In the very first minutes of “The Six Thatchers” – the first episode of series 4 of Sherlock we were introduced to a fable, narrated by Sherlock himself and it’s definitely one of those stories that once heard stay forever hidden somewhere in the corners of your mind palace. It’s actually an Ancient Mesopotamian tale that first appears in the Babylonian Talmud and came to Western attention with its retelling by British writer W Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) in his 1933 short fable An Appointment in Samarra. So I just thought I’d share it here since it speaks on several very philosophical subjects such as life, death, chance, inevitability, predestination and time. Here’s the fable itself:
“The Appointment in Samarra”
(as retold by W. Somerset Maugham )
The speaker is Death
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
It’s one of those things that just makes you feel a certain way, you know…you get a funny feeling in your stomach but it’s not fear or desperation (well for some it might be)…it’s more like a sudden realisation that you can’t outrun death and more importantly you can’t domineer over time and most specifically the time that is given to you (if you believe in things like predestination of course). But even if you don’t feel like a voiceless figure in the hands of the almighty Fate those few lines just act as a reminder – a reminder to cherish every moment of your life for you never know when it’s all gonna end and even if you knew chances are that you can’t overleap it – after all there is only one destination of absolute certainty that we are all headed to and we simply can’t avoid it.
That fable made me recall another story from the much beloved Harry Potter series that also deals with the question for how long can you escape the inevitable – “The Tale of the Three Brothers”, believed to be written by Beedle the Bard and published as part of a collection of his works called The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Here it is:
“There were once three brothers who were traveling along a lonely, winding road at twilight. In time, the brothers reached a river too deep to wade through and too dangerous to swim across.. However, these brothers were learned in the magical arts, and so they simply waved their wands and made a bridge appear across the treacherous water. They were halfway across it when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure.
And Death spoke to them. He was angry that he had been cheated out of three new victims, for travelers usually drowned in the river. But Death was cunning. He pretended to congratulate the three brothers upon their magic and said that each had earned a prize for having been clever enough to evade him.
So the oldest brother, who was a combative man, asked for a wand more powerful than any in existence: a wand that must always win duels for its owner, a wand worthy of a wizard who had conquered Death! So Death crossed to an elder tree on the banks of the river, fashioned a wand from a branch that hung there, and gave it to the oldest brother.
Then the second brother, who was an arrogant man, decided that he wanted to humiliate Death still further, and asked for the power to recall others from Death. So Death picked up a stone from the riverbank and gave it to the second brother, and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead.
And then Death asked the third and youngest brother what he would like. The youngest brother was the humblest and also the wisest of the brothers, and he did not trust Death. So he asked for something that would enable him to go forth from that place without being followed by Death. And death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of Invisibility.
Then Death stood aside and allowed the three brothers to continue on their way, and they did so, talking with wonder of the adventure they had had, and admiring Death’s gifts. In due course the brothers separated, each for his own destination.
The first brother traveled on for a week or more, and reaching a distant village, sought out a fellow wizard with whom he had a quarrel. Naturally with the Elder Wand as his weapon, he could not fail to win the duel that followed. Leaving his enemy dead upon the floor, the oldest brother proceeded to an inn, where he boasted loudly of the powerful wand he had snatched from Death himself, and of how it made him invincible.
That very night, another wizard crept upon the oldest brother as he lay, wine-sodden, upon his bed. The thief took the wand and, for good measure, slit the oldest brother’s throat.
And so Death took the first brother for his own.
Meanwhile, the second brother journeyed to his own home, where he lived alone. Here he took out the stone that had the power to recall the dead, and turned it thrice in his hand. To his amazement and his delight, the figure of the girl he had once hoped to marry, before her untimely death, appeared at once before him.
Yet she was sad and cold, separated from him as by a veil. Though she had returned to the mortal world, she did not truly belong there and suffered. Finally the second brother, driven mad with hopeless longing, killed himself so as truly to join her.
And so Death took the second brother for his own.
But though Death searched for the third brother for many years, he was never able to find him. It was only when he had attained a great age that the youngest brother finally took off the Cloak of Invisibility and gave it to his son. And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”
– Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter Twenty-One
So what’s the point of sharing these stories? I dunno – I kind of like them, I think they’re beautiful (as in *spooky-beautiful* but still beautiful). And since I don’t want this post to leave you with gloomy thoughts about the inevitability of the grande finale lets look at things from the bright, funny side. For instance, here’s my personalized emoji reaction to the stories:
And to spice things up even more lets not forget that Deadpool had/has (it’s Deadpool, who knows what he’s up to) a love affair with Death herself…I mean…how cool?! Be a good sport Deadpool and say a few good words for us poor souls to your sugar skull love.
Also, this is so random but you have to check it out:
I mean…😂 Is this rad or what?! Death appears to be one hell of a chick! That make up! You go girl! Woo Hoo!
So yeah…I say, do not fear Samarra! After all, if captain Jack Sparrow managed to get back from Davy Jones’ Locker there’s hope for us all. Or at least for those of us who are pirates at heart. Sherlock knows that for sure. Fair winds!
P.S. How we went from an Ancient Mesopotamian tale to Deadpool hooking up with Death I’ve no idea…😂
– Snowanna of 221B