The Last Threshold (serious spoiler alert)

Monday, April 15, 2013
      So, I've been reading R.A. Salvatore's books for about two decades now. I've raced across the tundras of Icewind Dale side by side with Drizzt Do'Urden, delved into the decadent Underdark city of Menzoberranzan and come back to tell the tale. I've faced goblins and orcs, ogres and giants, trolls, dragons, undead, devils, demons, you name it. And as I've walked side by side with Drizzt and the Companions of the Hall, I've watched them grow, mature, and recently, I've begun to watch them die.
I said it in the title, but I'm going to give anyone who isn't caught up on the story one last chance to back away before I ruin something for you forever.


     Is it just us initiated adventurers left, those who know the tale? Good.
    When Deudermont died trying to save Luskan from itself, a small piece of my heart was chipped. That iconic sea-faring captain, a paladin of the seas, dying at a pirates blade while trying to do the right thing shattered my protective bubble of high fantasy, dragging an all-to-real and painful real-world perspective into the lives of the heroes I'd called my friends for so long, tearing down a wall already weakened by the tragic kidnapping and torture of Wulfgar. When Catti-brie and Regis died in "The Ghost King" I cried. Catti-brie was like the girl next door who my best friend was meant to be with, even when he didn't see it, and Regis was that mischievous friend who always knows how to get into exactly enough trouble to have a great time, but still slip away afterwards (usually a little less battered and bruised than the friends you dragged in with you). For a kid who grew up getting moved away to a new place every time he started to feel settled, their loss was as painful and heart-rending as the loss of a real world friend would have been.

     That downward emotional spiral hit an angelic high note at Bruenor's death in Gauntlgrym though. That was how a hero should go out! A three hundred year (plus!) long life, followed by a courageous battle going man to devil with a pit fiend before heaving the beast over his head into the destructive maw of a volcanic primordial. That was a fitting death for an old dwarf king, and the sorrow at the lives of Catti-brie and Regis, cut painfully and tragically short, was alleviated substantially when they were joined in that magical grove between worlds by the gruff old dwarf who was their father and best friend.

      I've heard people say really great things about Salvatore's writing (it is a fact that few authors can portray a fantasy fight scene quite like he can!) and I've heard people note that he isn't much of an author, he just has a formula that works (I don't associate much with these people). Regardless of your thoughts though, Salvatore owns his characters. It is obvious to see that to him, they are as much good friends and old acquaintances as they are to any of the devotees who read his works.

      And so "The Last Threshold" came as something of a surprise, when, at the end, Drizzt appears to quietly die on Bruenor's Climb after being knocked down a cliff by a woman he refused to fight, and nearly being saved by the man who'd tried to kill him a dozen times over twice as many years. My good friend, another avid reader of the series, was furious at the death, something that to him seemed senseless and silly for a hero who'd overcome so many other obstacles. But to me, Drizzt's death (if such it really was) on the slopes of Kelvin's Cairn marked the culmination of Salvatore's gifts as an author. There was a certain subtle metaphor wrapped up in the deaths of the previous characters. Deudermont's death marked that disillusionment that symbolizes the final transition from childhood into adulthood, that cutting moment when we first realize that life isn't always fair.

      The loss of Catti-brie and Regis struck the next chord in the series. Drizzt's near-crazed battle against the dracolich, when he pulls out all stops and throws every ounce of his being into winning a fight that was never destined to save those he fought for. At the time I was reading this book, my cousin was dying of cancer, and I couldn't help but note the marked similarities between his loss and the loss of my other two childhood friends. There comes that moment in life when we realize that sometimes, we just can't change the world. It finds us in a way that's much different than the earlier realization of the unfairness of life, much more personal. Because despite that acknowledgement that life isn't fair, we retain that spark deep down inside that believes that while life may not be fair, we can be the exception, we can somehow hew what is deserved out of the dross by strength of arm, or wit, or whatever gifts we're given. Ultimately, however, that spark meets a darkness it cannot penetrate, a wind that blows to fierce, and we learn the truth. No matter who you are, eventually, you find the fight you can't win.

      Depressing, isn't it? That pervading hopelessness, that knowledge that death inevitably reaps his grim harvest. That's why we needed Bruenor's death. To remind us that the inevitable can still be faced with strength and dignity, that life isn't about living and dying, but about how you live, and how you die. In Bruenor's death I was reminded of the tragic losses of men I'd known and served with during my time in the military, men who knew the meaning of sacrifice, and who knew that sometimes, the legacy you leave is the true victory.

      All of that brought us to Drizzt, alone again, free, but with no desire to be either. Drizzt was always Salvatore's voice in the story, asking the questions that must have troubled Salvatore's own heart from time to time, walking in literary synchronicity with his own trials. How but fitting then that Drizzt should die in a matter so suited to his nature. Because, like all of us, Drizzt was confused. Confused about the meaning of life, our role in it when the people who gave our life meaning are gone, or no longer need us. Drizzt was ever reaching, always searching for that higher road, that nobler purpose. So when he stood on the peak refusing to hurt a friend who, ultimately, was even more afraid and confused than he was, Drizzt found that final victory, walked that higher road and fell with the only assurance any of us hope for: that someone who cares will be waiting when we fall.