It’s raining in Scotland. I’m in Scotland, sitting in a coffee shop partly because I got tired of sitting in my office but mostly because I read an article offering a paean of enthusiasm for espresso. I have an espresso beside me, savouring the article’s description of it as exquisite wine anyone can afford. Out my window, I see the rain, the fog, and the sea.*
Life could be a whole lot worse.
You’re here, presumably, because you like to read about fairy tales. I have one for you this week. Not on Monday, so this will be a little different. The story is called ‘The Godfather’. No, it has nothing to do with Marlon Brando. It’s much older than he is, in fact, and it starts like this:
A poor man had so many children that he had already asked everyone in the world to be godfather, and when still another child was born, no one else was left whom he could ask. He did not know what to do, and, in his sorrow, he lay down and fell asleep. Then he dreamed that he should go outside the gate and ask the first person he met to be godfather. When he awoke he decided to obey his dream, and he went outside the gate and asked the first person who came his way to be godfather.
Does it surprise you that the the first person he meets is the Devil? It shouldn’t, not really. Dreams and omens are chancy things. And it’s never really clear whether the Godfather is a devil or not. The hero, the godson in question, goes to visit his godfather. The Godfather lives in an enchanted house of five stories, strewn with sentient household implements and severed fingers and heads. He has two long horns, and he insists all this isn’t true. Nothing to see here, folks, everything perfectly normal. And the hero of the story runs away—he refuses the quest, as it were. The narrator remarks, in a feeble attempt to make the hero look better, ‘if he had not [run like a yellow-livered git], who knows what the godfather would have done to him?’
I’d never read this story before today, and as I sit here in this coffee shop, I know I’ll never forget it. What would have happened if the hero hadn’t run? If he had stayed on as a dutiful godson? Or if the Devil wasn’t in disguise? Where was the enchanted house and what were the enchanted implements?
Questions crowd round, interrogating the tale, cross-examining each other. Usually, when retelling a fairy tale—‘Sleeping Beauty’, say, or ‘Hansel and Gretel’—the challenge is to work round behind the familiarity of the tale. Some questions are meant to strip away familiarities with variants and specific tellings; others are meant to discover other tales through it and beyond it. Usually the result isn’t a fairy tale—not really. It’s a modern short story inspired by a fairy tale.
With ‘The Godfather’, things are different. It is new. All of it. It speaks with the piquant clarity of the folktale, familiar and ancient and yet sharp, new, relevant. Like all good didactic stories, there is no clear moral. The story itself demands that you mull on it, savour it, revisit it. Much like a good espresso, in fact.
I shall some day write an ode on the wonderful confluences between good espresso, true fairy tale, and transcendence**, but this is not that.
*No, Starbucks does not count. This is real, European espresso in a one-off, only-one-there-ever-was local coffee house. Sorry.
**Striking and genuinely well-wrought music helps, too.