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Godfather Death
Grimm Märchen

Godfather Death - Fairy Tale by the Brothers Grimm

Reading time for children: 9 min

A poor man had twelve children and had to work day and night in order just to feed them. Thus when the thirteenth came into the world, not knowing what to do in his need, he ran out into the highway, intending to ask the first person whom he met to be the godfather. The first person who came his way was our dear God, who already knew what was in his heart, and God said to him, „Poor man, I pity you. I will hold your child at his baptism, and care for him, and make him happy on earth.“ The man said, „Who are you?“

„I am God.“ – „Then I do not wish to have you for a godfather,“ said the man. „You give to the rich, and let the poor starve.“ Thus spoke the man, for he did not know how wisely God divides out wealth and poverty. Then he turned away from the Lord, and went on his way. Then the devil came to him and said, „What are you looking for? If you will take me as your child’s godfather, I will give him an abundance of gold and all the joys of the world as well.“ The man asked, „Who are you?“ – „I am the devil.“

„Then I do not wish to have you for a godfather,“ said the man. You deceive mankind and lead them astray.“ He went on his way, and then Death, on his withered legs, came walking toward him, and said, „Take me as your child’s godfather.“ The man asked, „Who are you?“ – „I am Death, who makes everyone equal.“ Then the man said, „You are the right one. You take away the rich as well as the poor, without distinction. You shall be my child’s godfather.

Death answered, „I will make your child rich and famous, for he who has me for a friend cannot fail.“ The man said, „Next Sunday is the baptism. Be there on time.“ Death appeared as he had promised, and served as godfather in an orderly manner. After the boy came of age his godfather appeared to him one day and asked him to go with him. He took him out into the woods and showed him an herb that grew there, saying, „Now you shall receive your godfather’s present. I will turn you into a famous physician.

Whenever you are called to a sick person I will appear to you. If I stand at the sick person’s head, you may say with confidence that you can make him well again. Then give him some of this herb, and he will recover. But if I stand at the sick person’s feet, he is mine, and you must say that he is beyond help, and that no physician in the world could save him. But beware of using this herb against my will, or something very bad will happen to you.“

It was not long before the young man had become the most famous physician in the whole world. People said of him, „He only needs to look at the sick in order to immediately know their condition, whether they will regain their health, or are doomed to die.“ And people came to him from far and wide, taking him to their sick, and giving him so much money that he soon became a wealthy man. Now it came to pass that the king became ill.

The physician was summoned and was told to say if a recovery were possible. However, when he approached the bed, Death was standing at the sick man’s feet, and so no herb on earth would be able to help him. „If I could only deceive death for once,“ thought the physician. „He will be angry, of course, but because I am his godson he will shut one eye. I will risk it.“

He therefore took hold of the sick man and laid him the other way around, so that Death was now standing at his head. Then he gave the king some of the herb, and he recovered and became healthy again. However, Death came to the physician, made a dark and angry face, threatened him with his finger, and said, „You have betrayed me. I will overlook it this time because you are my godson, but if you dare to do it again, it will cost you your neck, for I will take you yourself away with me.“

Soon afterward the king’s daughter became seriously ill. She was his only child, and he cried day and night until his eyes were going blind. Then he proclaimed that whosoever rescued her from death should become her husband and inherit the crown. When the physician came to the sick girl’s bed he saw Death at her feet. He should have remembered his godfather’s warning, but he was so infatuated by the princess’s great beauty and the prospect of becoming her husband that he threw all thought to the winds.

He did not see that Death was looking at him angrily, lifting his hand into the air, and threatening him with his withered fist. He lifted up the sick girl and placed her head where her feet had been. Then he gave her some of the herb, and her cheeks immediately turned red, and life stirred in her once again. Death, seeing that he had been cheated out of his property for a second time, approached the physician with long strides and said, „You are finished. Now it is your turn.“ Then Death seized him so firmly with his ice-cold hand that he could not resist, and led him into an underground cavern.

There the physician saw how thousands and thousands of candles were burning in endless rows, some large, others medium-sized, others small. Every instant some died out, and others were relit, so that the little flames seemed to be jumping about in constant change. „See,“ said Death, „these are the life-lights of mankind. The large ones belong to children, the medium-sized ones to married people in their best years, and the little ones to old people. However, even children and young people often have only a tiny candle.“

„Show me my life-light,“ said the physician, thinking that it still would be very large. Death pointed to a little stump that was just threatening to go out, and said, „See, there it is.“ – „Oh, dear godfather,“ said the horrified physician, „light a new one for me. Do it as a favor to me, so that I can enjoy my life, and become king and the husband of the beautiful princess.“ – „I cannot,“ answered Death. „One must go out before a new one is lighted.“

„Then set the old one onto a new one that will go on burning after the old one is finished,“ begged the physician. Death pretended that he was going to fulfill this wish and took hold of a large new candle, but, desiring revenge, he purposely made a mistake in relighting it, and the little piece fell down and went out. The physician immediately fell to the ground, and he too was now in the hands of Death.

Backgrounds to fairy tale „Godfather Death“

„Godfather Death“ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in their anthology „Grimm’s Fairy Tales.“ The story presents a dark and thought-provoking narrative about the consequences of ambition, greed, and the inevitable nature of death. The tale’s origins can be traced back to the oral storytelling traditions of Germany and other parts of Europe. It is one of many stories dealing with death and morality, which were commonly used to explore the human condition and teach important life lessons. Similar tales can be found in various cultures and regions, each presenting different perspectives on death and the consequences of human choices.

In „Godfather Death,“ a poor man seeks a godfather for his thirteenth child. He encounters God, the Devil, and finally Death. The man chooses Death as the godfather, believing that Death treats all people equally, regardless of their social status or wealth. As the child grows up, he becomes a doctor with Death’s guidance. Death grants the young man the power to heal the sick, but only if Death stands at the head of the patient’s bed. If Death stands at the foot of the bed, the patient is destined to die.

The young doctor becomes wealthy and famous, but his ambition and greed ultimately lead him to defy Death’s rules. He saves a princess who was meant to die, and as a result, Death punishes him. The godfather takes the doctor to a cave filled with candles, each representing a human life. The doctor’s candle is nearly burnt out, and when he tries to light a new one, Death extinguishes it, causing the doctor to die instantly. „Godfather Death“ explores themes of mortality, ambition, greed, and the consequences of defying the natural order. The tale serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the importance of accepting the limits of human power and control.

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, gathered and compiled stories from various oral and written sources, aiming to preserve and document the German folklore and cultural heritage. The Brothers Grimm played a significant role in the development of the modern study of folklore, as their work inspired many other collectors and researchers of folktales and fairy tales around the world. Their collection, which includes stories like „Cinderella,“ „Snow White,“ „Rapunzel,“ and „Hansel and Gretel,“ has been translated into multiple languages and has become a significant part of the world’s literary heritage.

„Godfather Death“ is a lesser-known tale compared to some of the more famous Grimm stories, but it still carries important messages and themes. The story explores topics such as morality, the natural order of life and death, the inevitability of death, and the dangers of greed and ambition. As with many of the Brothers Grimm’s tales, „Godfather Death“ provides both entertainment and moral lessons for readers.

Interpretations to fairy tale „Godfather Death“

„Godfather Death“ presents various themes and interpretations that can be drawn from the narrative. Here are some key interpretations of this Brothers Grimm fairy tale:

Inevitability of death: The story highlights the inescapable nature of death. No matter how much the young doctor tries to control life and death, he ultimately cannot escape his own mortality. This theme serves as a reminder that death is a natural part of the human experience and that no one, regardless of their power or status, can avoid it. The story illustrates that death is an inescapable part of life. No matter how much wealth, power, or fame one acquires, everyone will eventually face death. The physician’s attempt to cheat Death fails, highlighting that even the most skilled and clever individuals cannot avoid their fate.

Consequences of ambition and greed: The young doctor’s ambition and greed ultimately lead to his downfall. Despite his godfather Death’s warning, he defies the rules and saves the princess, who was meant to die. This act of defiance results in his own death. The story illustrates the potential dangers of unchecked ambition and greed and the consequences of challenging the natural order. The physician’s greed and ambition lead him to make unethical choices and defy Death’s rules. His desire for wealth, power, and the princess’s hand in marriage causes him to disregard the warnings and consequences of his actions. This ultimately leads to his downfall, emphasizing the destructive nature of unchecked greed and ambition.

The limits of human power: The tale emphasizes that humans have limitations and should not attempt to control or manipulate forces beyond their understanding or power. The doctor’s attempt to control life and death backfires, demonstrating that some aspects of life, such as death, are beyond human control.

The impartial nature of death: The poor man chooses Death as his child’s godfather because he believes that Death treats all people equally, without regard for their social status or wealth. This theme underscores the idea that death is an impartial force, which ultimately comes for everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

The importance of humility and acceptance: „Godfather Death“ teaches the importance of humility and acceptance of one’s own limitations. The young doctor’s inability to accept the natural order and his own mortality leads to his downfall. This theme encourages readers to recognize their own limitations and accept the natural course of life.

Importance of respecting natural order: The story highlights the importance of adhering to the natural order of life and death. By trying to outsmart Death and manipulate the rules, the physician disrupts the balance of life. His actions have grave consequences, reinforcing the idea that humans should not interfere with the natural order of things.

Equality in death: The choice of Death as the godfather signifies that death treats everyone equally, regardless of their social status or wealth. This theme is emphasized throughout the story as Death claims both the rich and the poor without distinction, reminding readers that all people share the same ultimate fate.

Cautionary tale against overconfidence: The physician’s overconfidence in his ability to deceive Death and bend the rules to his advantage ultimately results in his own demise. This serves as a warning to readers about the dangers of overconfidence and the importance of humility and respecting limits.

Overall, „Godfather Death“ offers valuable lessons about mortality, the consequences of ambition and greed, and the importance of accepting the limits of human power. The tale serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the need for humility in the face of forces beyond our control.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „Godfather Death“

„Godfather Death“ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, who were German scholars, philologists, cultural researchers, and authors. The story is included in their famous collection, „Grimms‘ Fairy Tales“ (also known as „Children’s and Household Tales“ or „Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ in German), which was first published in 1812. „Godfather Death“ may not be as well-known as some other Brothers Grimm fairy tales, but its thought-provoking narrative has inspired various adaptations and creative works. Some specific examples include:

Television: „The Storyteller“ (1988): In an episode titled „The Soldier and Death“ from the television series „The Storyteller,“ created by Jim Henson, elements of „Godfather Death“ are combined with other European folktales. The episode tells the story of a soldier who receives a magical ability from Death, which allows him to see whether a person is destined to live or die. This adaptation presents a variation of the themes found in „Godfather Death,“ such as the consequences of interfering with the natural order of life and death. The fantasy TV series „Once Upon a Time“ includes a character named „Doctor Whale“ who is based on the protagonist of „Godfather Death.“ Like the protagonist of the original story, Doctor Whale is a doctor who has a close relationship with death.

Films: „The Appointment“ (1981): This short film, directed by Lindsey C. Vickers, is a modern adaptation of „Godfather Death.“ The story is set in contemporary times and follows a man who discovers that his godfather is Death. The film explores the themes of mortality and the consequences of trying to cheat death. The horror anthology film „Tales from the Darkside: The Movie“ includes a segment titled „Lover’s Vow,“ which is loosely based on „Godfather Death.“

Animated Films: „The Godfather’s Death“ (1991): This animated short film from Hungary, directed by István Orosz, is an adaptation of „Godfather Death.“ The film maintains the dark and somber atmosphere of the original tale while presenting the story through striking visuals. The anime film „Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics“ features an episode based on „Godfather Death“ that follows the original story closely.

Literature: „Godfather Death“ has been adapted and retold in various literary forms, including short stories, novellas, and anthologies. These adaptations often provide new perspectives or expand upon the themes found in the original tale, exploring issues of morality, human ambition, and the inevitability of death. The American author Neil Gaiman included a retelling of „Godfather Death“ in his book „Smoke and Mirrors.“ Gaiman’s version is set in modern times and features a female protagonist who becomes the goddaughter of Death. The French novelist Amélie Nothomb wrote a novel titled „Godfather Death,“ which is a modern retelling of the fairy tale set in contemporary Tokyo.

Theater: The story of „Godfather Death“ has been adapted for the stage in the form of plays, puppet shows, and other theatrical performances. These adaptations often emphasize the moral lessons and thought-provoking themes found in the original tale. The Australian playwright Angela Betzien wrote a stage adaptation of „Godfather Death“ that was first performed at the Sydney Theater Company in 2012.

„Godfather Death“ is a popular fairy tale that has been adapted in various forms across different cultures. Although „Godfather Death“ might not have as many adaptations as other Brothers Grimm fairy tales, its influence can still be seen in various forms of media. The story’s themes of mortality, ambition, and the consequences of defying the natural order continue to resonate with audiences and inspire new adaptations and creative works. Overall, „Godfather Death“ is a timeless fairy tale that continues to inspire new adaptations and retellings in various forms of media.

Summary of the plot

„Godfather Death“ by Brothers Grimm tells the story of a poor man with twelve children who seeks a godfather for his thirteenth child. He first encounters God, but refuses Him as the godfather because he believes God favors the rich. Next, he meets the devil, but declines his offer as well due to his deceptive nature. Finally, he meets Death, who he chooses as the godfather because Death treats everyone equally.

Death makes the child a famous physician, giving him a special herb that can heal anyone, so long as Death stands at their head. If Death stands at their feet, the person is beyond saving. The physician becomes wealthy and renowned for his abilities, but eventually succumbs to the temptation to cheat Death twice—first when healing the king, and later when healing the princess, whom he wishes to marry.

Death, angered by the physician’s actions, brings him to an underground cavern filled with candles representing the life-lights of mankind. Death shows the physician his own life-light, which is nearly extinguished. The physician pleads for a new candle, but Death pretends to grant his wish, only to trick him and let his life-light go out. The physician falls dead, ultimately unable to escape Death’s grasp.

Informations for scientific analysis

Fairy tale statistics
NumberKHM 44
Aarne-Thompson-Uther-IndexATU Typ 332
TranslationsDE, EN, DA, ES, FR, PT, IT, JA, NL, PL, RU, TR, VI, ZH
Readability Index by Björnsson28.4
Flesch-Reading-Ease Index82.1
Flesch–Kincaid Grade-Level5.9
Gunning Fog Index9.1
Coleman–Liau Index7.8
SMOG Index9.1
Automated Readability Index5.7
Character Count6.285
Letter Count4.793
Sentence Count72
Word Count1.197
Average Words per Sentence16,63
Words with more than 6 letters141
Percentage of long words11.8%
Number of Syllables1.526
Average Syllables per Word1,27
Words with three Syllables74
Percentage Words with three Syllables6.2%
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