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The tale of the doctor who defied Death - Iseult Gillespie

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A husband and wife were in despair. The woman had just given birth to their 13th child, and the growing family was quickly running out of food and money. Wandering into the woods, the father encountered a skeletal figure with sunken eyes and a gaunt face: this was Death himself, come to offer his services as Godfather. Iseult Gillespie tells the tale of Death and the doctor.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Yael Reisfeld
  • Educator Iseult Gillespie
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Art Director Yael Reisfeld
  • Animator Yael Reisfeld
  • Storyboard Artist Yael Reisfeld
  • Compositor Yael Reisfeld
  • Music Jarrett Farkas
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
The tale of “Godfather Death” appears in different versions across a range of European folk tale traditions - including Norway’s “The Boy with the Ale Keg” and Italy’s “The Just Man.” You can read the different versions translated into English here. These tales testify to the enduring tradition of personifying Death as a character – from the similar figure of Godmother Death in Eastern European traditions, to the Grim Reaper figure that became popular during the “Black Death” of the Middle Ages. For a deep dive into the personification of death in folklore and fairy tales, click here.

In the form of various deities, death has also been personified throughout world mythology: from Meng Po of Chinese lore to the Inuit goddess of the sea and the underworld, Sedna. Today, this trend continues in contemporary literature.

The German Tale of “Godfather Death” was collected, written down and tater retold in the Brothers Grimm fairytales as “The Godfather”, the English translation can be found here. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were German scholars and cultural research, who travelled around Germany in the nineteenth century writing and adapting folk tales that had been lost or forgotten. Today, these tales are widely told to and known by children and adults, particularly in the United States and Europe – including “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Cinderella.” You can test your knowledge of the Grimm brothers and their more well-known tales with this fun quiz.

As may be clear from the dark tale of “Godfather Death”, many of the Grimms’ original tales were dark, sinister and violent. Since the publication of their original folktales, the Grimms’ fairy tales have been sanitized or made into more overtly moral tales. You can read more about this editing process in this short article. Then, visit this link for another dive into the dark aspects of fairy tales.

In all their versions, fairytales remain powerful in the collective imagination. To learn more about the evolution of fairytales and how they became so popular, read the Introduction to Jack Zipes’ Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairytales here. Then, read a preview of Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time to learn all about the imagery, recurring characters and magic spells that reappear throughout the tales.

In his famous book The Uses of Enchantment, an exploration of why fairy tales matter to our humans, Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairytales are foundational narratives that help us understand everything from ethics and relationships to the patterns of narrative. You can read a preview here, and a useful overview of his arguments here. Bettelheim was particularly interested in the ways that fairytales give us metaphors and narratives which we can use to understand the more inexpressible aspects of life. Under this formula, the tale of Godfather Death might be about the futility of trying to cheat death.



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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Yael Reisfeld
  • Educator Iseult Gillespie
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Art Director Yael Reisfeld
  • Animator Yael Reisfeld
  • Storyboard Artist Yael Reisfeld
  • Compositor Yael Reisfeld
  • Music Jarrett Farkas
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more