Obscure Fairy Tale: Godfather Variants
A couple weeks ago, Sam Enthoven (fellow Razorbillian and author of the super-cool book THE BLACK TATTOO) mentioned to me that he liked the obscure fairy tale "Godfather Death," especially the bit about the cabbage heads. I replied, "Oh, yeah, that part was great," and then went to look in my Grimm's book to see what the heck he was talking about.
I didn't find any cabbage heads. Or lettuce either, for that matter.
So I went online and discovered that there are multiple versions of the Godfather Death story out there. In fact, they are classified as type 332 in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification system. The variant that Sam was referring to was also collected by the Brothers Grimm. And it's much cooler than the version I knew. Or at least much randomer. (Before you ask, "randomer" is a perfectly cromulent word.) So, thanks, Sam, for introducing me to the cabbage variant!
In care you're curious, here are my thoughts while reading these two versions of type 332:
Godfather Death (from the Brothers Grimm) -- the non-cabbage variant
A man walks down a road to search for a godfather for his thirteenth child.
Why is he taking a leisurely stroll when he has thirteen kids? Doesn't he have things to do? Or by number thirteen, do you just let the kids fend for themselves like baby sea turtles?
He meets God, who offers to be the child's godfather, and the man rejects him. He meets Satan and rejects him as well.
Picky, isn't he?
Lastly, he meets Death and says, "You are fair to all. You take rich and poor alike. The baptism is Sunday. Be on time."
And pushy. Really, if I met Death, I'm not sure I'd boss him around. For one thing, he's holding a scythe. Scythes are big. And sharp. For another... the guy sort of defines having life-and-death power.
Death becomes the boy's godfather, and when the boy grows into a man, Death visits him and says, "You will become a famous doctor. If you see me standing at the foot of the bed of an ill patient, you will be able to cure him. If you see me standing at the head of the bed of an ill patient, you must let the patient die."
FYI, I may have that foot/head thing backwards. I'm typing this from memory. Feel free to look it up yourself if you really must know.
So Death's godson becomes a famous doctor, healing many and pronouncing others uncurable. One day, the king's daughter becomes ill. The godson is summoned, and he sees that Death is standing at the head of her bed. But she is so beautiful that he cures her anyway.
Gotta admit: I kind of sympathize with the godson here. He has to be under a bit of pressure. I can't see the king saying, "Oh, yes, of course my daughter must die because you see some shadowy hallucination standing on the wrong side of her bed." He's much more likely to say, "You know I have a dungeon, right? And did you notice the soldiers? Yeah, those guys with the pointy sticks -- they work for me."
The princess is cured, but Death is angry. He takes his godson to an underground cavern where there are hundreds of thousands of candles burning. "Each person has a candle," Death says. "When the candle goes out, that person dies." The godson asks to see his own life light.
Now I can understand the curiosity, but I question his timing. Death is obviously not a happy camper. Do you really want to draw Death's attention to your own candle when he's feeling grumpy?
Death shows him a candle that is a tiny stump. The godson begs him to light a new candle for him. Death pretends that he is going to grant this wish, but instead of lighting a new candle, he knocks the little stump of a candle onto the floor.
This just seems mean and rather petty. Couldn't Death have simply said "no"? Or cackle maniacally and then snuff out the candle? Why the cruel charade?
The light is extinguished, and the godson drops dead.
And they all lived happily ever after...
The Godfather (from the Brothers Grimm) -- the cabbage variant
A man walks down a road and asks the first stranger he meets to be the godfather to his thirteenth child. The stranger agrees. When the thirteenth child is old enough, his godfather gives him a vial of water and says that he can heal the sick with it, but he must always look to see where Death is standing. If he's by the head of the bed, the patient can be saved. If he's by the foot, the patient will die.
One might think that at this point, the godson would be a wee bit curious as to the identity of his godfather.
He becomes a famous and rich doctor. One day, the king's child becomes ill. The godson is summoned, sees death by the head of the bed, and saves the child. Sometime later, the child becomes ill again. Again, the godson saves her. The third time, Death is standing by the foot of the bed, and the child dies. After this, the godson goes to his godfather's house to tell him what happened.
Personally, I think he should ask what's in the water.
On the first floor, he finds a dustpan and broom fighting with each other. He asks them, "Where can I find my godfather?" The broom says, "Upstairs."
Note that he is not troubled by or curious about the fact that inanimate objects are beating each other up. And, you know, TALKING.
On the second floor, he finds a heap of dead fingers. He asks them, "Where can I find my godfather?" A finger says, "Upstairs."
I suppose I should admire how goal-oriented and focused the godson is. Nothing distracts him from his mission.
On the third floor, he finds a heap of men's heads. On the fourth, he finds fish cooking themselves. On the fifth, he finds a door to a room, peeks through the keyhole, and sees his godfather sporting a pair of long horns. When the godson enters the room, the godfather covers his horns.
Brave or stupid? You decide.
The godson says, "Sir, you have a strange house."
Understatement of the year.
He mentions the dustpan and broom, and the godfather says, "You idiot, that was the servant-boy and maid." He mentions the dead fingers, and the godfather says, "You moron, those were roots." He mentions the dead men's heads, and the godfather says, "Imbecile, those were heads of cabbage."
Ah-ha! The cabbage!
He mentions the fish leaping into the pan and cooking themselves... As he says this, the fish enter the room and serve themselves on platters.
Cool. I want food that does that.
The godson then says, "When I reached the fifth floor, I peeked through the keyhole and saw you with long horns." And his godfather says, "Oh, that's not true." Frightened, the godson ran out of the house.
Frightened of what? The talking dead fingers and heads didn't faze him, but his godfather saying "no"... There has to be something missing here. I'm thinking that his godfather suddenly revealed vampire fangs or a pitchfork or... I don't know, his collection of bottlecaps... The story ends on this line (and I'm going to quote directly here):
If he had not done so, who knows what the godfather would have done to him?
And they all lived happily... Well, who really knows? As the story says, there's just not enough information to guess. The godfather seems to me to be a reasonably pleasant fellow. Strange house perhaps, and the horns are an interesting fashion statement, but he never actually threatened the godson. In fact, he served him a lovely fish dinner. Plus the godfather can't be all bad. After all, he was the one really responsible for saving all those people that the godson gave the magic water to -- which, I should point out, the godson totally took credit for. I think the godson is an ungrateful brat who has a bizarre delayed reaction to events in his life. (Seriously, I would have run out of the house at the sight of the dead fingers. I like to think I would have lasted through the dustpan and broom...)
I'd love to hear what you guys think happened that made the godson run out of the house...
If you'd like to check out other obscure tales (unfortunately not involving cabbages), here are links to: The Tinderbox, The Princess in the Chest, The Juniper Tree, Molly Whuppie, Tatterhood, Jack My Hedgehog, or The Wishing Table.
Labels: Obscure Fairy Tales