If there ever was a phrase that invoked manly tears, it’s this one.
“It has been an honor” is pretty much the go-to catch phrase for any Heroic Sacrifice or Bolivian Army Ending. It’s often a precursor to a Crowning Moment of Awesome, and as far as last words go, it ranks right up there with “I die free,” “I die as myself,” and “I regret nothing.” Expect to hear it a lot from blood knights, members of the proud warrior race, or anyone who belongs to a martyrdom culture.
Occasionally, you’ll hear a villain say this when he acknowledges the hero as a worthy opponent. In such cases, the villain may evolve into a friendly enemy or a fire-forged friend. Or, if the trope is played straight, they just die.
One time you won’t hear this phrase is when someone is trying to play More Hero than Thou. In that case, two or more good guys in a friendly rivalry basically argue over who has to bite the bullet, so the honor becomes a point of competition between them.
In my opinion, the heart and soul of this trope is the idea that some things are worth dying for. Obviously, a character facing death is not going to say this unless he values his honor more than his life. What exactly constitutes “honor” may be up for debate (with the potential for some unfortunate implications, especially in real-life martyrdom cultures like Japan), but the core element here is that the hero is fully willing to give up his life for something greater than himself. Bonus points if he starts out as a coward and this trope marks the conclusion of his growth arc.
While this phrase often leads to a death of some kind, that isn’t always the case. The cavalry can still show up to save them, or one of the characters can ultimately survive (either the one who says this phrase, or the one to whom it is said). The important thing, though, is that the characters face death in a meaningful way. Without that, this phrase doesn’t have nearly as much power.
In my own work, this trope tends to pop up a lot, especially in the more military sci-fi books in the Gaia Nova series. It shows up multiple times in Stars of Blood and Glory, and also in Bringing Stella Home, though more in a posthumous way than anything else. I suppose you could also say it happens in Star Wanderers: Homeworld, if you use a broader interpretation.
But either way, I’m definitely a big fan of this trope. Expect to see it many more times in my own work in the future.
As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that the bandmaster’s violin from the real-life Titanic has recently been recovered and confirmed genuine. It’s now on display in Belfast, less than two miles from where the Titanic was built.