A Less Comforting Supernatural Guardian: The Grimms’ “Godfather Death”

It can be easier, I suppose, to imagine death as something a little less impersonal than, well, death. Say, something, or perhaps someone, almost human, or at least looking almost human, arriving more as an escort than a killer, pointing people to the next step – whatever that step might be. A little bit easier, maybe. For some people, at least.

This comfort perhaps explains why so many myths and folktales in western culture focus on the figure of Death – often inviting Death to enter their homes, or even almost join their families. “Godfather Death,” retold by the Brothers Grimm, is one of several typical examples.

“Godfather Death” first appeared in the 1812 edition of Children’s and Household Tales. As Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm remarked in their footnotes, their version of “Godfather Death” dated back to at least 1553, when it appeared in a popular song. It appeared in another song dated to 1644, as well as in a 17th century play by Jacob Ayrer. Like William Shakespeare, Ayrer was known for stealing virtually all of his plots and story ideas from other sources, suggesting that his version may have come from another written or oral source. As usual, the Grimms created their own version of the tale by working with an oral tale (to continue with their “we’re just collecting folktales” motif), told to them by Mie Wild (a sister of Dortchen Wild, who later married Wilhelm Grimm), adding details from other sources and their own flourishes. Eventually, the Grimms even changed the end of the tale.

The story opens on a familiar note for a Grimm fairy tale: poverty. I mention this largely because reading so many fairy tales for this project has reminded me of how much they tend to deal with the extremes: royalty and paupers. Oh, certainly, the occasional middle class sneaks in for some retellings of Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella’s stepmother is only well-to-do, not royal—but generally, most fairy tales are about the very very poor or the very very rich, or both. This story ends up including both. The opening also contains a second familiar note for the opening of a fairy tale: the birth of a child, and the need to find godparents for that child.

The child is the thirteenth of thirteen children – a not entirely unusual position in fairy tales, which often offered up families of twelve boys and a single girl, or alternatively, twelve girls and a single boy. His brothers and sisters are largely unimportant to the story – so unimportant, indeed, that after an initial mention they are basically forgotten about for the rest of the tale. They function mostly to emphasize just how poor this family is, and to assure readers that the family’s poverty is not entirely the father’s fault, since other than the very highest nobility, and possibly even them, anyone would probably struggle to feed and clothe twelve children – although I suppose we can blame him for the decision to keep having more kids.

And given the theme of death, the thirteenth child may also be a reference to the old superstition that if you seat thirteen people at dinner (or any other meal, I suppose), the thirteenth person to sit will be the first person to die.

In any case, the child’s arrival sends his father into a panic: barely able to feed and clothe the current kids, he has no idea how he can feed and clothe this one. For whatever reason, he channels this panic into this trying to find a godparent – though he is so panic-stricken that rather than focus on, say, finding a godparent who could help with the bills for this kid, he promises to select the first person he meets.

And then promptly breaks this vow, but I anticipate.

Fortunately for the kid, the first person the poor father meets is God. Less fortunately for the kid, the poor man immediately rejects God’s offer to be a godparent, on the basis that God gives to the rich and leaves the poor hungry – an understandable opinion found in the original oral version, coming, as it does from a man certainly not given wealth by God, but an opinion immediately discarded by the pious Grimms, who inserted a quick assurance to their readers that God apportions these sorts of things wisely.

Moving on. The poor man next encounters Satan, who also offers to stand as godfather. Wiser than many other fairy tale protagonists, the poor man also rejects Satan. The third encounter is with Death. The poor man is quite fond of Death, on the basis that Death treats everyone equally. I’m not entirely sure that this was entirely true in the early 19th century: it seems to me that Death took away a number of people quite early, thanks to disease and war and ill-advised expeditions to Russia, but if the meaning here is simply that everyone dies at some point, sure, I’ll buy that. Go Death. Death very kindly agrees to be the kid’s godfather and does a nice job of it.

The story then skips several years, until the kid is old enough to head out into the world. Death gives him an astonishing gift: an herb that can cure nearly everyone. All the kid needs to do is look at the bed of the patient. If Death is standing at the head of the bed, the kid can use the herb, and the patient will live. If Death is standing at the foot, the kid just needs to say something comforting about how no doctor can cure everything, or at least not this. Which is not that comforting, come to think about it, but I suppose it gives dying patients a few moments to prepare.

Naturally, this sort of thing allows the kid to become a wealthy, respected doctor – the sort brought to attend kings. Summoned to the deathbed of one such king, the kid sees Death standing right at the foot of the bed – and comes up with an unusual medical response. He flips the king around, so that Death is now at the head of the bed – and the king can be saved.

It’s not the first time Death has been tricked in a fairy tale, quite possibly why the guy is not too thrilled about it, warning his godson not to play that trick again. The kid doctor is quite quite contrite – until, that is, he is summoned to the deathbed of the king’s beautiful daughter. Where he tricks Death a second time, saving her life.

In most fairy tales, he would be given the hand of the princess in marriage and half the kingdom – something the king even promises to give whoever can save the life of the princess in this tale. But this is a tale about death and unfairness, and about the impossibility of cheating death, who, as the story notes, treats everyone the same, rich and poor alike. And so, Death strikes the doctor – and drags him down to a cavern filled with small candles, each representing someone’s life.

The doctor can’t help but notice that his candle is currently rather short, and begs for a longer one.

Death kills him.

Ok, so sometimes Death is a bit harsher on some people than others. Or, he realized that doing this would save the king half a kingdom – and it’s always good to have a king in debt to you. Even if you’re Death.

As the Grimms noted, many versions leave out the creepy scene with the candles – or instead, only tell the creepy scene with the candles, leaving out the whole doctor plot. Indeed, the Grimms seem to have combined both tales to emphasize the futility of trying to trick Death and the risks of pushing your luck with any supernatural creature – even a godfather. Fairy godmothers, sure, might be largely benign (if not always, as we’ve seen.) Supernatural godfathers, on the other hand… well. Maybe putting an almost human face on death isn’t all that comforting after all.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

19 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!