unsettling tuesday

Godfather Death

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his tale is like unto this tale, but with Death standing in for the devil.
I don’t have much to say about it, really, except that it’s charming, strange, spooky, and beautiful. There’s a particular haunting weirdness in the tableau of the desperate father running down the road to find a godfather for his thirteenth child. And meeting (as it were by chance) God, the devil, and Death.

(Although I can’t every really read about anthropomorphised accounts of Death without thinking of Discworld. And that makes me wonder how much Death in this particular tale may or may not have inspired Terry Pratchett’s rendition. There are certain similarities.*)

This tale is, like any tale, many things. But one thing it is in particular—and this warrants a longer discussion which I hope to write later—is a depiction, or representation, or revelation (call it what you will) of how we approach death. The Beatific vision is misunderstood, the diabolic vision is eschewed, but Death is welcome despite its peril.

Harry Potter readers may recognize aspects of ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ in this tale, and they’d be right to do so. But the interaction with Death is more ambiguous, Death’s motives more unclear, in the folktale than in Rowling’s literary retelling. Even the Grimm’s tried to make the edges less stark and more literary.

Because we don’t know how to face Death, God, or the Devil—not really. And that’s partly why we tell folktales—to make comprehensible those things that are incomprehensible, to give a face and a voice to the monsters in the dark. That, in its way, is the moral of the story.

As to what the story is—well that’s another question entirely.

*There, see the trouble this causes? Here’s another nice mess I’ve gotten me into.

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5 thoughts on “unsettling tuesday

  1. One of my favorites. Although, I could have sworn I read a version of this that had Death as godMOTHER. It may have been a modern retelling: I’ll have to see if I can dig it up. (Anthropomorphic personifications of Death, and other psychopomps, are absolutely fascinating to me.)

    One thing worth mentioning, this story seems almost as much about doctors as it is about Death. After all, can we really trust these strange educated people, coming to our farms and occasionally healing us with their magic herbs and strange treatments? As likely they are in league with the one they profess to save us from.

    In modern medicine, there is great reluctance to admit defeat when battling illness or age. My father tells me that they no longer put “age” as a cause of death on death certificates, but instead “heart failure” or something more tangible. The idea is, that medicine SHOULD be able to stave off the Reaper indefinitely, and if it doesn’t, it’s seen as a failure. I see that reluctance to admit mortality echoed in the godson’s rash actions: if we can only cheat Death one more time, if we can only re-light the taper, if we can only… It is the desire for the fruit of the Tree of Life when the Knowledge of Good and Evil’s juices still stain our lips.

  2. I love this tale – I’ve told it to children in schools around halloween – but the Terry Pratchett connection hadn’t occurred to me. There’s a wonderful inevitablity about the ending that is really almost consolatory.

  3. Now I can’t help wondering if Jane Yolen was inspired a bit by Neil Gaiman’s depiction of Death in Sandman — “She was wearing a black shift, cut entirely too low in the front. Her hair fell across her shoulders in black waves….”

    And who can forget:

    He pulled himself together, adjusted his scythe, and waited silently for his cue.
    He’d never missed one yet.
    He was going to get out there and slay them.
    Wyrd Sisters

    Big Ted looked at the fourth Horseman. “‘Ere, I seen you before,” he said. “You was on the cover of that Blue Oyster Cult album. ‘An I got a ring wif your… your… your head on it.”

    “I GET EVERYWHERE.”

    Good Omens

  4. Chris, all very good observations. It is interesting that the young hero is a healer. But not a saint–in a pact with God. Not a witch or shaman–in a pact (theoretically) with the devil. He’s a doctor and man of science–in a pact with Death. Who gets into serious trouble when he tries actually ‘healing’ anyone. And whose doctoring is really more of a Second Sight…fascinating. Thanks for the Jane Yolen links, too. Any Jane Yolen links are always welcome on this site!

    Kath, somehow that really doesn’t surprise me. The ending reminded me a bit of King Solomon’s Mines, though that’s probably more in aura than in content.

    Eric, hmmm, I was going to say Gaiman more likely got the idea from Yolen, but her story is dated 1997 and Dream’s sister first appeared in I think 1988, 1990, thereabouts. So I guess it could go either way. Or alternatively they’re both independently drawing off a folk tradition.

    Now I’m kicking myself for not already thinking of GMD’s North Wind as an example of (if you will) Godmother Death. Although North Wind is a much more ambiguous and polyvalent figure than just simply an anthropomorphic version of death.

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