Midori Snyder is a writer who has worked with the folklore of death in a variety of ways, particularly in her elegiac novel Hannah's Garden and her children's story "Jack Straw." Currently at work on a fairy tale novel in which Death is a major protagonist, she's been contemplating death figures, and I've asked to give us her thoughts on the subject.
"There are characters that are associated with death as death–dealers and death–announcers — but I would suggest that they are not Death figures, as in a Mr. or Ms. Death personified. Morrigan, the Irish goddess of War, for example, revels in death and carnage. She incites men to battle, to make them kill each other because she enjoys the violence of war — the taste of fear, of blood, of the madness and anguish that battle brings. But she isn't Death herself, only a creature who delights in witnessing the dying moments of warriors in battle. The various incubi and succubi of European folk legend are also death–dealers — their actions always bring death to the luckless mortals who get tangled up with them. But they aren't Death, either. Their interest is in specific individuals — generally those who catch their sexual interest — whereas Death is an equal opportunity killer. He/she takes the child, the adult, the old, the young, the strong, the weak — Death doesn't discriminate, but moves over everything in a constantly shifting, unpredictable pattern. That is what is so terrifying, the way death resists being slotted into a known plan. All we know is that it will happen .but never when and never how. Tales such as Godfather Death, or the medieval Dance of Death, specifically address this idea and this terror — as opposed to folklore's other death–dealing creatures, who have very specific victims that they select. Edgar Allan Poe's frightening story 'Masque of the Red Death' plays with the idea that one imagines one can foretell and identify Death, and therefore keep him/her out. And what is chilling in the tale is the sheer ease with which Death infiltrates the masque with the rest of the revelers.
"I've also been thinking about the differences in those stories where the dead live in an alternate world to ours. The Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, is not a Mr. Death figure, but, rather, he is the King of the Dead, content to rule over the souls who have come to him instead of going out and nabbing them himself. Likewise in the Christian tradition, where those who die are 'born to eternal life' in heaven or hell, Christ isn't a Mr. Death and neither is Satan (especially if one thinks of Dante's image of him, frozen in a bed of ice), although both have something to say about dead souls in the afterlife. When we look at myth, specifically at that cycle of tales in which death is brought into the world — often by a bumbling trickster figure — death is rarely personified. It moves like a force of nature, invisible and ubiquitous. Death (like that other now famous slogan) happens. But in folk and fairy tales, Death acquires a face, a figure, a point of consolidation — which allows the protagonist of the tale, when confronted with his or her mortality, to recognize the moment at hand. The personified images of Mr. or Ms. Death are generally of the wanderer, the traveler, the one not bound by place or position. The very anonymity and flexibility of personified Death insures the equality with which death meets us all . . .high and low.
"Death is also a mirror reflection of ourselves. In medieval and Renaissance pictorial representations, Death often wears a tattered, mirror version of the clothes his victim wears. It is, after all, for each of us, our Death that we meet, no one else's. In the stories where he appears, Mr. Death is a reflection — a concrete, externalized image of the protagonist's death. And therefore his/her appearance has something to say about the character whose death it is that has arrived. From the Grim Reaper of medieval legend to Fosse's 'woman in white' in the film of his life, All That Jazz; from Shiva with her voluptuous form and deadly arms to Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's haunting film Dead Man, Death appears in a variety of guises but also functions differently as a narrative sign. Coyote's death in trickster myths, for example, is experienced (and read) very differently than the death proffered by the skeletal knight who comes to take the Maiden away. The first is read as temporary, because Coyote always come back to life — while the other is frighteningly permanent. The skeleton reflects what the Maiden will become. Indeed, what we'll all become."
Death is a frequent theme in fairy tales — as well as the stark realities of death's aftermath, for many stories begin with the death of one or both of the hero's parents. Fairy tale historian Marina Warner points out that death in childbirth was far more common in centuries prior to our own, and the prevalence of step–children and orphans in fairy tales reflected a social reality. Many of these tales (in their pre–Victorian forms) were exceedingly violent — even those gathered by the Brothers Grimm in editions published for German children. Though the Grimms are known to have edited their fairy tales with a rather heavy hand, stripping them of sensuality and moral ambiguity, they had no such qualms about leaving much of the worst violence intact. (Indeed, as scholar Maria Tatar has noted, in some stories they beefed it up.) Murder, cannibalism, and infanticide are staples of the fairy tale genre. From Bluebeard with his chamber of horrors to the goodwife in the Juniper Tree who decapitates her inconvenient step–son, death is a very real threat in the tales — yet it does not always have the last word. In Fitcher's Bird (a Bluebeard variant), the heroine not only outwits the wizard who aims to marry then murder her, but she's able to bring the hacked–up bodies of her predecessors back to life. The step–son in The Juniper Tree returns to earth in the form of a bird. Cinderella's dead mother returns as a fish (in the oldest, Chinese version of the story), a cow (in a Scottish variant), or a tree (in the version found in Grimms), watching over her daughter and whispering wise words of advice.
Snow White is not merely sleeping but dead in the early versions of her tale — displayed in a glass coffin, her form incorruptible, like a saint's. The necrophilic overtones of the story are most evident in a 16th century Italian version called The Crystal Casket. In this tale, the heroine is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. Marriage ensues, but instead of gratitude, the teacher treats her step–daughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The step–mother then hires a witch, who sells poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her. The witch strikes again, disguised as a tailoress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead — and this time the fairies will not revive her. (They're miffed that she keeps ignoring their warnings.) They place the girl's body in a fabulous casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the royal city.
The casket is soon found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes the body home with him. "But my son, she's dead!" protests his mother. The prince will not be parted from his treasure; he locks himself away in a tower with the girl, "consumed by love." Soon he is called away to battle, leaving the doll in the care of his mother. The queen ignores the macabre creature — until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for her chambermaids and commands them to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen thinks quickly. "Take off the dress! We'll have another one made, and my son will never know." As they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed. The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." (What on earth was he doing in that locked room?) "My son," says the queen, "the girl was dead. She smelled so badly that we buried her." He rages and weeps. The queen relents. The heroine is summoned, her story is told, and the two are now properly wed.
Fairy tale scholar Veronica Schanoes notes, "Many fairy tales and myths concern the fantasy that if you love someone enough, you can bring them back from the dead (which was one of the things that inspired my own story in the subject.) In fairy tales, that effort is usually successful and the wish is fulfilled: Sleeping Beauty wakes up; Snow White revives; the older sisters in Fitcher's Bird are resuscitated; the heroine recovers her prince in East of the Sun, West of the Moon; etc. But in myth, the stories tend to be more poignantly about the limits of human love and its inability to defeat death: Gilgamesh can't bring back Enki; Achilles can't bring back Patroclus; Theseus cannot rescue Pirithous; Orpheus fails; and even though she is a goddess, Demeter's love for Persephone can only bring her back part–way."
The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen often touch on the subject of death, but the ones that address the subject directly are among his most pious and sentimental, better suited to Victorian tastes than they are to ours today. One of the more interesting of them is The Story of a Mother, in which Death knocks on a woman's door and takes her beloved son away. The distraught woman determines to follow, and makes her long, weary way to Death's realm. There, she finds a greenhouse filled to the bursting with flowers and trees of all kinds — each one representing a single life somewhere on earth. When Death arrives, she tricks him into giving back the life of her son — but Death shows her the future and the terrible life her child will lead. She knows then that his death is god's will, and a mercy, and she is at peace.
Andersen's very best tale about death has deservedly become a classic. The Nightingale is the story of a Chinese Emperor and a bird with an exquisite song. The Emperor dotes on the bird for awhile, then replaces the humble, faithful creature with a golden mechanical replicate . . .until the night that Death comes for him, squatting heavily on his chest:
Opening his eyes he saw it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor's crown, handling the Emperor's gold sword, and carrying the Emperor's silk banner. Among the folds of the great velvet curtains there were strangely familiar faces. Some were horrible, others gentle and kind. They were the Emperor's deeds, good and bad, who came back to him now that Death sat on his heart.
"Don't you remember?" they whispered one after the other. "Don't you remember—?" And they told him of things that made the cold sweat run on his forehead.
"No, I will not remember!" said the Emperor. "Music, music, sound the great drum of China lest I hear what they say!"
But nothing will drown out the whispers. The Emperor's mechanical bird sits silent, for there is no one to wind it up. But then the real nightingale arrives, having heard wind of the emperor's plight. He sings so beautifully that the phantoms fade and even Death stops to listen. The nightingale bargains for the emperor's life, and Death departs.
Death underlines the magical stories that make up The Arabian Nights, for it is the reason Scheherazade spins her tales: to save herself and her sister. "There's something almost trickster–ish about Scheherazade," comments Midori Snyder. "She uses storytelling to keep death at bay — but she does so by never finishing the tale in the morning, where its conclusion might signal the arrival of her own promised death. Instead, she leaves off at a cliffhanger, which requires yet another night to finish — and then promptly starts another tale before the night is over. The moment of completion (the rehearsal of 'death') does come — but in the middle of the night, which enables her to resurrect herself in another tale before the sun rises. So it's as though each story produces its own moment of death, followed by a new work that resurrects the storyteller. It's like trickster's death in the Coyote stories . . .a death that is never final. He's always returning, repeating a movement between death and creation."
It fairy tales, too, death is not always final — it's sometimes an agent of change and transformation. Sleeping Beauty in her death–like sleep, Snow White in her glass coffin — this is a mere rehearsal for death, and out of it new life is created (literally, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, who gives birth to twins as she lies asleep and wakes as they try to suckle). In trickster myths, the connection between death and life, destruction and creation, is usually made clear — but in fairy tales too, death is not always an ending, or at least not just an ending. It can have within it the seeds of new life, of change, of transformation — which is what these tales, at their most basic level, are so often all about.