Wednesday, April 11, 2007

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 lettu
ce 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 typ
e 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 though
ts 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 godfath
er 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 w

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.

Scythes are big and sharp.

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 ma
ny 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 godso
n 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 th
e 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 cabb

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 godf
ather 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'm not scared of sentient cleaning supples.

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.



At 1:47 PM, Blogger Allanna said...

Well, there are many things that might send the godson running out of the house ... if he's anything like me.

Perhaps the godfather pulled out the latest recording of Britney Spears?

Maybe he went all "Grr" like the vampired in Buffy?

Or maybe, just maybe, he threatened to change the composition of chocolate? (However, if I were that godson, I'd probably have taken the door off the hinges and swung it at him. Don't threaten the chocolate.)

Or maybe, I suppose, the godson just figured he was having a mental breakdown and should find the closest straitjacket. To protect the public.

Okay, I'm shutting up now.

At 11:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note that he is not troubled by or curious about the fact that inanimate objects are beating each other up. And, you know, TALKING.

That's one of the characteristics Max Luthi identifies in European folktales generally, which distinguishes them from legends; in legends, people freak out when weird shit happens. Folktale people shrug and go on with whatever they were doing.

At 12:45 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

ALLANNA: Changing chocolate... *shudder*... Don't even suggest it!

MARIE: I hadn't thought of it as a defining characteristic, but I can certainly see that. It definitely seems to happen a lot. Cracks me up. I particularly like it when the characters get really excited about one magical creature and then go chat with their talking horse or whatever without batting an eye.

At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I love Luthi. Apparently his books are all out of print, but we were able to study him in my folklore class in grad school. I think I like him best out of all the fairy tale scholars.

There's a Kate Rusby song about the goodman's wife that's very similar. I don't have the liner notes to hand to see what her source material is, but the lyrics are here. First couple stanzas give you a good idea:

The good man he came home one night
The good man, home came he
There he spied an old saddle horse
Where no horse there should be
It's a cow, it's a cow, cried the good man's wife
A cow, just a cow, can't you see?
Far have I ridden, and much I've seen
But a saddle on a cow there's never been

The good man he came home one night
The good man, home came he
There he spied a powdered wig
Where no wig should there be
It's a hen, it's a hen, cried the good man's wife
A hen, just a hen, can't you see?
Far have I ridden, and much I've seen
But powder on a hen there's never been

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

STACY: I hadn't heard of that song before. Thanks for sharing it! It's definitely a similar pattern.

I'm intrigued by the "powdered wig" line. Where exactly is this wig if not on someone's head? And if it is on someone's head, then is she claiming she's wearing a chicken?

At 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly! But the song is about a goodman coming home to catch his wife in bed with someone. So it's cast aside as things heat up, I guess, on a chair or something?--and she tries to tell him it's a hen.

This makes me want to get all my fairy tale books out again and read the stuff I didn't have time to finish all the way through during that class! :)

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

STACY: That's hilarious. I love that the first thing that pops into her mind is that it's a hen. And that the goodman obviously believed her.

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am fairly certain the long horns was anindication that the Godfather was in fact Satan.

Satan appears a lot in these stories, so yeah. I think that's ol' Hin Håle.

At 3:37 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

ARILOU: I'll buy that as a valid reason to run. And it's a much more plausible explanation for the horns than the godfather being a were-antelope...

Totally random thought... You always read about werewolves and were-tigers and so forth, but no one ever writes about were-herbivores... Where are the were-bunnies?

At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the rabbit in Monty Python's Holy Grail? That's a fine example of a Were-rabbit. Its got bit teeth.. like this....

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: Kate Rusby song.

Not mentioned is that the good man is "drunk as he could be", but he can't believe he's that drunk.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

H: I wonder if that rabbit is related to Bunnicula...

Anonymous: That would explain why the wife thinks he'll believe her...

At 11:51 PM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Hi Sarah--

Way-late, so I don't know whether you'll see this comment, but my copy of Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (Yes, I read encyclopedias for fun--especially this kind. Does that mean I'm a geek?) states that there basically *are* were-everythings.

And an article in that same book substanciated the theory of another fellow I read once that suggested werewolves (etc.) came from the earliest cases of serial crimes.

Creapy, really.

I'm excited you seem to have this whole series of folktales up for examination. There are too many good stories for folks to limit themselves to the familiar.

Glad to meet you and I'll be poking around a bit.

At 11:56 PM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...


*substantiated* (so embarrassed).

At 8:20 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Amy Jane: Thanks for visiting my blog! I love the idea of were-everythings. (Immediately popping into my mind: were-manatees.) Gotta get my hands on that encyclopedia you mentioned. I don't think I've seen it...

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this tale. Definitly one of my top 20. This Japanese series, "Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics" has an animated version of the Godfather Death story, and I have been trying to get a hold of it for years now, just to see what they show Death like.

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heya, we had to learn a story in school similar-ish to that...but it was an old oral irish story (part of our irish class!)

It was called the "Cearrbhach Mac Cába" (the Gambler McCabe) he had a kid, goes out and ends up with God baptising the baby and Death as the Godfather... Death tells him to get three wishes off God, (he doesnt tell Death the last one though), To be the best gambler in the world, then to be the best doctor... Death adds the whole foot of the bed you can cure him, head of the bed, let him die. The gambler had to cure a king (or his son...cant quite remember) and sees Death at the head of the bed... but tempted by the large amount of gold, and the threat of what would appen if he didnt.. he gets them to turn the bed around then cures thte guy!!! But the thing is that the gambler's child/ son has absolutely nothing to do with the story after his baptism!!!

just a variant!

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: Sounds like an interesting one to see animated.

Wraythdarkthorn: Cool! I don't know that variant. Thanks for sharing!

At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to mention that the whole bit about death standing either at the head or foot of the bed is remarkably similar to the story of the caladrius bird.

In the Physiologus, a didactic text from the second century, the bird is said to look away from a man if he is incurable. If, however, the bird looks toward the man, he will recover.

Bestiaries (from which I found this story retold) are absolutely enthralling. Very similar to fairy tales, but much more obvious about their Christian agenda.

At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This tale (along with "Jack O LAntern") was also the basis for the truly incredible "Sodier and Death" episode of "The Storyteller"

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At 6:59 AM, Anonymous devinewolfgang said...

Strange things in this story?
the forces of death are 'normal' in our head. 'Cool head', nerves are quite dead material, not much regeneration there. While in the lower body (muscles and digestion) there is a lot of blood, movement, heat, life. If death is there, then it does not look good. So it is not just about a shadowy figure standing there or there; it is about how the differentiation in the body is normal or abnormal.
If the man enters the house of the Godfather he meets first the "inanimate" tools which are human inventions. They don't have life if not animated by human intervention. The dead fingers are more organic, but rather a pure result of life - life has been cut off, just the physical carcass... with the cabbage we come to the plant life, the life force that we need when eating... but maybe, while the fingers point to a very strict education of (dead - left brain) abstract content (pointing the finger), the cabbage is as well a picture of the head, but I see in it more the "lively" (round) thinking (maybe 'right brain'?)
With the fish we enter the realm of the animal life. Yet the fishes are a very special zodiac sign and could be seen in connection with the Christ being and his sacrificial death (serving himself) and points thus to the overcoming of the animalistic instincts towards a transformed soul life.
If this step by step approach makes any sense we come with the fifth level to the level of the eternal individual core, the higher self, the God in us. Whether the horn is the capacity to connect to the cosmos, to perceive the whole? For sure is the "I" the instance of saying "NO". And for sure we can be afraid of the abyss on this level, because we cannot define ourselves, we are not "this or that", an enigma...
I don't think the story can make sense in the 'matter' of fact way we think normally, it is strange to our abstract thinking; but when living with the pictures, there is a consequence and meaning in it ...

At 6:55 PM, Blogger Mads said...

Although I don't believe devinewolfgang's interpretation, I believe in the devinewolfgang's way of thinking, and taking fairy tales seriously and look for a symbolic meaning, because there's always some symbolism in everything, intended or unintentionally, consciously or subconsciously.
If you believe in dream interpretation, the fairy tales absurdities pointed out by Sarah Beth Durst are not so absurd as they seem.
Fairy tales should be read as dreams.


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