Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Guest Post: Lissa Sloan on God, the Devil, and Death Walk Into a Forest: Heavenly Godparents and Other Immortals

I am very pleased to bring Tales of Faerie readers a post by writer Lissa Sloan! She is one of the authors featured in Frozen Fairy Tales, with her story "Death in Winter."

(Also, it may seem like it's a little out of season by this point to still be featuring Frozen Fairy Tales but this guest post somehow got lost in the vast internet, and just recently made a harrowing journey back to my inbox. But as I initially drafted this, it was literally snowing here in Chicago, so depending where you live winter may still be lingering-or on its way, those of you in the Southern Hemisphere!)

Lissa's story involves a young mother's journey following Death in a desperate attempt to save the life of her daughter. It's well written and the protagonist is a strong, admirable character. Some of the stories in the collection have a modern feel to them; "Death in Winter" has a timeless quality to it.  In ways it feels like listening to an old folktale told by a fire, but it has some unique elements to it as well, and keeps you wondering what's going to happen next! So without further ado: Please enjoy Lissa's insights, delving further into the concept of Death and other Immortals as characters in folklore!


God, the Devil, and Death Walk into a Forest: Heavenly Godparents and Other Immortals

 When I first began delving into fairy tales and reading more than the most familiar stories, I expected to find fantastical characters like witches, giants, trolls, and fairies. I did not, however, expect to find immortals like God, St. Peter, and the Virgin Mary. And yet, it's not at all uncommon for our hero or heroine to encounter them, like a poor man does in "Godfather Death". Desperately looking for a godfather for his child, he meets God, the Devil, and Death, who each offer to do him this service. The man rejects God, saying that he allows the poor to suffer. He likewise rejects the Devil, because, well, he's the Devil. And he accepts Death because all are equal in his eyes. The child does well with Death as a godfather. At least until, in true fairy tale fashion, he tries to push things a bit too far.
"Godfather Death," Heinrich Lefler

 Sometimes these Christian figures are in Heaven, doing heavenly sorts of things. For instance, St. Peter is often found guarding the gates, like in "The Tailor in Heaven", in which he erroneously lets an overly curious and judgmental tailor into heaven when God is out for the afternoon. But it is just as likely you will find him or the Lord down on earth, looking for directions, a place to stay, or something to eat. In fact there are many stories featuring Jesus and St. Peter just traveling around, rubbing shoulders with poor folk, rich folk, gamblers, and soldiers. Some of these stories are a bit like parables,with Jesus teaching a moral lesson. But many are silly, featuring Peter as a buffoon, trying to get away with doing less work or getting more than his share. In "How Saint Peter Lost his Hair", Peter hides a pancake under his hat so he doesn't have to share it with Jesus, but the hot pancake burns the hair off his head. Often, Jesus's response is reproving but forgiving, but other times he is as good-humored as a typical fairy tale trickster. In "Stones to Bread", Peter lugs a giant rock along the road, greedily hoping the Lord will turn it into a giant loaf of bread if there is no bread available at their destination. But there is plenty of bread, Peter has toiled all day for nothing, and Jesus has a good laugh at his expense.

 When the Virgin Mary appears in fairy tales, sometimes taking a poor girl into her care, she is more dignified. In fact, in "Our Lady's Child", she is quite austere. Her protege is caught in a lie she will not confess to, so Mary punishes her, kicking her out of her heavenly home and taking her voice. When the girl marries a king and has children, Mary appears after each birth, giving the queen a chance to confess, then taking the baby and framing her for its death when she refuses, much like the villainous mother-in-law in "The Six Swans". Only when the queen is about to be put to death and at last confesses does Mary relent.

 In "Pearl Tears" from von Schonwerth's The Turnip Princess, however, Mary is much more like a fairy godmother, helping to deliver her goddaughter Maria, and, when things turn ugly with the girl's stepmother, giving her a home in her palace. When Maria transgresses in the same way as "Our Lady's Child" (looking into a forbidden chamber), Mary does banish her, but she continues to keep an eye on her. Maria now cries pearl tears, so is able to make the best of any misfortune, and eventually Mary allows her to return to her palace and take her place caring for the poor and the sick.

May 12 - The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs by fresh4u
 The Ferryman from "The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs," by fresh4u

My favorite immortals are the Devil and Death, perhaps because they're both so unpredictable. Like the other immortals, Death and the Devil are powerful beings, but in many ways, fairly ordinary folks. In "The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs" and "The Devil and His Grandmother", the Devil has a grandmother, who cooks, keeps house for him, scolds him for being bad-tempered, and even removes his lice when he asks her. She also takes pity on our heroes when they ask for her help, even if it means her grandson loses out on his bargain. The devil is fond of bargaining, of course, but many heroes are able to outwit him. In some stories, however, he's just looking for some help around the house, as in "The Devil's Sooty Brother", and he pays up willingly at the end of his servant's tenure, and even cuts his hair before he goes. In "Bearskin" he loses out on the soldier's soul, but is just as happy to gain the man's two jealous sisters-in-law instead. Like the Devil, Death is often a fearsome adversary, and many tricksters are forced to submit to him in the end, as the godson must in "Godfather Death". But Death can also be merciful, as in "Death and the Gooseboy". The world-weary child asks Death to take him along, and, after making sure a rich, greedy man gets his just deserts, Death agrees and takes the boy to his heavenly rest. In "Death's Messengers", he promises a man who has helped him that he will warn the man his death is imminent by sending his messengers on ahead. (Unfortunately, the man does not recognize illness or increasing weakness when they arrive, but Death has kept his promise.)
"The Soldier and Death," Darcy May

 Like the Devil, Death also finds him or herself tricked by mortals, winding up caught in magic trees, bottles, or in the case of the Russian tale "The Soldier and Death", trapped in a soldier's magic sack for years while no one on earth can die. In this tale, Death, who appears as a little old woman, is quite a pathetic figure by the end of the story.

 Immortals in fairy tales may be a little less omnipotent and omnipresent than their counterparts in other genres. They're much more fallible and down to earth, despite their power to grant wishes and mete out supernatural justice. But as the soldier from "The Solider and Death" finds out, just because he can triumph over these powerful figures doesn't mean he should. Eventually the soldier sees the flaw in his plan and must let Death out to do her job. By this time, even he is ready to die, but Death is so frightened by him after her time in the sack that she will go nowhere near him. Some of Hell's devils, too, have been in the sack and refuse to let the soldier into Hell. Denied entrance to Heaven and Hell alike and unable to die, the soldier must wander the world forever. When dealing with immortals, as in so many fairy tales, “be careful what you wish for” is always good advice.

Thanks, Lissa! For more of her writing, be sure to visit her website! (For more on the devil in fairy tales, check out Adam's recent post at Fairy Tale Fandom on the Grimms' tale "Bearskin," which happens to complement this post perfectly!)


  1. I always did like stories that combine fantasy/fairy tales with Religion. Just like the Chronicles of Narnia combined pagan mythology with Christianity.

    There's something about that eclectic combination that makes both mythical and sacred. Mythology and Religion together makes it not only magical but spiritual as well. And there was a time when the sacred and the fantastic were once intertwined together. I'm part of a group, called Christopagans, who combine both Christian beliefs and Pagan beliefs. Some might call that heresy but that syncretism has been going on since the Medieval Ages. Village Healers would use both folk magic and Christian symbols/prayers. It wasn't to create a new religion, it was sticking to and remembering your old beliefs, ancestral roots, and combining it with the new ideas so as embrace your new identity while maintaining your old one, and to never forget where you came from.

    Have you ever heard of a Disney movie called Bedknobs and Broomsticks? about a witch taking care of Blitz evacuees during WW2? Well in one scene, the witch's spell goes wrong and the clothes start moving by themselves, a Vicar comes knocking on the witch's door, only to be answered by a floating nightgown. This scares the heck out of the Vicar and goes running away from the house. That scene felt something like a rare meeting between the magical and the religious. And I liked it.

    1. I grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia and I always loved Aslan as a godlike figure. It makes a lot of sense to me that when people were first introduced to Christianity, they wanted to keep a lot of the traditions/figures that were meaningful to them (and that people would think so today as well).
      I have seen Bedknobs and Broomsticks but it has been a while. I will have to revisit it. Thanks for reading!

  2. I was raised on many fairy tales and legends alike thatfeature the devil to the point whhere I was quite surprised to find that inother cultures it was considered a taboo to feature the devil in children's entertainment. There is something quite appealing about depicting the demonic as a stupid person who can easily be tricked. My favourite story as a child was the one about the miller who made a deal with the devil, where he asked him to build him a mill and promised him his soul if the devil wasn't finished by sun rise. HoweverIt was long before sun rise and the devil was almost done. So the miller's wife lighted ablaze the dung hilland the devil who thought it was the rising sun, cursing descented to hell. Interestingly some theorize that the devil's grandmother is a remnant of the Greek goddess Persephone, wife of Hades the ruler of the Underworld, imho the fact that she is featured in "The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs", a tale that borrows much from Greek Mytholog imho gives this theory some weight.

    It is interestingto see Mary as such an ambivalent figure in many fairy tales, perhaps after Christianization she replaced a pagan goddess who was more ambivalent in nature, but others theorize that a positive and a negative female character got conflated into one single character over the course of oral transfer. While Virgin Mary is usually more dignified as opposed tofairy tale appearances of Jesus and St. Peter, she is not exempt from mockery. In "The Girl from Brakel" from the Grimm collection, a girl prays to St. Anna (Mary's mother), because she isin love with a yong man and wants to marry him. The sexton, wanting to make fun of her, hides behind the statue of St. Anna with Baby Mry on herlap and screams in a high-pitched voice "You won't get him". the girl, thinking it was Mary who spoke, harshly reprimands her: Quiet, little brat! Let you mother do the talking!"

    Death is surely the most interesting of Immortals in fairy tales, sometimes benevolent, sometimes ambivalent, but never outright evil. When comparing different versions of "Godfather Death", you will find many different endings, some allowing the trickster to outsmart Death and gaining immortality (or choosing to die after many more decades out of his own volition), some have him succumb to death in the end, enforcing a more fatalistic world view and some even introduce a cruel irony when the candle he extinguishes in order to gain those years of life is the one of his wife or child. It shows how drastically a story can change depending on the context in which it is told.

    Very interesting read. Those stries are rarely heard from as they usually don't get adapted (due to aforementioned social taboo), but they shouldn't be forgotten nontheless

    1. I never thought about Hades/Persephone as a precursor to stories like "The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs", but it makes a lot of sense to me now that you mention it.

      I think you must be right about Mary replacing another character. I thought the same, especially after reading one of the stories in the notes of Jack Zipes's translation of the brothers Grimm's first edition. It was similar to "Our Lady's Child," but the patroness was not Mary, but a mysterious unnamed queen. I'm guessing there are many examples of Christian figures replacing pagan ones. When researching Krampus for an anthology I contributed to, I found it fascinating the way this old old legend was assimilated into Christianity, probably because people just didn't want to let him go, but had to make him acceptable to their new religion. Thanks for reading!

  3. I recognize that picture of "The Soldier and Death". It's from an adaptation of Jim Henson's The Storyteller.

    1. Good eye/memory! That one was Lissa's contribution, it was new to me!

    2. Yes, Adam! I have a book adaptation of the TV series, which is incidentally my favorite screen adaptation of fairy tales ever! It was my first introduction to "The Soldier and Death". Fun fact: "The Soldier and Death" shares elements with "The Smith and the Devil", which a study recently dated back to the bronze age:)

    3. The Storyteller's one of my favorites too. I love how The Storyteller feels like it's trying to do its own thing with the old tales. They're not trying to be a shiny Disney musical and they're not trying to overcompensate with darkness either. Instead, the show really has its own feel altogether.

    4. Yes, I completely agree! There is something so magical about the way it uses language that really feels like they are tales told around a fire, and passed down from generation to generation. I also love the design, and of course, John Hurt:)