The Graveyard Book, part 2


I’m fascinated by the chapter in The Graveyard Book on the Dance Macabre: what does it mean in the context of the book and why did Neil Gaiman include it?. I’d also like to just comment briefly on the way the book ends.

Chapter 5, the middle of the book, begins after Bod has been whipped by Master Owens for his foray out of the graveyard to sell the broach from the most ancient crypt to buy a headstone for the witch, Liza Hempstock. It was winter, and Bod was now ten years old. None of the ghosts had time for him, they were all busy . . . mostly cleaning . . . humming. Many of them sung the same tune, with couplets from the same song.

Rich man, poor man, come away.

Come to dance the Macabray.

But the couplets were not all identical. One began One and all will hear and stay . . . another . , , Time to work and time to play, Time to dance the Macabray. And none of the ghosts will tell Bod what is going on. There are hints. “It’s special.” “It’s the best day.”

Silas, Bod’s guardian, brings him new clothes (a sweater the color of his winding sheet). But will not discuss it with him ” . . . I do not know what it is like to dance the Macabray. You must be alive or you must be dead to dance it–and I am neither.” Bod asks his guardian, ” . . . you’ll always be here, Silas, won’t you? And I won’t ever have to leave, if I don’t want to?” Silas says only, “Everything in its season.”

image from Wikipedia

Five pointed white flowers bloom in the graveyard the next day, and officials from the old town come to cut them and talk about the tradition. At dusk there are no ghosts in the graveyard and Bod hears music that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere. He goes down into the old town. Mrs. Caraway the Lady Mayoress and the other officials are handing out the flowers, pinning them to the chests of young and old, rich and poor. The music becomes louder, more clear after Bod gets a flower. The last time this happened was eighty years ago.

The ghosts come down from the graveyard, Bod’s family and friends. Josiah Worthington, one of the oldest, asks Mrs. Caraway to join him in the Macabray–and they dance, the living and the dead, all the living and all the dead, they dance for hours. Finally, the lady on the white horse comes, and she too joins the dance. All dance but Silas.

Bod dances with the lady and asks to ride the white horse. She promises him that one day he we will, one day everyone does.

At the stroke of twelve the dead leave and the living return to their homes. But when Bod returns to the graveyard none will speak of the Macabray. It snows.

The Danse Macabre is an allegory about the universality of death dating from the fifteenth century and ubiquitous in European culture. Death leads the dance of kings and paupers, young and old to the grave. But why here in this book.

Certainly the vignette demonstrates that Bod has no fear of death, but we knew this. And he says so to Silas discussing the fact that Jack is still hunting for him. The book is clear that all life is prelude to the grave, so what does this bring that is new, that needs emphasis?

I think the key is sounded many times in this chapter, in Bod’s conversations with Silas and Death, certainly, but no where more clearly than in his conversation near the end of the chapter with Josiah Worthington when Josiah refuses to speak of the Dance.

“But I’m one of you.”

“Not yet, boy. Not for a lifetime.”

Bod had danced the Danse Macabre as one of the living. His parents–both his biological parents and the Owenses, who raised him, were dead. His friends were the dead. His community, the dead. His home was the graveyard. But he lives.

And, as his guardian said when he asked whether he could stay, “Everything in its season.”

Which brings up the last chapter in the book. The Jacks are dead, or worse, but in any event no longer a threat. We are reminded that Silas gave his word to stay until Bod is grown, and Bod is nearly grown. The fox he has known since it was a cub is afraid of him. Bod can no longer slip through things, slip through the ivy. Mother Slaughter tells him he’s a good lad, and wonders what they’ll ever do without him. Bod is fifteen, nearly sixteen. Bod’s father tells him “I do not believe that we could have ever has a better young man than you, Bod.”

Liza says goodbye. Silas says goodbye and gives him a passport in his own name, Nobody Owens, and some money. The graveyard is saying goodbye to a child it loves, a child who must leave to get on with something the graveyard cannot give him. And, finally, he says goodbye to Mistress Owens, his mother. She sings his nursery lullabye, ending with

Face your life

Its pain, its pleasure,

Leave no path untaken.”


One Response to “The Graveyard Book, part 2”

  1. Usually I don’t learn article on blogs, but I wish to
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