Into the World of the Dead
by Michael Boughn
Published by Annick Press
56 pages, 2006
Tales from Down Under
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
At first brush, Into the World of the Dead is a fully weird book to think about foisting onto an unsuspecting child. If the title doesn't sum it up sufficiently, try the subtitle on for size: Astonishing Adventures in the Underworld. And just in case you think both of these are euphemisms for some happy stuff involving purple dinosaurs or gender-bending übberbabies or anything other than what it sounds like, think again. This is a book aimed at children ages nine to 11 that deals entirely with death. More precisely, it deals with the way the world's cultures have dealt with what lies beyond death in stories and fables. In the introduction, author Michael Boughn sums it up quite well:
Every culture in the world has stories about places that exist beyond the earth we can see around us. Often these legendary places are beneath our feet, literally worlds under us. Just as often, they are worlds of the dead. ... Today many different versions of these remarkable tales exist. Each story you read here is one particular account chosen from dozens of possible alternatives.
Boughn is a great guide. An author and poet with a Ph.D. in English literature, he clearly knows his stuff. From Mictlin, "the lowest level of the Aztec underworld," to Xibalba -- roughly the Mayan equivalent, to the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh who "journeyed to the underworld and beyond after the death of his dearest companion."
Into the World of the Dead is astonishingly well laid out, with well-planned chapters bringing us through this huge topic in a logical way. Almost, as the author suggests, like a journey.
We begin with an introduction to the concepts of underworlds and otherworlds; a bit of preparation for our journey. In the first chapter, Boughn brings us close to a beginning course in comparative religion. And what a great way to get youngsters thinking about other people in other lands.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are sometimes referred to as Abrahamic religions, because each claims Abraham as a founding prophet. Perhaps not surprisingly, all three faiths share a vision of the underworld as a place where sinners are made to pay for their sins.
The idea that so many people and cultures can have startlingly different visions of the afterlife might prove eye-opening to some children. Another eye opener: some of the basics are surprisingly similar.
Chapter two is called "The Way In" and deals, logically enough, with how you get to the underworld. And if you have the idea that's just too simple a topic to warrant a chapter, think again. The Mayans, for example, thought the entrance to Xibalba was through the mouth of a huge feathered serpent. (Sounds messy.) And one page includes photos from a Web site in the United Kingdom that shows images of alleged doorways to hell. Predictably, none of these supposed entrances are very attractive.
"Why Go?" is what chapter three is called. It deals with motivation for the journey. "The place itself is always terrifying," writes the author. "So why on earth (so to speak) would anyone want to go?"
"Why Go?" is properly followed up by "Who Went?" Understandably enough, this is a longish chapter with many entries from many cultures.
The remaining chapters are equally self-explanatory: "Getting There," Who's in Charge," "Guardians and Monsters," "Getting Back," and, finally, a very good source guide for "Further Reading."
Boughn handles his material beautifully, never either sensationalizing or patronizing. Into the World of the Dead is an entirely engaging journey. Adults are just as likely to learn from and enjoy it as children. | June 2006
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.