Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part One

John Gruelle

All Hallows

Among Thalia, Melissa, and myself, we decided to observe All Hallows Eve with our own party; in costume, of course. Melissa considered whether or not she should do her same-old, same-old costume as a witch. I suggested she pose as Lady Godiva, and she told me to behave myself.

Melissa is dressed as a witch and I as a sorcerer. Thalia has chosen to be an imp. I think the pointy rubber ears become her.

Our party table is replete with three bowls of sweets that I allowed Thalia to pick out at the grocery. One bowl is full of Lion Chocolate Bars and Lion White Bars. (Thalia could not decide which she likes better.) The second bowl is of Walkers Nonsuch Salted Caramel Toffees, and the third of Taveners’ Jelly Babies. Melissa brought brownies with white chocolate chunks, and I baked a pumpkin pie dusted with icing sugar. We have to run back and forth from the study to the refrigerator in the kitchen to make the pie à la mode. Instead of apple cider there is Cidona (the fizzy, non-alcoholic one) at Thalia’s request. For those of us who prefer a drier sort of drink, a bottle of Renegade London Syrah graces the table. A sip of the syrah sends Thalia’s face into sour mode and she returns to her apple soda.

The climax of our little party is Melissa’s reading from Grimm: Godfather Death.

A poor man, on the birth of his thirteenth child, a boy, is looking for a godfather. He refuses both God and the Devil, who offer their services, and chooses Death, because he treats the rich and the poor alike. When the boy is of age, Death teaches him how to cure people with an herb. Death also tells him, if he sees Death standing at the head of the bed, the cure will work. If Death stands at the foot of the bed, the cure will not work.

Armed with this knowledge, the godson becomes a great and wealthy physician. However, when the godson is summoned to cure the king, he sees Death at the foot of the bed. Instead of allowing Death to take the king, the physician turns the king around on his bed so that Death is standing at the king’s head.

Death allows his godson to get away with that trick once, but when the physician tries the same trick again to save the princess, who’s cure promises her marriage and the kingship to the physician, Godfather Death has had enough. He whisks his godson down into the underworld.

There, in a cave, are thousands of burning candles, one candle for every living person. Death points out the physician’s candle, a short stub with a flickering flame. The godson pleads with Death to extend his life with another candle so that he may marry the princess and become a king. Death, feigning to do so, actually snuffs out the candle, and the godson falls down dead.

Thalia, a half-eaten Lion Bar in hand, contemplates the image.

“Candles. Cool.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part Two

George Cruikshank

Fatal Flames

“Candles indeed,” says Melissa, as her hand hovers over the three sweets bowls in turn, then dives in for a toffee. “It brings to my mind the Catholics’ blessed candles.”

“Or the Jewish yahrzeit candles,” I reply, considering a handful of Taveners’.

“There is a difference.” Melissa knits her brow under her witch’s hat. “The blessed candles are lit when it is thought that a person is dying. I believe the yahrzeit is a memorial candle.”

“Yes,” I say, “lit in honor of someone on the anniversary of their death.”

“If I recall correctly,” Melissa takes a sip of her wine, “in both cases, the candles should be made of beeswax; at least the Catholics are pretty insistent that it be no less than 51 percent beeswax.”

While we talk, Thalia jumps up, turns off the overhead light and table lamps, and returns to where we are sitting with a single lit candle.

“Atmosphere,” Thalia grins.

“Good thought,” agrees Melissa. “But really, I think the candles in our story are corpse-candles.”

Thalia’s eyes widen. “What are corspe-candles?”

“Supposedly,” Melissa’s eyebrows arch, “the souls of the dead may appear as flickering flames floating above their graves. Or worse, they float about the marshlands at night to lure lost travelers from the path into treacherous bogs.

“A number of the tales are about a man, usually a blacksmith, who is nasty and a trickster. He is clever enough to even trick the Devil, who has come for him, into letting him live longer. The blacksmith manages to trick the Devil more than once.

“But, eventually, the blacksmith must die. When he does, he has been too bad to go to heaven, and the Devil won’t let him into hell. The Devil’s only concession is to give the blacksmith an ember, telling him to go make his own hell.

“The blacksmith takes the ember, puts it into a carved-out turnip to serve as a lantern, and wanders around in the wilderness luring, as I said, unwary travelers to their death. The blacksmith is often named Will or Jack, and his spirit form is “will-o’-the-wisp” or “jack-o’-lantern.”

Thalia’s eyes light up in recognition. “And now it’s a pumpkin!”

“Quite right.” Melissa nods.

“There is an argument,” I say, “that the blacksmith and the Devil, and the tricking of Death or the Devil is quite an old story. By old, I mean Bronze Age.”

“How could anyone know that?” protests Melissa, taking another sip of wine.

“I heard about it over the BBC. It is a little hard to follow, but it has to do with ideas borrowed from evolutionary biology. I think it’s called the phylogenetic method.”

“Pardon?” Melissa scowls.

“Well, it studies and compares things like population histories, languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture, and even music. When it comes to the tales, it’s the “tree” of Indo-European languages that shows traces of the tales. Actually, the idea that the tales can be traced going back through the Indo-European languages was first suggested by the Grimm brothers.”

“The Grimm brothers notwithstanding, I’m not buying any of it.” Melissa’s eyebrows fairly dance under her hat. “Phylogenetic, my foot.”

Thalia giggles.

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part Three

Otto Ubbelohde

Cheating Death

The fairy flutters out of the dark, and perches on my granddaughter’s shoulder. Thalia holds her Lion Bar up to her. She sniffs it suspiciously, then glares sharply at Thalia.

“I guess not,” says our costumed imp.

Melissa can hardly take her eyes off the fairy. I don’t think Melissa has seen her since she invaded the bookstore, and Thalia had to come and retrieve her.

“While I can’t agree with your phylogenetic whoevers,” Melissa says, not averting her stare from the fairy, “the blacksmith and the Devil’s motif of cheating death is certainly a popular one in these tales.”

Melissa manages to pull her attention back to me, if only for a few seconds. “I do recall a Czechoslovakian version of Godfather Death, but in this case it is Godmother Death.”

“Oh, really,” I say.

“Yes, death is a woman, a bit nicer than Grimm’s godfather. The father of the son, for whom Death agrees to stand as godmother, is able to extend his own life by lighting a longer candle for himself. Death is not pleased, but lets him get away with it. She makes the father a physician. He plays the head-to-foot trick, and, again, gets away with it. However, this physician does not press his luck any further and lives a long life due to his trick with the candle.

“Godmother Death then causes his son, her godson, to also be a successful physician.”

All this while, Melissa and the fairy have been looking at each other. Melissa extends an index finger like a bird’s perch. The fairy takes the hint and flutters over to Melissa. It is Thalia’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“I think she likes you.”

Melissa’s smile beams as the fairy cocks her head from side to side regarding the costumed witch.

“Returning to the thought of cheating death,” I say, not wanting to lose the thread of our conversation. “There are two things that come to me.”

I look into the candle flame to focus my thoughts. “First is that the impetus for wanting to cheat death is simply wishful thinking. Death has an unpleasant finality to it that we rather put off as long as possible. These story characters sometime succeed as we would like to do.

“Second, and conversely, I believe there is a rather abnormal amount of deaths in the fairy tales. Let us consider the count when you include mothers who die at the start, leaving the heroine an orphan; princes who were beheaded in the pursuit of the princess’s hand, even before the story starts; evil stepmothers’ punishment for their cruelty, witches’ punishment for their cruelty, and evil stepmothers who are also witches getting the same treatment; the occasional dragon and giant destroyed by the hero; and even kings who die of natural causes allowing the kingdom to pass to the hero and heroine.

“Really, I think that there are as many deaths as marriages in the tales.”

Looking up from the candle flame, I see Thalia and Melissa are both watching the fairy intently; she lounges on her new friend’s finger. They haven’t heard a word I said.

So much for costumed sorcerer’s pontifications.

Your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2020 Godfather Death – Part One

  1. It occurred to me while researching Grimm and their sources, why there are so many godmother and step-mother figures in fairy/folk tales — the black plague. Dying in childbirth was an issue already, exacerbated by the plague. Many families were more than decimated by it. As ‘family’ was much more important in those ages, it was imperative their familial lines continue, despite a single father. Godmothers and step-mothers became the majority, swamping natural mothers.

    • I am sure that is an element. In addition, to make things even more grim (Grimm?), in a number of these stories, before the Grimm’s editing, the culprit was the actual birth mother. It was Wilhelm who softened the blow in his versions by making them step-mothers. Historically, there were a few too many children in earlier centuries that were accidentally suffocated in bed or fell down wells, as reflected in church records.

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