by Terri Windling
In contemporary fiction, a number of writers have drawn from death folklore and folk tales, creating stories and characters that are both memorable and thought—provoking.
The Farthest Shore, the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent "Earthsea" series, is an extraordinary meditation on death and how we confront it in our lives and in ourselves. She draws on many folklore motifs — particularly those folk tales that speculate what might happen if Death was banished from the world and no creature ever died. A female Death is a striking figure in Neil Gaiman’s Sandmanseries of graphic novels, and in Peter Beagle’s poignant, now–classic story "Come Lady Death." The Godfather/Godmother Death fairy tale has been re–told in a variety of ways, in Rachel Pollack’s novel Godmother Night (depicting death as an elderlywoman escorted by five red–haired, leather–clad, motorcycle–riding attendants), Jane Yolen’s wry story "Godmother Death" (which can be read in its entirety here), and a sprightly version by Roger Zelazny, "Godson"(with a football loving Death who’s not above helping his favorite teams). Tanith Lee’s dark novel White As Snow pairs the Snow White fairy tale with the myth of Hades and Persephone, exploring the theme of the life–death cycle from a number of mythological perspectives.
"The Shape of Things" by Ellen Steiber draws on a shamanic Guatemalan folk tale, involving the creatures who mediate between Death and the mortal realm. "Mister Death and the Red–Headed Woman" by Helen Eustis is an absolutely delightful tale about a woman who bargains for the life of her intended — only to find that Death himself is the better man of the two.Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder is a magical novel about a girl whose grandfather lies dying — a story rooted in death lore, fairy lore, and the enchantment of the natural world. "Jack Straw," by the same author, is a powerful little tale in the bargaining–with–death tradition, about a girl who riddles Death to keep her life a little longer.
"When I wrote ‘Jack Straw,’" Snyder says, "I remember thinking about how hard it was to fit into one image the complexity of my feelings about death. Death, when not associated with those otherwise violent sorts of death–dealers, is very ambiguous. At some point we must accept and embrace it, because it is the fate of us all — yet we resist it (at least at certain times in our lives) because of its finality.And we re–create it in folk tale figures who allow us to personalize our contact with death long enough to confront it, to argue with it, to pit our wits against it . . . and perhaps, if we are lucky, to finally make peace with it."