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By Misty Thomas
In 1812, Jacob and Wilheim Grimm published the ever-so popular, Grimm's Fairy Tales. These German brothers wrote over 200 different fairy tales to be included in two volumes. Some say that they wrote more tales, but that these tales were later omitted from the books due to the controversial nature of their content. (At least the whole book wasn't banned!)
The Brothers Grimm wrote a lot about death in their fairy tales. In that era, many women and children died during or shortly after childbirth. So death was familiar to people then. The Brothers Grimm featured death in a lot of their fairy tales because they were smart marketers. Death is an equalizer. It does not play favorites. Everyone dies at some point, be they rich or poor. It is in everyone's destiny—and that's part of what made Grimm's Fairy Tales so popular.
The Brothers Grimm personified death and made it a character as a means of showing kids that death is not something to fear, but rather something that should be welcomed at some point in their lives. Again, good PR.
One of the more obscure and lesser known of the fairy tales is one that I am fond of, called “Godfather Death.” In this tale, a man is searching for a godfather of his thirteenth—yes, you read that correctly—thirteenth child. He searches everywhere, with little luck. He meets God on the road and tells God that he is not good enough to be a godfather. The man then comes across Satan on the road, and also tells him that he is not good enough. Just when the man thinks that all hope is lost, he meets Death on the side of the road. Death asks to be his child's godfather and the man agrees. He tells Death that he has always been fair to the rich and to the poor and would make an excellent godfather to child number thirteen.
Death honors his part of the bargain by being a great godfather to the child. He tells the child that he will grow up and become a world-famous doctor, and that when he is healing the sick, he will see Death at one end of the bed. If Death is at the head of the bed, he will cure the ill, but if Death is standing at the foot of the bed, the person will die and Death must take the person away. The child heeds these words and becomes the most sought-after doctor in the kingdom.
Then one day, the kingdom's beautiful princess falls ill. When the doctor goes into her room to save her, he spots Death standing at the foot of her bed. This saddens the doctor because he had hoped to one day marry the princess and become king. He ends up curing the princess and she thanks him. This angers Death and he knows he must doe something he never wanted to do.
He takes his godson down to a cavern where there are thousands of candles lit. He explains to his godson that each candle represents a villager's life. When a candle goes out, the villager loses his life. His godson asks to see his candle, and tries to explain why he saved the princess. Since Death won't take any excuses, his must take his godson's life in exchange for the life of the princess. Death takes his godson's candle and blows it out. Then his godson falls to the ground and dies.
Yeah, so this tale's morbid and would make for a wretched Disney film. A lot of people would blame the darkness of it. Anyone who has ever tried to explain death to children knows it's almost impossible to do without scaring their pants off. But it's one of my favorite fairy tales because it doesn't sugarcoat death or what death can do. It makes death out to be more human. The more real death is made to be, the more children will learn from the tale and understand it. Maybe in our Tuck Everlasting society will, too.