden of guilt and madness. Although having a soul alone isn’t, obviously, a guarantee of redemption, it’s the first step on a long road that leads Spike to sacrifice himself for the same species he once thought of as Happy Meals on legs.
2. Logan Echolls
Though the least criminal of this bunch of bad lots, Logan is undoubtedly a bully (Veronica refers to him as the “obligatory psychotic jackass” of their high school), who organizes and videotapes fights among the local homeless population. Veronica was the best friend of Lily, Logan’s former girlfriend, and after Lily is murdered, Logan turns on Veronica for unspecified reasons. For a long time, Veronica suspects that Logan might have murdered Lily himself, but eventually the pair fall in love. Veronica’s influence and his love for her make Logan into a better person (though it takes a while.) Eventually, his love for Veronica leads him into an act of self-sacrifice that’s truly surprising when I consider the character at the beginning of the series.
3. Jaime Lannister
Jaime Lannister’s story is the most complex of my beloved tales of redemption (it’s also still unfinished, which makes it more suspenseful.) At seventeen, Jaime Lannister killed the king he was sworn to protect, and ever since then he’s been known as the Kingslayer, the man with shit for honor, whom no one in the Kingdom of Westeros trusts. And they’re right to distrust him because when A Game of Thrones opens, Jaime’s been involved in a secret, treasonous affair for years and subsequently tries to murder an innocent to protect that secret. (He’s also violating his vow of celibacy, but that seems rather a minor crime at this point.)
Three enormous books later, everything we thought we knew about the Kingslayer is turned on its head. Jaime is deprived of something that has formed the core of his sense of self, and has find qualities within himself that enable him to live with his changed state. He embarks on his long and painful journey to becoming a better human, trying to live by a code of honor that no one believes he possesses any more.
Jaime’s sea-change is also motivated by love, but in a very different way. One of the major signs that he’s changed is his renunciation of the relationship that has defined his adult life. Another character in the series calls love “the bane of honor, the death of duty” and that’s certainly how Jaime has experienced sexual love to this point. On the other hand, his long-dormant idealism is certainly reawakened by his contact with a woman who represents true honor and goodness in a series full of morally ambiguous characters in shades of gray. Whether he’s in love with this woman is a huge question. I believe that he is, albeit unaware of his feelings for her, but there’s nothing concrete in canon yet to tell me whether I’m right or not. (I have high hopes that in July, A Dance With Dragons will clarify this situation a little bit!)
Long before he finds his soul, Spike tells Buffy: “I know you'll never love me. I know that I'm a monster. But you treat me like a man.” To me, that dichotomy between monsters and men is what makes redemption stories so compelling. They offer the hope that love can change people for the better, that actions, however monstrous, do not permanently define your character, and that it’s possible to strive for the good no matter how badly you’ve screwed up in the past. And at the end of the day, that’s a comforting thought for everyone, even if you’ve never betrayed your family for Turkish Delight!
Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current tv shows, and a hopeless romantic.