Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stories about Death for children

Every once in a while I run into parents, teachers and other worried adults who reach out to me to have an adult conversation about death in my stories. Most of what they tell me can be summarized in a few simple words:
Now, death shows up in stories in many ways. Sometimes it is not more than one of many possible outcomes: this is what folklorists like to call "Do or Die." These are the tales where the prince knows that if he doesn't complete his mission, he will be killed (of course it never actually happens because he does). Sometimes death shows up as a side event - the first two heroes fail and die, and are either resurrected in the end by the victorious third, or stay dead. A lot of times death is punishment: the evil queen, the wicked witch, or other villains end up dead instead of the champions they tried to kill. There is a metric ton of scientific publications on how this is very important for the children's mental development: they need, crave and often demand the resolution in the story that death brings, making super-extra-maxi sure that the bad guy never returns. I have had experiences where children expressed anxiety if the villain did not die, told me they were worried they would come back. It's primal, people. Not rocket surgery.
I remember a sunny summer afternoon in the sailing camp when the kids walked up to me on the shore and asked me if I could tell them any stories about death. It wasn't the usual "tell us something scaaaaaary!" plea either, it was kind of quiet and curious. I sat down and told them a few folktales that deal with death; we sat around and discussed them, they shared their ideas and concerns, and asked if I could tell them some more stories.
Long story short: you can't just put death in a box and bury it somewhere hoping your kids will never find it. You know why? There is a story about it.
(And for future reference, here are some more similar stories I told that afternoon).

Koschei the Deathless
Talkin' about burying death in a box... or chaining him up in the basement.  Apart from being a kickass action story that kids love, with princes and magic, and a strong female hero, the more you think about it the deeper the meaning gets. No, really. Try it.
(Recently the story has been adapted into a completely gorgeous urban fantasy book titled Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente. Worth reading! Not for kids.)

Godfather death
Grimm classic, also known in other versions with Death being male or female, depending on the culture. Talks about how everyone has their time and we can't do much to change it. Even talks about the relationship between death and doctors, and how sometimes even doctors can't perform miracles. Telling ranges from comical to very serious, dealer's choice.

Mr. Death and the Red-headed woman
My ever favorite death story, and the nicest portrayal of Death I have seen in a short story. Not a folktale (written by Helen Eustice), but the storytelling community adores this one as one of the great tales. It's a love story, people. With a happy ending.

Kids love this one. Greek myth about love, loss, and fear of death. When King Admetus gets to trade his death for another person's, his wife volunteers to go in his place. Admetus, realizing that his fear of death was not worse than his grief for his wife, wishes he could take it all back. Hercules shows up out of nowhere, coaxes the story out of the mourning king, and proceeds to beat the cr*p out of Death when he appears to take the queen's soul. Tanathos leaves with bruises, queen lives, king celebrates, Hercules gets drunk (this part is optional). Everyone's happy. Every once in a while, you get a "get out of death" free card. This story is great for teaching kids about love, sacrifice, family, and the fact that Death is not something grand and fearsome that you cannot face with bravery.  

The Prince who wanted to be immortal
I usually tell the Hungarian version of this one, but it exists in many other cultures. A prince who is too afraid to ever die sets out on a journey to find a kingdom where people never die. He travels through realms where people live longer and longer, but not forever, until he finds the palace of the Immortal Queen. Moving in he enjoys immortality for a while before he gets homesick and decides to go home for a visit. On his way back he finds the previous kingdoms long gone, and when he gets home, his home is nowhere to be found. He realizes that immortality took a long time, and everyone is long gone. Among the ruins he finds Death waiting for him, and death chases him all the way back to the castle of immortality, catching him right on the doorstep. There are two endings to this story: in one, the Prince dies, because that is the natural order of things. In the other, through giving away his Water of Life and reviving the previous kingdoms, he gets help to chase Death away, and manages to return to the Queen, and live happily forever. I usually tell this latter one, solely because of the comical ending of the Queen and Death playing tug-o-war with the prince.
Spelling it out: this story teaches kids that death is a natural thing that everyone shares. It also teaches them that one way of escaping oblivion is making sure that others remember you (as a good person). It also explains that living forever by itself is not rewarding - you need people you can spend eternity with.

The Master-smith
Norwegian folktale about a blacksmith that tricks death. Exists in many versions (sometimes it is the devil instead of death). Great story for explaining the role of death in the world. Once Death is trapped by the smith, chaos ensues all around the world: nothing dies, people can't eat, the sick and dying can't go to rest, and everything is swarmed with insects. Finally the smith has to admit that death has an important role to play and lets him out. I'm not even going to spell out the teachings in this one.

The Wedding veil of the Proud Princess
Also not a folktale, but I have loved this story since I was little. A princess who is too proud to marry anyone but the strongest knight in the realm is won by a mysterious black armored knight who knocks everyone out of the saddle. In the end, the black knight turns out to be Death, and he takes the princess away. This story teaches us how important it is to enjoy life and notice the little things, because death defeats everyone in the end. You can't be too proud to live happy.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told"
This one just made me wonder. If we are not allowed to talk about death to kids (let alone blood and gore, and nailing people to things), how will they understand the story of Jesus Christ? He happened to... you know... go away on a long journey for our sins. Just sayin'.


  1. Dearest Csenge

    thank you thank you thank you for this. I am a huge advocate and teller of death tales. I couldn't agree more on the importance of bringing death stories into everyday existence for children and adults.

    As you said we cannot wrap death in a box and hide it from them forever. By bringing death into the room, so to speak, we often afford children a much needed opportunity to process their emotions (through the experience of listening) or to speak to experiences, fears or questions they might have.

    We live in a culture that likes to deny death, as storytellers we can take the opportunity and responsibility to tackle this stupidity and denial of the only certain reality of our existence.

    Again, well done!

  2. Thanks, Csenga,
    I didn't realize the Tir na N'Og story also shows up in Hungarian lore.

  3. Csenge, I love examining folk and fairy tales in this way! What an important theme to follow from story to story.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.