Skeletons I have known and loved
There is a Japanese folk-tale about a skeleton who visits her ex-lover at night. This lover had hurt her feelings by failing to visit or contact her, and she passed away while pining for him. When she visits him after her death, they resume their love affair. But the living cannot love the dead without losing their own life-force. Eventually the couple were found together in bed, a rotting corpse held in the embrace of a skeleton.
The story has its origins in a Chinese Buddhist morality tale, and in the long version told by 19th Century Japanese writer Lafcadio Hearn, a Buddhist priest tries to save the hapless young man from his fate. In Buddhist teaching, skeletons are invoked in a technique for preventing amorous feelings from distracting you from your meditation. The technique broadly involved reflecting on how you and the person you love are both made of bodies that will age, die, decompose and eventually be nothing more than an impersonal skeleton.
I once lost a friend, alone near some catacombs. Lydia was a good friend who I loved to lavish with the most glorious armor we found on our quests around Skyrim. She followed me into the Shrine of Meridia, a goddess who manifests as a beautiful woman. Meridia abhors all things undead, but the shrine had been defiled by a necromancer. It was full of frightening creatures called “shades”, skeletal beings that seemed to be full of black smoke. Lydia and I entered the shrine to battle the shades, defeat the necromancer who had created them, and place the beacon of Meridia on her altar once more.
Skyrim is full of places like this shrine and its nearby catacombs: dark, underground fortresses that loop back onto themselves and keep your destination forever out of view. Navigating them feels impossible sometimes, and I would often wander round and around in circles. Skyrim is an old country, and as such its dead outnumber its living. You meet them all in these dark, winding tunnels, brought to life as shades, thralls and skeletons. Skeletons aren’t necessarily difficult to incapacitate, but one destroyed skeleton is easily replaced by a dozen more. You will never destroy all the skeletons locked away in Skyrim’s hidden places. So it was in the shrine of Meridia, as shades made by the necromancer from desecrated bodies from the catacombs came looming toward me, their eye sockets glowing with an ominous red light. Luckily, I rarely had to get close to those terrible eyes: Lydia was there by my side, always eager to charge ahead and experience the thrill of victory.
After eliminating the necromancer and his shades, the goddess lifted me high into the sky and granted me her sword. The astonishing weapon shone with golden light, and I knew it would look wonderful with Lydia’s dwarven armour. But when I was returned to earth, Lydia was not there. She was nowhere nearby. She was not back home in Whiterun. The only place she could have been was back in the shrine, which was now locked. Perhaps she would find her own way out? I wandered Skyrim, hoping she would come running back to me over the next hill, and she never did. I missed seeing her careering around Skyrim’s ruins in her gaudy armor.
There was only one solution: reload a past save and kill the necromancer again. So I repeated the mission, once again destroying skeleton after skeleton with Lydia by my side. When the necromancer was destroyed, I told Lydia to leave the shrine without me. Thinking I had given her enough time to leave, I once again placed the beacon of Meridia on her altar and accepted her blessing. But once again, Lydia was nowhere to be found. It seemed the only way I could prevent her from facing a lifetime trapped inside the goddess’s shrine was by learning to fight without her.
My repeated battles against the necromancer and his shades seemed to bind us together. We could never be friends, but we seemed connected by a shared loneliness. The necromancer could not connect with the living or the sacred, instead living in the catacombs alone as an enemy of the goddess and with his only companionship coming from the undead creatures of his own making. I wonder what would have happened if he had been persuaded to end his doomed project, make amends with Meridia, and leave her shrine in peace?
To live with others is to learn to accept their comings and goings, enjoying their company while you have it and saying good bye when the time has come. Perhaps when we think about skeletons, we think about the failure to let go in this way. The tarot card “death” is often represented as a skeleton standing proud or riding in full armor on a white horse. No matter what deck you look at, death almost always looks relaxed. Nobody looks more calm than a skeleton.
Death is portrayed solo, but skeletons work well in pairs. Take the pair of skeletons who are constantly hanging around near Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls, who have a charming habit of materializing and catching me off guard when I’m busy doing something else. The pair always seem to come blundering uphill toward me together, one slightly in front of the other, and are much harder to fight than most of the hollows nearby. The ubiquitous undead beings known as hollows are in a state of decay, but skeletons are done. When they gather their bones back into an animated body, they briefly rub their skulls as if making sure it were attached properly. They skip aheadwith the ease of someone with no deadlines on the horizon, irritatingly cheerful, the Chuckle Brothers of Lordran. A pair of cheerful skeleton buddies were the leading characters in a popular children’s cartoon and storybook series when I was growing up. The Funnybones shared a cosy bed in the “dark, dark cellar” of a “dark, dark house” with their skeleton dog. Then there’s Undertale, with its two endearing skeleton brothers.
The permanent smile of a skeletoncan look comic or grim depending on context. The skeleton grin lies beneath every tragic end, reflecting that given enough time - and an undead being has nothing but time - any grim tragedy can become comic. If comedy is our deepest fears make unthreatening, then it’s no wonder the skeleton is considered quirky and charming enough that Funnybones’s same-sex skeleton bedmates were considered acceptable material for children’s television in the UK in 1992, while the homophobic Section 28 law was in force.
The skeleton is beyond social mores, beyond aging, beyond time. Degradation taken to its furthest point is granted a kind of immunity from hurt.
Undertale’s skeleton brothers break the grim-comic dual meaning of the skeleton’s grin into two characters. Papyrus is the comic relief, while Sans is the wise observer. It’s not that Sans isn’t also a joker, but beneath his humor there’s a sadness that comes from the things he has learned about the world by watching over it. Toward the end of an Undertale run, some aspect of Sans’s inner depression is revealed to the player. Sans has a complex relationship with time; he is able to observe the fact that somebody is saving and reloading the game, but cannot directly tell that the player is the person in question. He knows that the person who can save and reload is capable of undoing any of his efforts to prevent harm from coming to those he loves. This knowledge has caused him to sink into depression.
I think of Sans as the archetype of a writer: he observes the goings-on of the world closely, but the more he understands about the power structures that affect his destiny, the less he feels able to make a difference. In the worst case scenario, the only solution he can find is literal inaction.
This lack of agency in the world is more literal in the case of Boney, a character in another 1990s British TV show, Trap Door. Boney is just a skull, lacking arms or legs or any other means of affecting the world around him, other than giving advice to his friend Berk, a nonspecific blob of a man with exaggeratedly large hands and feet. In one episode, Boney accidentally acquires a body, and his elation is extremely relatable to anyone who has struggled with having a body that limits their self-expression. “I feel WONDERFUL!” he declares, galloping around on six legs.
Boney and Sans share in common a sense of disempowerment, and also a strong sense of connection with other people. As soon as he acquires a body, the first thing that Boney attempts to do is not leave the dungeon where he has been trapped for so long, but find his friends and celebrate with them. Sans, like everyone in Undertale, feels a strong sense of togetherness with the other monsters of the underworld, and is motivated to act, in spite of his knowledge that his actions will make no difference on the world, by his deep love for those around him.
Skeletons make frightening enemies because there are endless numbers of them and they just won’t die, but what makes them interesting as monsters is their connection in our imagination to frustrated desires - the desire to be close to someone, or the desire to have more agency in our lives. Whether it’s the old Japanese folk tale or a modern-day videogame, skeletons are linked to this sense of unsated hunger. In tarot and in children’s TV, they exist as a reminder to let go and move on.