Sunday, 10 July 2011

Death and the maiden over

Death, along with Jack Frost and the Moon and other entities of nature, in folktales appears in person - not the divine ruler of the realm of death, as in mythological stories, but the very embodied spirit of mortality. In Norwegian tales it's often a specific death, a given plague that is seen as an old woman going from village to village. Sometimes Death can be tricked - though usually not for long, and at great cost, for if folktales don't ultimately tell the starkest of truths then what are those stories for?

Italo Calvino was partial to Italian folktales, and the last story in his collection Fiabe Italiane is "Jump into my Sack", in which a crippled boy acquires a magic sack in which he briefly traps Death. There's no comeback, and he releases Death almost at once without prompting - just the sort of rough edge you expect in folktales.

Arthur Ransome's story "The Soldier and Death" is structurally much tidier. There the sack belongs to a Russian soldier who uses it to snare Death when she comes for the Tzar:
From that time on there was no dying in the world . There were births every day, and plenty of them, but nobody died. It was a poor time for doctors. And so it was for many years. Death had come to an end, and it was as if all men would live for ever. And all the time the little old woman, Death, tied up in a sack, unable to get about her business, was hanging from the top of a tall poplar tree away in the forest.
In time the soldier realizes the consequences of a world in which no-one dies, so he sets Death free. But she's thoroughly frightened and won't take him now, so he goes on to harrow Hell and finally meet a fate that is affecting, but far too authorial and elegant for me to believe that Ransome has presented this story just as he came across it in some woodland hut beside the samovar.

"The Soldier and Death" was published in 1920. Nineteen years later, the story put on new clothes in the form of On Borrowed Time, a movie with Lionel Barrymore as an old man who traps Death, now male, up an apple tree. He finally relents when his grandson falls trying to climb the tree and is paralyzed but unable to die. This version ends with Gramps and young Pud (sic) following Death up to a shining light in the sky. What can I say? Paul Osborn, the screenwriter, was perhaps not quite the storytelling genius Ransome was.

Early in 1962, in the pages of Amazing (Adult) Fantasy #9, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko revived the story as "The Man Who Captured Death" - a classic Lee/Ditko title, for sure. Death here looks like Bengt Ekerot and is caught in "an electronic ray". Beetles become immune to DDT and eat the crops; rats breed and infest the cities; antibiotics stop working; the incurably ill suffer but cannot die. So the old scientist who designed the ray turns it off: "You were right, grim one! No man may alter the mysterious scheme of things!" To which Death replies, "Thus has it ever been... Thus must it ever be..." Okay, still not on a par with Ransome. But it has Ditko drawing Death, and if anything could equal the dark brilliance of Russian folklore it's that.

Whether Death is stuck in a sack or a beam of light, good stories never die, especially when deadlines loom. And so we have a new spin on the story for television in the form of Torchwood: Miracle Day. I'm doubting that Death will actually be personified in this show, as that kind of concept belongs to fairytales and not to science fiction, but it will be interesting to see how the writers develop it. Because if Death is not a person, or at least a fantastic force of nature, then what process could systematically stop everyone dying throughout the world? In ten weeks we'll know.

In Mirabilis we have our own take on the story, "Death and the Maiden Over", in which Death arrives at Lord’s for the end of the cricket season. In a curious wager, he pads up and faces each of England’s fast bowlers. Until somebody can get him out, no-one in the world is to die. Finally, after a long afternoon that sees hospital wards filling up to capacity, W G Grace is called out of retirement and gets Death leg before wicket from his bath chair. Appropriate for a doctor, I think.

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