Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. John B. Gruelle, illustrator. Margaret Hunt, translator. New York: Cupples & Leon, 1914.

Image source: SurLaLune Fairy Tales

Today I’m returning to the Grimms’ tales, although “Godfather Death” is a new one to me.

The story’s about a poor man with a whole batch of kids. When his 13th arrives, he went out to the road to find a godfather for the child. Can you guess who he ends up picking? He turned down God’s offer, because God “givest to the rich, and leavest the poor to hunger.” He turns down the devil with his usual enticement of  riches and earthly pleasure, because Satan “deceivest men and leadest them astray.” Then along comes Death and the father decides that Death will be the perfect godfather for his son, since Death “takest the rich as well as the poor, without distinction.”

So, with Death as his godfather, the boy grows up. One day, the godfather appears to the young man and gives him his gift. He will make the young man a famous physician. When the young man goes to a patient’s bedside, if Death is at the ill person’s head he will live if the physician gives him some of a special herb, but when Death stands at the patient’s feet he is to die.

One day the physician is called to the King’s bedside, where Death stands at the King’s feet. The doctor decides to cheat Death, turns the King around, and gives him some of the herb. The King lives and grows healthy again, but Death warns the physician not to go against his wishes again. Not much later, however, the king’s daughter falls ill. The King promises that whoever cures her would be her husband and inherit the crown. When the physician goes to her bedside, Death is at her feet. The doctor, enamoured by the girl’s beauty and the promise of the crown, cheats death again, rescuing the princess.

Death is so angry at his physician he drags him into a deep cave where the candles of all living people are lit and explains that when the light goes out, the person dies. Death shows the physician his own candle, short with a sputtering flame. The physician begs and pleads to be allowed a longer life. Death pretends he will attach the small candle piece to a larger one, but “as he desired to revenge himself, he purposely made a mistake in fixing it, and the little piece fell down and was extinguished. Immediately the physician fell on the ground, and now he himself was in the hands of Death.”

Interesting story. The “hero” thinks that Death loves him and so will overlook his disobedience, but in the end, Death deals fairly with everyone. The father in the story liked Death because of his attitude that everyone was equal. The son’s downfall comes when he doesn’t treat people equally. He defies Death to save the King and Princess, notice, not a beautiful milkmaid or ugly farmer. Maybe that’s the Grimms’ point. People should be treated equally, the King is in truth no better than the peasant, just richer.

It’s also an odd comment about God there, even if it is tempered with a metion that man just can’t understand God’s ways. The father sounds angry with God, upset that he is poor and desperate while others have more than enough.

You can read the whole story several places, including here.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.