Many cultures have the idea of an eternally recurring hero. Not a King in the Mountain, just a hero who keeps coming back for more. Maybe it's one hero with multiple identities. Either they're immortal, or there's an element of returning from being apparently dead or seeming way too old to fight. The reason both are included is that this trope is as old as mythology, and in its early era the concepts of The Ageless, resurrection, and absurd longevity were fairly interchangeable.
A character could become an Eternal Hero for many reasons. Maybe, like the Irish legend Osinn in Tír Na nÓg, the hero ends up in a time loop or Neverneverland that allows him to return to Earth centuries later without having aged. Maybe he's just unkillable. Sometimes, a deity or other force of nature embodies itself as this character whenever the world needs it. For the Norse, J. R. R. Tolkien argues that it's Sigurd/Siegfried. For the Celts, it's the many permutations of Fionn and the Fianna and the Red Branch Knights.
Not to be confused with Comic-Book Time, which is when real-life long-running publication causes a character to last indefinitely.
- In a meta-sense, all popular superheroes are this, due to a combination of Status Quo Is God, Death is Cheap and Comic-Book Time. In real-life, superhero comics have been around for almost a century, but in-universe, that time doesn’t matter. And since a lot of them are very profitable for the companies they belong to, then they will never be allowed to die or retire permanently, and they will always be around to fight evil in some way or form. If the story tries to make you believe that a popular hero is going to die or retire, don’t hold your breath.
- Superman is sometimes this. Depending on the continuity, his lifespan can run into the millions. In All-Star Superman, Superman even shares an adventure with several of his descendant Supermen.
- Superman: Red Son shows that universe's Superman living far into the future, and reveals that he is actually the distant descendant of Lex Luthor, whose descendants were similarly super-geniuses who lead humanity through millions of years until humans evolved into Kryptonians and the house of Luthor became the House of L. At the end of the story, the baby Kal-L is sent back in time, where he opposes Lex and causes the foundation of Luthor's accomplishments.
- Sometimes a superhero keeps coming back in different guises, even when apparently dead. For example, Hector Hall/Silver Scarab dies and becomes the Sandman, but in The Sandman: The Doll's House he is revealed to be a ghost who has been manipulated into taking on a persona that's an ersatz version of Dream of the Endless. Dream returns from captivity and sends him on into the afterlife. Later, he returns as Dr. Fate.
- The Sandman also provides another example; when one of the Endless dies, if the right preparations are in place, there will be someone to take their place, until such time as the concept they represent no longer exists.
- As of Whatever Happened to The Caped Crusader?, Batman definitely counts as a multiversal version. The idea, manifestation, and embodiment of Batman is inevitable in any timeline. It's implied that all the Batmen in different universes have or will reincarnate into each other.
- In fact, that entire comic is pretty much one big depiction and analysis of this trope, as a side effect of trying to be the end-all-be-all summation of Batman in all his forms. (It was written for when Batman died in canon, so it's a eulogy of sorts.)
- Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 references this at the beginning of Chapter 4 with a quote attributed to the Black Axe:
"Death is as powerful a weapon as it is an easy escape. Heroes can pass in to legend, Legends into myths, Myths fuel new heroes."
- Brian Bendis's Powers features several. The main character Christain Walker is an immortal who lived before the cavemen but can usually remember as far back as a century. He has been a hero at several time periods in his life including modern. Other heroes like Supershock and Zora were immortals who followed similar patterns. Retro Girl is a case where when one dies she either reincarnates or passes on the mantle/memories/powers to another young girl who becomes a hero.
- Marvel Comics has quite a few recurring heroes. Some are immortal like Thor, Hercules and the Eternal Gilgamesh. The first two tend to return to aid humanity time and again and the latter has been a hero under several names including Gilgamesh and Samson and been mistaken for other heroes like Hercules. New heroes will often take up the names and costumes of older heroes to honor them: Captain Marvel, Captain America, Spider-Woman, and White Tiger are prominent examples. Others are more like reoccurring archetypes: X-23 for Wolverine, Thunderstrike for his father and Thor, Power Man for Luke Cage, etc.
- Some versions of the Unknown Soldier are immortal or legacy characters. The New 52 version (in GI Combat) has the memories of past incarnations dating back to Ancient Rome.
- Child of the Storm: Thanks to her time travelling and apparent longevity, the Lady Knight's heroism can be traced back at least three thousand years, back to when freaking Hercules was young. She's not only this, but an Eternal Teacher of Heroes, too, being perhaps the greatest swordfighter in the setting, and her list of students is a significant chunk of history's greatest swordsmen.
- The Mega Crossover fanfic Undocumented Features contains a number of examples:
- About half of the huge cast are Detian, which means that they've taken the Omega-2 retrovirus which gave them The Ageless with a moderate Healing Factor. Began as heroes whose deeds included saving the Autobots from destruction and leading a revolution on the planet Zardon. They then were scattered by the Big Bad's Batman Gambit and went into exile for 100 years. They came back and reconstituted the Wedge Defense Force in the 2380s, just in time to save the whole of the Perseus Arm of the galaxy from coming under the rule of the GENOM corporation.
- Utena Tenjou is the Rose Prince of Cephiro, a recurring office given to winners of the rose duel tournament. While the Pillar of Cephiro holds the world together and keeps it peaceful by will and prayer alone, the Rose Prince is a roving correction mechanism whose fate is to always be a champion for people in need. She plays a large role in the defeat of the Earth Alliance and Psi Corps.
- In Harry and the Shipgirls, the prophecy that Arthur would return in Britain's darkest hour turns out to be quite true. He simply has never elected to become the king again.
- In Dragons and Swarm, while other Signers of the Crimson Dragon are picked from whoever is most suitable, the Crimson Wings always go to the same soul. Currently, that soul is Jack Atlas.
- Michael Moorcock's The Eternal Champion series (The Elric Saga, The Books of Corum, Von Bek, Count Brass, et al) is one of the main modern literary examples. It's an epic series covering over 40 books and almost as many individual incarnations of the titular champion and moves between straight High Fantasy and Science Fiction.
- In Roderick MacLeish's Prince Ombra, an eternal champion and his evil counterpart are reincarnated to fight periodically. (Several King in the Mountain legends, including King Arthur, are said to be inspired by some of their earlier battles.) Last time it didn't go so well for Good.
- At the end of Greg Bear's City at the End of Time, it's revealed that Daniel is actually Sangmer, the legendary missing-presumed-dead hero that the characters in the scenes set several trillion years in the future read stories about. When the entire multiverse started to unravel during his lifetime, his demiurge Eternal Love Mnemnosyne regressed him to childhood and sent him to be a King in the Mountain in a Pocket Dimension. Eventually, he is released, with his memories of being Sangmer suppressed, as a human fate-shifter (someone who can jump between parallel universe versions of themselves to avoid bad luck). He then starts from the beginning of human history, journeying to the recent past, where he has shifted into the identity of Daniel, who in turn shifts between multiple Daniels until he ends up in a universe where he is a beggar called Charles Granger. It turns out that this is because Daniel died as a teenager in this universe, so he ended up in the nearest equivalent. He then transfers his consciousness into the body of theoretical physicist Fred, his best friend in his home universe and married to the late Daniel's sister in Granger's world. He does all this — as well as being a Manipulative Bastard and The Sociopath — because his suppressed memories are driving him forward to the point where he can stop the multiverse's destruction and reunite with his love. Because she's a demiurge and he's a far-future descendant of humanity, they don't really care how many human identities he sacrifices to succeed.
- Terry Pratchett parodies it in the novel The Last Continent, where Death speculates that Rincewind is a counterbalance to this, the "Coward with a thousand retreating backs".
- Discworld also gives us another parody, the octogenarian warrior-hero Cohen the Barbarian, who "has a lifetime's experience of not dying".
- It also plays the trope straight with Old Master Lu-Tze, who's a 900-year-old member of a monastic Time Police.
- Also perhaps Sam Vimes since Thud!: his possession by the Summoning Dark and his resulting special abilities seem to be turning him into an eternal policeman, which can be seen in Snuff.
- The Last Continent also mentions that Death has had an appointment with many supposed eternal heroes, but his code against discussing afterlives means we don't know if there's any system in place for them to have another go.
- All of the protagonists of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt go through serial reincarnation down through the history of an Alternative Universe Earth from the moment it branches off from real history to the AU's 'present'.
- In Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, Lancelot and Arthur are set up as eternal heroic archetypes who appear in all the worlds of the Weaver's Tapestry, playing out the same roles of the Noble King and the Knight Who Betrays Him in as many guises and names as there are worlds.
- Parodied in Craig Shaw Gardner's The Wanderings of Wuntvor series- Wuntvor, former apprentice to the great wizard Ebenezum, evades the Anthropomorphic Personification of Death so many times, Death begins to think he is "The Eternal Apprentice", and gets really annoyed about it, the more frequently it happens.
- Lampshaded and parodied by T.H. White in the last volume of The Once and Future King, where Merlin (who was born an old man at the end of the universe and lives his life backwards in time to an eventual death as a baby during the Big Bang) devotes a couple of paragraphs to confusing Arthur by criticising future retellings of his legend, mercilessly savaging White's version ("Imagine, beginning with the Normans and ending with the Wars of the Roses") for using Comic-Book Time to allow Arthur and the others to live through centuries of history while simultaneously only living for normal human lifespans.
- The Wheel of Time:
- The Dragon. He's reincarnated once an Age to do battle with the Dark One.
- The Heroes of the Horn, who reincarnate more frequently and form much of the mythology and legends.
- Perry Rhodan: an interstellar hero who became immortal during his adventures.
- Atlan may be a more straightforward example, having spent about ten thousand years stuck right on pre-spaceflight Earth — in this universe, Atlantis was named after him — and certainly seen his share of action and adventure among the "natives" in all that time.
- Zig-Zagged in Maurauders of Gor. Torvald, the legendary founder of Torvaldsland, is said to be sleeping in his tomb and will awaken when a warrior comes to him in a time of crisis. The protagonists find the tomb only to find it empty except for a War Arrow. They realize that it was a metaphor, that they themselves need to help themselves. But then after the battle, Tarl finds himself talking with a man from near the mountain, who volunteers to return the War Arrow back to the tomb, who is named Torvald. It is possible that this man really is the thousand-year-old king, given that on Gor they have "stabilization serums" which is basically a cure for the aging process.
- In The Dark Tower, Roland Deschain is revealed to go through his quest to Dark Tower over and over again, going back to a starting place whenever he actually reaches it. Some things are different each time, though, and the series ends with the implication that the next cycle will be the last.
- The Doctor in Doctor Who is an archetypal example of this trope. Not only do they have a time machine that can go anywhere in time and space, allowing them to literally appear anywhere, but if they ever die they just regenerate into a new form with a slightly altered personality.
- Inverted in Lexx. His Divine Shadow is the Big Bad of the first season. It is the, "essence," of a defeated species of sentient insects that is passed between human hosts and serves as God-Emperor of the League of Twenty Thousand Planets. The human host imparts some of its own personality on each iteration of His Divine Shadow, with the one inaugurated at the start of the series being particularly willful as the result of an accident. As each host nears death, their brain is removed and preserved in a machine that allows them to speak. These, "divine predecessors," serve as advisors to the current Shadow.
- Kamen Rider:
- In the Kamen Rider Decade movie, Kamen Rider 1 claims that for as long as they are needed, there will always be Riders to fight evil.
- It's further expanded on in the 40th Anniversary Movie Let's Go Kamen Riders. As long as people remember the Riders, they will live forever, ensuring the safety of the world for all.
- On The 100, everyone who has ever been Commander (going back to the Founder of the Kingdom) fulfills this trope. When they die, their personalities are downloaded onto the Flame, a miniature computer that's integrated with their brain. The Flame is then put into the head of the next Commander, giving them access to their predecessors' knowledge, and allowing the past Commanders to guide the new Commander's actions.
- The song "Outsider Intro" by DJ Shadow features a sample of a storyteller describing a mythic figure known as "The Outsider"
But in the darkest hour
Whispers begin to tell of a figure emerging from the darkness
A being without a name, faceless and obscure
Part presence, part idea they say
As if the very force they describe has existed for eons
A dormant seed awaiting nourishment
- Gloryhammer: Both Ralathor and HOOTSMAN are apparently immortal. No explanation is given for Ralathor, aside from his being a "Mysterious Hermit". HOOTSMAN is explicitly mentioned as being immortal, though it's not explained if he became thus before or after he became a cyborg powered by a Neutron Star.
- It's also brought up in "Victorious Eagle Warfare", where it's noted that "a hero cannot be defeated simply by making him die".
- Warhammer has several — or, at least, several great heroes from its history are reputed to have returned several times in this manner. Sigmar Heldenhammer is perhaps the most prominent — Magnus the Pious and Valten being two individuals who are sometimes whispered to have been Sigmar himself returned among the people of Sigmar's Empire. Gilles le Breton, founder of Bretonnia, is said to have returned as the Green Knight — an immortal spirit-protector bound to his land forever. Even Aenarion the Defender - first Phoenix King of the High Elves — is thought by some (including his second wife Morathi!) to have returned in the form of his distant descendent Prince Tyrion.
- Warhammer 40,000 follows suit. The straightest example is Bjorn the Fell-Handed, a Venerable Dreadnought from the Space Wolves who fought at the Emperor's side 10,000 years ago. Like many Venerable Dreadnoughts, he spends extended periods (sometimes lasting centuries) in hibernation. Eldar similarly return the souls of their greatest warriors to the battlefield in constructs made of wraithbone. For a villainous version, the erratic passage of time in the Eye of Terror means that many Chaos champions long thought vanquished can reappear centuries later, having subjectively experienced next to no passage of time.
- Most ancient mythologies have an Eternal Hero. In ancient Greece and Rome, it's those heroes who are semi-divine, like Heracles. For the Norse, Germans and Anglo-Saxons, it's Siegfreid and his Expy son/alter-ego Sigurd. The Irish have Oisinn, Fionn and Cuchullain. In other words, this trope is very much Older Than Feudalism.
- In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Cambell discussed the use of the archetype of the eternal hero in different ancient mythologies, positing that they might all be facets of a single ur-hero and ur-myth.
- Latter-Day Saints believe that the Archangel Michael, who defeated Satan during the War in Heaven, is the same being as Adam, the first man on Earth after its creation. Adam being his mortal name and Michael being his heavenly name.
- Breath of Fire:
- Ryu is a blue-haired hero who appears as the main protagonist of all of the series installments. He is always a supernatural being referred to as a dragon though the nature of his power varies from game to game. It is unknown if the various Ryus are the same person, reincarnations or otherwise but he clearly appears over the course of many generations and alternate worlds.
- In Breath of Fire II it's all but confirmed that the current Ryu is the descendant of the first one, according to Nina's ancestor.
- EXTRAPOWER: A possible outcome for Zophy as of Attack of Darkforce. When he catches up with the Flame Princess at Magarda Volcano, she has already begun her rebirth ritual but has left Zophy a choice, relayed to him by the great majin Magma-O: Zophy could choose to continue to live his life as a human and die when his time comes. Or he could choose to unlock the dormant phoenix blood within him and become a flame warrior. He would become an immortal majin, like Magma-O and the Flame Princess herself, and remain as Earth's eternal hero, but at the cost of relinquishing his human relationships.
- Final Fantasy XIV: It turns out that The Warrior of Light is one. Back when the world was whole, we were Azem, a member of the Convocation of Fourteen, and Azem's job was to go around the world and fight off threats to Amaurot. After the Great Sundering, Azem's soul was shattered into fourteen pieces, one for each world created. Each fragment of Azem's soul would continually reincarnate into a great hero, saving their world (or trying their damndest to) over and over.
- In The Legend of Zelda various boys called Link across three alternate versions of the same universe take up the mantle of the legendary hero Link to save the world. However, they're not simply Legacy Characters, but Chosen Heroes who bear the Spirit of the Hero. Hyrule Historia revealed that — in-universe — the various Links may not share a name at all. Whether this means their given name or surname isn't specified. In the case of the former, "Link" could very well be the Hylian word for this trope. It also states that the various Links can be descendants or reincarnations, but can also be completely unrelated to former heroes. This seems to imply that the Spirit of the Hero is more an aspect that a hero possesses (spirit in this case meaning a defining quality), rather than referring to a reborn soul. Or something even screwier as both Demise and his reincarnation Ganondorf have cursed Link to continue their battle forever (i.e., the Spirit of the Hero might reincarnate into another person when a savior is needed).
- The Elder Scrolls series has the "Shezarrines", physical manifestations of the spirit of the "dead" creator god Lorkhan (aka Shezarr, Shor, Sep, etc.). The Shezarrines typically appear at moments of great turmoil for mankind, often fighting against the races of Mer (Elves). The God-Emperor Tiber Septim is thought to be one such manifestation. The Long-Dead Badass/Berserker Pelinal Whitestrake is another. Wulfharth Ash-King is believed to have been another, dying and coming back to life at least three times.
- It has been theorized that the Player Characters of Elder Scrolls games are Shezzarines.
- Fate/stay night gives us the Throne of Heroes and the Heroic Spirits. They are heroes (such as Heracles and Cu Chulainn) who were idolized to the point that their legends transcended time and remain even centuries after their deaths. This can also affect heroes that never truly existed, such as False Assassin, Sasaki Kojiro, who is really just a "wraith", a type of spirit, that happens to closely resemble the myth. What makes these heroes eternal is that the Throne of Heroes is a metaphysical place removed from time where the most splendid souls of the era are preserved to be called upon in any time period even from the future.
- The Unlimited Blade Works route brings up the darker side of this with Servant Archer - Heroic Spirit EMIYA. In addition to the great heroes of myth and legend, there are also the unsung heroes who were not Born Lucky enough to have anything like divine blessings or artifacts. Because these heroes are not famed and revered enough to properly ascend to the Throne of Heroes but are still Heroic Spirits, they serve as Counter Guardians that protect humankind from existential threats. However, the Counter Force only summons Guardians once a situation has truly gone to Hell and there is no other way to avert disaster. In order to eliminate the threat, which is often human in origin, the Guardians are tasked with killing everything in the vicinity, sacrificing even the victims to ensure that the threat to humankind as a whole is completely eradicated. While never actually seen in the game being unable to save the people suffering before his eyes every time he is summoned put Archer across the Despair Event Horizon and led him to want to kill his past self to try and erase his own eternal existence via Temporal Paradox. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of Rin and Shirou, he rekindles the fire that used to drive him and in the end, he assures Rin with a smile that he will be okay filling his role as an Eternal Hero from now on.
- Ozpin, the Big Good of RWBY, was once Ozma, the greatest pure-hearted hero in existence, and the setting's God of Light recruited him for a mission wherein Oz would try to "redeem" and unify humanity. Whenever he dies, Oz essentially does a faux reincarnation, as his spirit moves to and awakens in a new body after his current one is killed, and he then basically co-occupies that new body alongside the person whose body it is. With each life and body, he attempts to do more to foster peace and understanding among people, and to train the elite warriors known as Huntsmen that protect the world from the Grimm... and from Salem, the Big Bad and Eternal Villain of the setting.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender has a detailed description on the Reincarnation page, but in a few words: The world of Avatar is based around four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The world is roughly divided into four countries, each of which corresponds with a particular element. Certain people from each country can manipulate (or "bend") the element associated with their culture. These people are known as benders; bending gives them abilities significantly above and beyond those of normal people, but nobody can ever bend more than one element. The exception is the Avatar. Every generation, an Avatar is born to one of the nations; this person can learn to bend all four elements. They can also access the Avatar State, which allows them to channel the souls of all the previous Avatars to gain incredible power. Once their training is complete, they typically become an intermediary between the four nations (and between the physical and spiritual worlds), maintaining balance and ensuring that the world does not come to any great harm. Once the Avatar dies, a new Avatar is born to the next nation in the cycle. Avatars can talk to and get advice from previous avatars. Every Avatar has a different personality, but they all share a strong goal of protecting the world and the people around them.