Something interesting about Animorphs is that the majority of the main characters are afraid to die, while it is made very clear that most of the Controllers would welcome death. Rachel, the most violent and reckless of them, said that even though she completely approved of Jake sending her after Tom, she was afraid. This is interesting because a common theme in fiction is that the villain is more afraid of death than the hero. In Animorphs, both are afraid, and it's very possible that the villain is less scared than the hero.
We've seen multiple times that the involuntary Controllers are not afraid to die. Some of them are even at the point of being suicidal. In the very first book, Tom charged at Visser Three, even though he knew he'd never win that fight. Was it to give the Animorphs a fighting chance? Probably in a large part. But also, if Visser Three killed him for it, he wouldn't be a slave anymore. Jara and Ket risked their lives when they ran away and then chose to fight. When Alloran was dying from snake venom and Esplin was out of his head, he begged Ax to kill him and end his suffering.
Death is repeatedly described as the better alternative to being a Controller. The Hork-Bajir's oft-repeated phrase explains it all very well: Free or dead. But another thing that death is described as better than is being a Yeerk.
Multiple Yeerks have said that their natural form is nothing compared to any species on the planet or any other. They don't want to die, but their lives without hosts are miserable, and after being free and having eyes, there are many of them that would rather die than go back to life without a host.
Visser Three told Jake that he'd rather be killed than face the Council. He viewed death as better than being seen as a failure and punished for it.
It's interesting to look at the reactions of Jake and Marco at the end of the final book, because it's so different from everything that came before it. Tobias was there as well, but Tobias wasn't particularly important to the scene, and he's always been less afraid to die than the other Animorphs. Jake and Marco, on the other hand, they had a lot of fears beginning the series. The fear that The Villain Knows Where You Live. The fear of Visser Three. The fear of shedding blood. The fear of dying. The fear of making a mistake. Marco didn't want to have to fight. Originally, he wanted nothing more than to stop. But by the end, he signed up for a suicide mission and told Jake to make whatever reckless decisions he had to.
Jake made that decision with Rachel's smile on his face, which is something very important. Rachel was never in a fight where her life was in danger in her own body. She didn't have a mouth to smile. Not until the last book, minutes before she was killed. And right then? She was scared. She was scared and she wasn't smiling. Jake was. He was smiling her smile, seconds before giving the order that would get them all killed because he stopped being afraid. Before that moment, he had been scared. Not of dying, but of getting another person killed. And in that moment, he faced his fears and gave the order.
Going Native is a very important theme in this series, with lots of characters growing disillusioned with their species, or attached to another, or both. The two biggest examples of this are Elfangor and Aldrea.
Elfangor fled to Earth to escape the war between the Andalites and the Yeerks. He voluntarily became a human nothlit because he wanted to be done with the fight. He was done. He believed that he had done all he could, and he had failed. Alloran's infestation was his fault. He thought that his people would be better off without him. Despite that, Elfangor missed being an Andalite so much. He missed his home, his stalk eyes, his tail, his family. But he didn't regret becoming human, because he didn't want to fight anymore. And there were good things about being human - lots of them. There was no vicious bloody war. He had Loren. He could taste things. He got married, got a house and a car, got a job. Earth became his home.
When the Ellimist came to him, Elfangor refused to return to the war. He told the Ellimist to go away, get out of his house, leave him alone to live his life in peace. What swayed him was being told that the Yeerks were coming to Earth. He returned to give humanity a fighting chance. Earth, and the Andalites, and his Loren. Earth was just as important to him as the Andalites were. He fought for them both. After returning to the "right" timeline, Elfangor missed the life he had made on Earth as much as he had missed his home planet while on Earth.
One of the most gutwrenching things in the series full of gutwrenching moments was Elfangor's reaction upon finding out about his son. Immediately, he cried out for the Ellimist to not take him away, that his son changed everything. Nothing else mattered to him - the war, the Yeerks, the Andalites - he had a son that would never know him, a son that would be raised as the child of another with his wife that would never remember him. Elfangor saw the timelines right then, and he saw Tobias's future pain and hardship and loneliness. He saw his brother's merge with his son's, saw the lines of all the Animorphs merge together. Saw the merging of six lines that were the entire point of the Ellimist's "non-interference". Right then, Elfangor learned how much he had been toyed with because of what the Ellimist thought was necessary.
Elfangor returned to his Andalite body, yes. But he never forgot about his time on Earth, never forgot about Loren. His decision to give the Animorphs the morphing ability was because of Loren. She taught him what human children could do. She was the mother of the boy he recognized as his son, a boy that could change the course of history. Near the end of "The Andalite Chronicles", Elfangor described the humans of Earth as his adopted people, and said that he knew once he saw Tobias, that there was still hope for them. Hope that had been created by what had once just been a friendship between two people of different species. Elfangor's act of Going Native resulted in a chain of events that brought down an empire.
Aldrea not only grew attached to the Hork-Bajir, she grew disillusioned with Andalites. She was Seerow's daughter, the daughter of the Andalite that had begun it all by giving Yeerks faster than light travel. She was there for all of it - the rise of the Yeerks, the invasion of the Hork-Bajr home planet, the quantum virus and the genocide of the Hork-Bajir. And by the end, she decided she was done. She would fight the Yeerks, but not as an Andalite - she was a Hork-Bajir. Not an Andalite ''nothlit'' , a Hork-Bajir. She embraced them as her people.
Aldrea and Dak were the parents of the Hork-Bajir resistance, the founders, the leaders. Their family lost so much. Their son was enslaved, their grandson born into captivity. But Jara Hamee followed in his grandparents' footsteps and fought back. He and Ket escaped the Yeerks and their daughter was born in the freedom that Aldrea and Dak fought for. And Toby led the Hork-Bajir to victory.
Elfangor and Ax were always torn between two peoples. They were Andalites that had found their homes on Earth. Aldrea, on the other hand, never wavered after making her choice. She was disgusted by everything Alloran had done, and so she denounced her species. After the Yeerks killed her family, she had no ties left to the Andalites, other than being one. They had suffered so much because of the consequences of Seerow's actions, looked down upon, mocked. So Aldrea already felt isolated from her species. Once she found out about Alloran and the quantum virus, she was done. Horrified. Disgusted. She chose Dak over the Andalites and embraced his people as her own. It was that choice that gave the Hork-Bajir a chance.
Elfangor and Aldrea were very different. Their reasons for choosing another species over their own were different. Elfangor missed his home and his species and his Andalite body. Aldrea didn't. They both missed their families, but Aldrea's was dead, and Elfangor's was still alive. Elfangor chose to return, Aldrea never would have done that. But there were similarities there as well. Both of them had children that continued their work to defeat the Yeerks. Elfangor's son freed Aldrea's grandson. And both Elfangor and Aldrea devoted their lives to seeing the Yeerks destroyed, which couldn't have happened without them abandoning their Andalite heritage.
Somewhere between Elfangor and Aldrea is Ax. He spent most of the series torn between his loyalty to Jake and his loyalty to the Andalites. For most of the series, the Andalites would have won. He wanted more than anything to go home for his first few books. Later, every time they had any contact with the Andalites, Ax wanted to join them. But in the end, he was willing to choose humans over Andalites if he'd had to make the choice.
An interesting contrast can be made with Edriss, who also "went native" to an extent, having children through her human host and genuinely caring for them, albeit in a twisted "control is love" way. Her insistence on a secret invasion to avoid her children getting killed in an open war was the only reason the Animorphs had a fighting chance to begin with. Unlike the others, she never had any doubts about her species loyalty — she was always a Yeerk first.
The only reason that anyone was able to stop the Yeerks was people Going Native and letting go of prejudices about other cultures, or any biases toward their own.
The ending of the series was interesting, to say the least. They went out the same way they came in - fighting. To me, those last four lines of The Beginning stick in my head in a way that nothing else ever has, because of just how bittersweet they are. It was a fantastic ending, and those four lines sum the whole series up on a way that nothing else could. They were flying to their probably death, but at the same time, it was oddly hopeful, oddly uplifting.
"Full emergency power to the engines," Jake said. "Ram the Blade Ship."
This was a Bolivian Army Ending if there ever was one. They were probably all going to die. Did they? We don't know. We never will know. But if they went down, they went down fighting.
For so long, there had been so many parallels between Jake and Alloran. The sweet kid that became a ruthless commander. The General Ripper willing to kill thousands for the sake of victory. But right here? This wasn't a Call-Back to Alloran. No, this was something else - this was a Call-Back to Elfangor. Jake looked up to Elfangor, and sure, eventually the pedestal broke and he had to realize that War Prince Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul wasn't perfect, that he was the reason that five kids became warriors, but by the end of the series, Elfangor was still the closest thing Jake had to an infallible Hero. And honestly, Elfangor was probably the closest thing to a pure hero that the series as a whole had.
Jake, Alloran - they killed thousands, because that's what they felt that they had to do. Elfangor refused to do that. It had disastrous consequences, but Elfangor didn't let go of his morals for the sake of winning. His greatest mistake was by complete accident. He felt so much guilt over it - he created the Abomination. It was his fault that Alloran had been infested. It's why he fled to Earth, after all. But he still came back to correct his mistakes. He didn't succeed, but he died trying.
Elfangor gave that same order nearly twenty years before Jake did, and he won. He won the battle. It earned him the rank of a full warrior. That's why the ending was a Hope Spot to the readers as much as it was a Bolivian Army Ending, because Elfangor had done just that and had emerged victorious. He went out fighting, but not right then.
There was another reason that it ended on a slightly hopeful note, though, and that reason is Jake Berenson. For three years after Rachel's death, he obsessed over it, regretted it, blamed himself. It was a miracle that he had managed to lead them for so long without losing anyone, and Rachel's death could have been avoided so easily, because he gave that order that killed her. As Marco said, "The problem was, he didn't want anything. Except for Tobias to come back! For Rachel and Tom to be alive. For the chance to unlive one fateful moment when he gave the order that doomed seventeen thousand defenseless Yeerks." Jake regretted more than anything his actions during the final battle. This, this mission to save Ax, this was his second chance. His chance at redemption.
The end of the book, when Jake smiled that dangerous smile, that was him accepting his limits and what he did best - crazy, reckless, ruthless decisions. His instincts that allowed the Animorphs to beat an empire. Marco said before they left, before he signed on, that he would trust his life to Jake's instincts. And at the end of the book, Jake himself had finally started trusting them again, for the first time in years.
All of the Animorphs can be considered tragic heroes. They are all deeply flawed individuals, and those flaws led to their eventual downfalls. This can be seen through Jake and the fear he had of leading; Marco and his fear of failure; Rachel and her bloodlust; Cassie and her fear of immorality; Tobias and his fear of loss; and Ax and his pride in his species.
Jake is the most obvious of all the Animorphs as the tragic hero because it was he that fell the furthest. In the beginning, the only reason that he signed on to fight was to save his brother, Tom. That was it. It was this determination to save Tom that kept him going through the years of the war. It was a childish, naive hope, but Jake was a child, and having that hope gave him something to focus on. Nearly all the books from his perspective focused on that concept of brother against brother, the conflict Jake had over having to fight a stranger wearing his brother's face in order to save Tom, one of the people Jake loved most in the world.
Throughout the series, Jake made increasingly hard decisions. He went from a child to a war general, and one of the only things linking him to the boy he once was was his need to save Tom. In the end, his development into a harder, more ruthless character resulted in him deciding Tom was better off dead than a slave for a day longer. He crossed his Despair Event Horizon once he lost both Tom and Rachel, his brother and his cousin, because of his order. This, combined with all the other ruthless decisions he made in the end - sacrificing the Auxiliary Animorphs, the draining of the Yeerk Pool - as well as the decisions he made over the years that he regretted led to Jake experiencing PTSD and depression for years after the war, growing apart from his friends and the people that he loved most. In the end, it was Jake's sense of duty and his guilt that made him a Tragic Hero.
Marco is a far less obvious example, but he still does count. He felt responsible for his parents and for his friends, and he was terrified of failing them. Marco always put his family first, and initially didn't want to be an Animorph because his father wouldn't be able to cope with losing Marco after having lost Eva. This mentality put a huge amount of stress on Marco. His role as The Lancer was just as important as Jake's role as The Leader. Marco needed to be smart and tactical. There was no room for emotional decisions, and that changed him from a regular kid who wanted regular things to an entirely different, more serious and ruthless adult. As he put it, he saw the bright, clear line. Marco saw the most efficient way to do something, the ruthless way, and he believed that it was the only way. That there was no room for anything else. This attitude made it impossible for Marco to enjoy having everything he had always wanted after the war. He was bored out of his mind with the wealth and fame, even admitting that much to Jake as well as saying that he'd have killed Jake had he left without him. His fear of failure led to his boredom with wealth, which in turn led to his agreeing to go along with Jake on a Suicide Mission.
Rachel's love of violence meant that fighting the war changed her in a way that it didn't change any of the others. Everyone else was horrified, and she was too, but she also loved it and derived a sick pleasure from it. She went from a regular girl - smart, beautiful, talented - to a brutal warrior, a killer that did whatever dirty work had to be done. She terrified herself as much as she terrified her friends. But what distinguishes Rachel as a tragic hero isn't that she was bloodthirsty - it's the effect of that viciousness on the person she once was.
Rachel was pretty, Rachel was popular, and Rachel initially only wanted to do good. Rachel didn't become an Animorph because she enjoyed violence - she did it because it was the right thing to do. She didn't know how much she loved violence until she started fighting for the cause. Rachel pre-war was the quintessential Ace. The horrors of war brought out a whole different side of her - a side that was ruthless, reckless, violent, harsh. Rachel didn't even really consider herself a hero at a lot of points. But she was always sympathetic, because she tried to do good, and she loved so deeply.
To me, Rachel's last words were some of the most poignant in the series. I love you. This was Rachel, the unstable, aggressive, rage filled one. And her last words were expressing to Tobias that she loved him. Rachel and Tobias are very different characters. In general, Tobias is a much gentler person, much more in control of his emotions. Rachel's loud and brash and emotional. But when it comes to Tobias, Rachel has always been softer and more sensitive. It was sometimes similar with Cassie, like when Cassie was trapped as a caterpillar and Rachel didn't kill Aftran and Karen because that would have made Cassie's sacrifice meaningless. Cassie and Tobias, Rachel's best friend and the only love she ever really had, brought out the best in Rachel. They kept her from crossing the line into Anti-Villain territory, and that is why her death had so much impact.
Cassie's fear of doing the wrong thing and losing her morality stemmed from her understanding of people. Cassie was highly empathetic and perceptive. Those traits were where she got her morality from and why she was so good at manipulating people. Her hatred of violence, something that in most cases is a heroic trait, is what led Cassie to make increasingly morally grey decisions. I'd make the argument that Cassie is both the scariest and most dangerous Animorph, because of what she considers a better fate than death. She was willing to trap someone as a rat forever because she refused to kill him, regular prison wasn't an option for multiple reasons, and he was too dangerous to be left alone.
This empathy, this perceptiveness, was why Cassie became so much harder and more cynical over the years. Yes, in the end, she still made idealistic decisions and hoped and believed in people. But naive, sweet, trusting Cassie died a long time before the end of the series. It's why she told Jake that she couldn't marry him in The Answer - because she knew that no matter how much he loved her, and how much she loved him, they had both changed, and it was the war that was keeping them together. She knew that they needed to find out who they were outside of that war.
Tobias, at one point or another, lost nearly everything or everyone he cared about. He never had a real family, or real friends. Not until they met Elfangor. He lost his human body. The one person that kept him from completely forgetting who he was was Rachel. And despite everything, he still fought the Yeerks. He was the first to point out that they had a moral obligation to do so. No one lost more than Tobias did, and yet he never gave up. He was always determined to do the right thing, no matter what that involved sacrificing. Always the first one to volunteer for a Suicide Mission. And he could do all of that without blinking because he was only risking his own life.
Tobias was so scared of losing anyone else. He was delighted to have friends in the beginning of the series, so glad that people could like him. He didn't want to lose that. One of the biggest tragedies of the series - and there are a lot of those - is how disillusioned Tobias got with Jake. At first, he admired Jake, liked him. But as Jake grew more and more hardened, Tobias grew more and more cynical. And the straw that broke the camel's back was Rachel's death.
Rachel died and Tobias broke. How could he be around Jake any more? Sure, he cared about Jake, and if Jake was in danger, Tobias would intervene, regardless of his anger, but that doesn't change the fact that Jake got the girl Tobias loved killed. And Rachel was so much more to Tobias than the girl he loved - she was the one person that reminded him of his humanity. The one person he wanted to be human for. And despite all that pain and suffering, Tobias was still a hero because no matter what, he would always be loyal to his friends. The second he knew that Ax needed him, he teamed up with Jake again. Despite everything he lost and everything he'd done, despite his anger and bitterness, Tobias was, at heart, a good guy that would sacrifice everything for the people he cared about until the very end.
Tobias's status as a tragic character is made even more obvious by the fact that by the end of the series, out of the protagonists, he was the closest they had to a straight hero. Everyone else had committed countless atrocities. Jake had become the ruthless leader that would do anything he had to to win, and some things that he didn't have to. Marco had become the tactician obsessed with the bright, clear line and to hell with everything else. Rachel had become a violent, reckless adrenaline junkie. Cassie had become increasingly manipulative, to the point where she barely knew what her morals were anymore. Ax had become harder, more cynical, and had all but abandoned his sense of honour. But Tobias? He accepted that they had to do terrible things, but he never lost sight of the person he was. He held onto his sense of morality. The only time he ever lost that was immediately after Rachel's death. We watched him break completely in that scene. Visser Three was responsible for everything, everything they'd lost and become, Tobias wanted him dead. Because without Visser Three, Rachel would still be there. But because Tobias didn't follow through with that desire to kill, he remained the purest hero, and the most sympathetically tragic.
And finally, Ax. For a long time, he wasn't Ax, the Animorph - he was Ax, the Andalite. He was the Sixth Ranger. He didn't quite fit in, and that was because he didn't want to. His loyalty was to his people, not to the Animorphs - he called Jake his Prince and he obeyed Jake's commands, but if it came down to a choice between humans and Andalites, Andalites were going to win every time. But his loyalties grew more and more divided over time, and he grew more and more conflicted as to what the right thing to do was.
Ax found a family in the Animorphs, and he spent years fighting alongside them. He became Aximili of Earth. A war hero, a Prince, but not the loyal Andalite cadet he'd been when he first arrived. In order to become that Prince, he had to challenge his superior officers and side with humans. His unflappable faith and pride in his species crumbled over the course of the series. By the end, Ax was more human than Andalite. He was a Stranger in a Familiar Land. He had no idea how to not be a warrior. Even though he was supposed to be a captain, he didn't delegate tasks, because that's who he was, who he'd become. And he died because he had changed so much, because he was no longer the person he once was, because even after finally becoming the Prince he had longed to be for so many years, he couldn't be that Andalite.