It’s that time of year again, when people start posting “spooky” Hallowe’en blogs, pics and videos. I famously detest the modern Hallowe’en, but am all in favour of the more recent rediscovery of the season as a time to honour the dead, perhaps via the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Last night, I watched the classic Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal for the first time. (The one where the knight plays chess with Death.) Contrary to common belief, the film isn’t wall-to-wall bleakness, and Death actually has a sense of humour. I love his deadpan - excuse the pun - delivery when he is sawing down a tree in which a man who has just escaped death is hiding.
Yep, I’m Death. I’m just sawing down this tree because your time is up. Nothing to see here. As you were. (I paraphrase).
Anyway, it got me thinking about literary portrayals of Death, and how Death in books is often anything but bleak. Or even final. Here are my top choices:
1. Discworld by Terry Pratchet
When most of us think of Death personified, this is surely the first one that springs to mind. The late Sir Terry’s Death always speaks IN CAPITAL LETTERS, has a horse called Binky, likes gardening and has some of the best lines in the books, like this one from Hogfather:
IT IS ... UNFAIR.‘That’s life, master.’BUT I’M NOT.
It is fitting that the last ever tweet from Sir Terry’s account depicted him and Death walking off together.
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak
This modern classic, set in the Second World War, begins with the voice of Death:
Here is a small fact.
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic.
This is a compassionate Death who, in the brutality of war, lifts sleeping children into his arms, even weeps for them. And who can forget the book’s last line?
I am haunted by humans.
3. The Princess Bride by William Goldman
This book - along with its film adaptation introduced us to the concept of “mostly dead”, courtesy of Miracle Max:
You see... there’s different sorts of dead: there’s sort of dead, mostly dead and all dead.
Thanks to Max, Westley is able to move from one state of deadness to another. And then back again. And then forward again...
“I wish I could remember what it was like when I was dead,” the man in black said. “I’d write it all down. I could make a fortune...”
And then there’s the final line of the book:
I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.
4. Through a Glass, Darkly by Jostein Gaarder
Most people know Jostein Gaarder from Sophie’s World, but in this much shorter book, terminally ill teenager Cecilia is visited by a bald, chatty angel called Ariel. Their chats about the big questions of life, death, God and the universe ease Cecilia into her own inevitable departure. Here Death is not only compassionate, but beautiful.
“Would you like to come out with me and fly?”
She laughed. “But I can’t fly.”
The angel Ariel sighed indulgently. “It’s time to finish with all that nonsense. Just come here.”
5. Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
This popular graphic novel series explores the moral conundrum of crime and punishment when a Shinigami (death god) drops his notebook and it is found by a student called Light. Light decides to rid the world of murderers by writing their names in the book, thus causing their deaths. But by doing this, he becomes a wanted murderer himself...
Much of the books’ light relief is provided by the grotesque but humorous Shinigami, Ryuk. Bored by the Realm of Death but sardonically curious about the human world, Ryuk hangs around Light invisibly, making wisecracks and eating apples.
But anyway, Shinagami these days don’t have feelings like “I don’t like this human” or “Let’s make the human world a better place” or “Let’s make it a worse place.” They just don’t want to die, so they get life from humans and then they go on with their empty lives... Nobody even knows what we’re here for any more. Talk about a meaningless existence...
Phew! What do you do when even Death is having an existential crisis?!
Anyway, those are my 5 top literary Deaths. What are yours?