Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Death, as a character, has his origins in Folklore and Religion; he is the King of Terrors, the skeleton man dressed in a black shroud and carrying an hourglass and a scythe; he is, when mounted, the rider of a Pale Horse and as such one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In Romantic poetry he is the seducer of young maidens, the rocker of doomed cradles and Field Marshal Death reviewing his troops. He is the Grandfather Death of Russian legend, who may take a fancy to individuals and give them prolonged life and the capacity to cheat him; he is at once the last best friend in German poetry and the ender of all delights in The Arabian Nights (see Arabian Fantasy). He is a pre-eminent version of the Liminal Being.

This traditional version of Death crops up in the movies, notably in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956) – parodied in Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975), Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) and Last Action Hero (1993). A rather different image appears in Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1949) and Le Testament D'Orphée (1959).

Death as a character in fiction is usually subjected to some sort of Revisionist Fantasy. A comparatively unalloyed version crops up regularly in the stories of Fritz Leiber, particularly in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales, where he is an adversary whom the pair regularly evade, deceive or rob and who periodically attempts supernaturally to kill them. Stories like "Gonna Roll the Bones" (1967) and "The Winter Flies" (1967) present the traditional Skeleton Man in glory; the etiolated protagonist of the sf novel A Specter Is Haunting Texas (1969) masquerades as Death for political purposes; forces such as oil and electricity take on the role of the Dark Gentleman Caller in stories like "The Black Gondolier" (1964), "The Man who Made Friends with Electricity" (1962) and "A Piece of the Dark World" (1962).

In the homoerotic fantasies of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian writers like Oscar Wilde, Saki and E M Forster, Death is predictably a young, good-looking man of foreign or lower-class appearance. He is a myth of consummation, a way of permitting the act that was forbidden by criminal law. More often than not, he is not so much Death the Executioner as Death the Messenger, the psychopomp who conducts the Soul away from the body's death to some other place. The image of Death as messenger is more recently associated with the idea of Death as a young girl or adolescent woman. Peter S Beagle's "Come, Lady Death" (1963) is an early source for this trope. Death is also often referred to as a female in Russian legend – Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 14, a setting of poems about Death, was at one point to be entitled "She". Erwin Schulhoff's Opera Flammen ["The Flames"] (1932) to a libretto by Max Brod (see Franz Kafka) has a female Death as the one woman a Don Juan cannot attain. The image of Death as a young girl was taken up by Neil Gaiman in the Sandman graphic novels (graph 1990-1996) and ongoing associative graphic novels like The Books of Magic (graph 1992) and Death: The High Cost of Living (graph 1994).

Terry Pratchett uses a male Death in the Discworld series in what is superficially a less revisionist way than Gaiman's, but one which is actually at least as subversive. Pratchett's Death rides a pale horse, but it is called Binkie and likes sugar; he talks in a basso profundo, represented in capital letters; he carries a scythe and hourglass and dresses in black, but would much rather deputize to an apprentice – as in Mort (1987) – and take time off. [RK]

see also: Dance of Death.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.