Death acquires various depictions in different cultures, as it is a concept attached to fear and repulsion, but also fascination about anything related to it. Shaped by the social and religious environment, death has been present in art and literature since the emergence of ancient myths, changing and evolving in its meaning. It is not surprising that at some point death transformed from a concept to a figure in fiction written with a capital D. Most often Death has been personified as a man or a woman, assuming many different roles, welcomed and shunned, feared and worshipped as gods and goddesses (Vardal, 2019, p. 5). Death as a person usually has certain human characteristics, such as gender, voice, clothing, as well as personality. Its shape and character may vary, however some of the traditional attributes, like the black cloak or the scythe, often persist. By making Death recognisable, writers and artists can turn the concept into something reachable and more understandable, through their art and imagination (Vardal, 2019, p. 6). Personified Death often can be found in modern fantasy and supernatural fiction. This article investigates some of its curious representations, exploring the works of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Joanne Rowling.
Terry Pratchett portrays Death as a fully-realised protagonist in several novels of the Discworld series (1983-2015). In Discworld's reality, Death exists as an extension of power of the angel Azrael, “the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” (Pratchett, 2013, p.265). In Good Omens (1990), Pratchett’s collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, the same character of Death also appears as one of the Four Horsemen that foretell the Apocalypse (Gaiman, Pratchett, 2006). Traditionally, in art and culture Death has been represented as “powerful, pitiless, omnipresent” (Windling, 2016, para. 10), influenced by the religious depiction of the Angel of Death. In spite of his connections to the biblical supernatural entities, Pratchett’s Death is a rather sympathetic character. In terms of appearance, he is a stereotypical Grim Reaper: a black-robed skeleton who carries a scythe and an hourglass, each representing the end of life and the time which is left. However, his character’s arc is unusual: Death resides in a Victorian house with a garden, with a manservant Albert and numerous cats. Struggling with loneliness, he adopts a daughter, Ysabell, and takes on an apprentice, Mortimer. Death regards his occupation as a duty of ushering souls into the next world: “I? KILL? Said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THAT’S THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON” (Pratchett, 2013, p. 13). However, attempting to understand people and experience human life, he “simply does not do his job as he should” (Kňazeová, 2014, p. 33). In his struggle, Death is often comical, though this is exactly what makes him more understandable and approachable as a character. Pratchett’s purpose is to present Death as a very nice and funny fellow, so that people would “stop looking at death as if it was an enemy” (Kňazeová, 2014, p. 30). By creating Death as a fully developed character with its own life, Pratchett abandons the traditionally dark view on the concept and gives it a new and fascinating perspective.
Neil Gaiman also creates Death as a person with its own arc, which first appears in The Sandman comics series (1989-1996). In these graphic novels Death belongs to the group of the anthropomorphic personifications known as the Endless, along with her siblings: Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium, Despair, and Destruction. Gaiman’s Death is a more modern and original version of the archetype, being a woman with an appearance of a goth, who wears casual clothes and heavy make-up. Nevertheless, her personality is “mostly happy, open and caring”, she is fun and likes to experience life to the fullest (Vardal, 2019, p. 62). Gaiman subverts the traditional expectation and, instead of the Grim Reaper, or the Angel of Death, presents Death of the Endless as a female, which comes across as a groundbreaking perspective (Canon, 2018, p. 14). However, Death has not always been viewed as a male character. In Egyptian, Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythologies goddesses and female deities have been often associated with death. In Slavic culture, Marzanna, an ancient goddess of “death, rebirth and dreams” (Vardal, 2019, p.62), has an appearance of a beautiful maiden, although this image transformed within time into an old crone with a scythe – in present it is still attached to the female gender. Gaiman uses mythological origins of personifications of Death and creates a new visual representation of it that sets its roots in modern Western culture. Following Terry Pratchett’s approach, he bestows on his Death positive and attractive characteristics, turning her into “a form that would allow her to disarm the pervading human fear of death” (Canon, 2018, p. 16). Thus Gaiman presents more than just a character— he gives the readers a new concept of Death, which is kind and gentle, and does not signify an ending, but rather acts as a guide to a different place.
The joint philosophy of Pratchett and Gaiman regarding Death influenced he writing of later fantasy, horror, and young adult authors. Their perspective on Death "as a something neither to be feared nor escaped" found its reflection in the fiction by Joanne Rowling (Canon, 2018, p. 63). “The Tale of the Three Brothers”, one of the fairytales in The Tales of Beedle the Bard (2008), first featured in Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows (2007), is an interesting example of Death personified, and, although its appearance is short, it is significant. The fable follows three brothers on their adventures who attempt to cheat Death. A tall “hooded figure” is angered and pretends to congratulate them for being “clever enough to evade him” and gives each of them a desired gift (Rowling, 2008, p. 89). In his vanity, the eldest brother believes that he can avoid Death forever, possessing the most powerful magic wand, and soon enough he is being murdered. The second brother, who is an arrogant man, asks “for the power to recall others from Death”, though in a short time he goes mad and commits suicide (Rowling, 2008, p. 90). Only the youngest brother remains humble and wise, not seeking unnatural power or immortality. He avoids Death until old age and when his time comes he greets Death “as an old friend”, and departs with him gladly (Rowling, 2008, p. 93). Although, Death appears in this tale as a character who possesses a voice and who is able to interact with a physical world, he does not have a character’s arc. For the most part, stories featuring Death are not so much about him or her as a hero, but about people trying to “trick death, wanting to avoid or control their fate” (Vardal, 2019, p. 6). “The Tale of the Tree Brothers” illustrates “three distinct approaches to the concept of death” and it carries a metaphysical significance to the main storyline in Harry Potter, as it conveys to the characters the wisdom for “their life choices concerning their eventual mortality” (Simonetta, 2018, p. 8). Rowling follows a positive tradition of seeing Death as a friend and a natural part of life.
Rowling, Gaiman, and Pratchett present Death as a character in order to change the people’s general perception and the attitude towards it. If the earlier representations of Death in fiction were more violent, seductive, or simply ominous, the contemporary ones, especially those in a fantasy genre, are much more approachable. As argued by Vardal, “The former Deaths, particularly the early ones from the Dark ages, have little to no personality traits. They are just mean to an end, to show what happens if one goes against the monotheistic belief and sins” (Vardal, 2019, p. 87). On the contrary, in modern fiction Death interacts with other beings, experiences the human world, has personality, desires, family or friends. Contemporary stories still present Death as an inevitable force, but with the purpose of inviting people to look at it from a different perspective instead of fear. The personification of Death is quite a popular trend and can be found in many forms of modern fiction: books, comics series, films, television series, or video games. Its appearance and personality may vary, but generally it serves a similar purpose: the creators turn the concept into a character for the sake of making it more understandable and acceptable.
Canon, K. V. (2018). Not Cruel, Blessed, or Merciful: Pratchett, Gaiman, and the Personification of Death. [MA Thesis, Georgia Southern University]. Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
Gaiman, N., & Pratchett, T. (2006). Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. (Reprint). William Morrow.
Kňazeová, T. (2014). The Concept of Death in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series [Thesis, Masaryk
Pratchett, T. (2013). Mort. Orion publishing group.
Pratchett, T. (2013). Reaper Man. Orion publishing group.
Rowling, J. K. (2008). The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Children’s High Level Group.
Simonetta, M. A. (2018). Harry Potter and The Tale of the Tree Brothers [Thesis, Harvard University]. HARVARD.EDU.
Trendacosta, K. (2015, December 18). The 10 greatest personifications of death in pop culture. Gizmodo. Retrieved November, 17, from https://gizmodo.com/the-10-greatest-personifications-of-death-in-pop-cultur-1748726158
Vardal, H. (2019). The portrayal of the personification of death as a character in myth and fictional literature in the western world. [MA Thesis, Oslo Metropolitan University]. OSLOMET.
Windling, T. (2016). Death in folk & fairy tales. Myth & Moor. Retrieved November 17, from https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2016/10/death-in-fairytales.html
Figure 1: Kidby, P. (2011). Check Mort. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.paulkidby.com/paintings/
Figure 2: Bachalo, C. "The Sandman". (1989). Death of the Endless. [Illustration]. Retrieved from:https://thedreaming.moteofdust.com/2016/08/17/12-playing-house/
Figure 3: Warner Bros. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows". (2010). Ignotus Peverell departs with Death as equals. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.collater.al/en/harry-potter-framestore-ben-hibon-animation/
Cover image: Wyatt, D. (2017). Death's Study. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.discworldemporium.com/product/death-s-study-print/