What if you met Death? Would you try to escape? This retelling of a traditional folktale from the Middle East tells the story of one man’s quest to escape death. Many versions of this story exist. There are retellings set in the court of King Solomon and retellings set in our modern-day world. One retelling, “The Appointment in Samarra,” was written by W. Somerset Maugham. Another version, “The Appointment,” was collected and retold from folklore by Alvin Schwartz. The storyteller here keeps the story in the Middle East, but adds her own twists to this traditional tale.
1. What if the rich man had accepted the idea of death and simply gone home. How might that change the story?
2. If you are rich, is death the only thing you can’t escape? Explain your answer.
3. How did Death know where he was supposed to meet the man?
4. Which do you believe plays a bigger role in your life — fate or self-determination/free will? Explain your answer.
5. What if the man in the story had been poor? How would that have changed the story?
6. In the story, Death is described as having a “big skull, bone-white, big long black cape, a sickle in his hand.” This is a common way of describing death. But what about life? If you were to meet Life, what would Life look like?
7. We know how the rich man managed to travel so quickly, but how did Death make the same journey so fast? How does death travel today?
8. The rich man seems afraid of death and tries to avoid it, but suppose death did not exist. How would that change the world?
9. The servants seem to understand the meaning of the meeting with Death, but the rich man does not. Why do you think they differ in their understandings?
1. Compare and contrast other retellings of this story with “Death in the Marketplace.” Consider using “The Appointment” in Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stores 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones” (New York: Lippincott, 1981. p. 7). A look at these two versions, the told story and the Schwartz text, can heighten student awareness of the impact of setting on a story.
2. In most versions of this story, the character trying to escape Death does not meet Death at the end of the story. Instead, the character who sees Death in the marketplace turns to another character for help with the escape. After the first character leaves, the helpful character confronts Death. He learns that Death was surprised to see the first character in the marketplace because Death expected to meet them in the location to which the first character has fled. How does the storyteller’s version differ from the traditional versions? What impact do those changes have on the story?
3. Use this story as a lead-in for studying how animals like camels are especially suited for their environments. Assign your students the task of researching and identifying the attributes of camels that make them such useful desert transports.
4. The storyteller describes Death as having a “big skull, bone-white, big long black cape, a sickle in his hand,” a common way of describing death personified. View the following images of Death, all on PBS LearningMedia. Which do you think best match most the storyteller’s description of death? How are others different? What if the storyteller’s description had matched a different image of death? How could that have changed the impact of the story?
These images were all created many years ago (the most recent is from around 1900.) What emotions do you think people from the time felt when seeing these images? Ask students which attributes of an image of Death would be appropriate for today’s world. How do you think such a new image would impact people today?
Here’s a link to 35 woodcut images by Hans Lutzelburger, created in the 16th century for “The Dance of Death.” The images show Death with people in a variety of roles. (e.g., Death and the Sailor, Death and the Merchant, Death and the Old Man, Death and the Nun). Death is not depicted the same way in every image.
5. This traditional tale implies that death is unavoidable, but what if death did not exist? Challenge your students to research how our world would likely be different if nothing living had ever died, and then make claims based on their research. Or, what if only humans had never died? Or, what if death stopped, beginning today?
You may want to specify the number of specific changes you expect students to research and report on. Or, after students spend time in brainstorming in groups, ask them to report on the specific topic that most interests them.