#FairytaleTuesday: Death and the Goose Boy

[CW: drowning of people and animals, discussions of death]

Amanda Marburg, 2018

This is a short and slippery tale. If you google it, you can find several places that reference it but there is no Wikipedia entry so I’m unable to ascertain the ATU Index number. I tried digging through a comprehensive ATU site but no luck. I assume it does have one but my untrained eye couldn’t find it.

Since it’s so short, I’m going to post the story in its entirety and then we’ll discuss the interpretations.

A poor goose boy went walking along the bank of a large, turbulent river while looking after a flock of white geese. When he saw Death come toward him across the water, the boy asked him where he had come from and where he intended to go. Death answered that he had come from the water and wanted to leave the world. The poor goose boy asked Death once more how one could actually leave the world.

Death said that one must go across the river into the new world that lay on the other side. The goose boy said he was tired of this life and asked Death to take him across the water. Death said it was not time yet, for there were things Death still had to do.

Not far from there lived a greedy man, who at night kept trying to gather together more and more money and possessions. Death led him to the large river and pushed him in. Since he couldn’t swim, he sank to the bottom before he could reach the bank. His cats and dogs that had run after him were also drowned. A few days later Death returned to the goose boy and found him singing cheerfully.

“Do you want to come with me now?” he asked.

The goose boy went willingly and crossed the river with his white geese, which were all turned into white sheep. The goose boy looked at the beautiful country and heard that the shepherds of places like that became kings, and as he was looking around, the arch-shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, came toward him, put a royal crown on his head, and led him to the castle of the shepherds, where he can still be found.

In reading the story, it’s wildly obvious that this is a Christian allegory. And while I immediately understood the reference to “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” I was a little thrown as to who the Goose Boy actually was. I mean, I may know an absurd amount when it comes to mythology and folklore but the Bible has never been an area of focus for me. So my first thought was that it was about King David, of “David and Goliath” fame.

Josephine Pollard, 1899

That didn’t seem quite right though. I mean, sure, David was a shepherd and a king but so was Jesus (even if only metaphorically, and I think we’re all aware of the liberal use of metaphor in fairytales). As such, I thought it might be best to consult someone who actually knew their stuff. Having said that, I have a tendency to shy away from most Christians so I didn’t want to ask someone I didn’t know. Instead I contacted my oldest friend, Amy T. I know the depth of her faith so her opinion is one I would trust for this kind of analysis.

I sent her the final paragraph and asked her if she thought it was about Jesus and if so, why? Blunt, I know, but she took my weird, out-of-the-blue text in stride and responded:

I would say so. Crossing the river willingly likely refers to Jesus knowingly laying down his life. The river is often a metaphor for death. “Still be found” would refer to the eternal reign of Christ.

Prophecy in the Old Testament told of a king who would wear the crown of David’s lineage forever.

Jesus the Good Shepherd | Photo by Mohamad Babayan on Unsplash
Artist and Date Unknown

The story made more sense after she said that, so I am more than willing to follow her analysis in this area. As messages go, it’s not all that subtle but shoehorning Christian mythology into fairytales usually wasn’t subtle and it wasn’t meant to be. The point is that kids respond to stories and take stories with them into adulthood. Even if they don’t consciously understand or remember the allusions to Christ, it may still affect them later in life.

The most important thing we need to remember is that–when it comes to folklore, fairytales, and mythology–things that may be concrete doctrine and fact for you, may not be so for others, and vice versa. For children in 1812 Europe, this story would most definitely have an impact because Christ and the fear of Hell was a very real part of their lives. I can’t speak to whether this had a good or bad impact but I guarantee that someone, somewhere, was influenced by it.

And we also have to remember that children (and adults) in this time period weren’t shielded from Death. Modern humans witness loss of life, of course, but Death prior to the 20th century was a living breathing entity that rode alongside everyone. The sick and the elderly often took their last breaths in their homes and their own beds, surrounded by family. Their bodies were cleaned and prepared by the women of the family. They were laid out for viewing in the home–sometimes for days–where their lives were celebrated with food and drink and reminiscing, before they were laid to rest in a cemetery or family mausoleum.

And too, dead bodies were not an uncommon sight on city streets, especially in bitter cold winters and times of plague and famine. Death was a constant and inescapable presence for everyone, adults and children alike. They knew that he comes for all of us in the end, and for them, belief in a gentle shepherd might be the only thing that kept them from burning for eternity.

Grim Reaper Bill And Ted GIF - Grim Reaper Bill And Ted - Discover & Share  GIFs

Work Cited:
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. 

One thought on “#FairytaleTuesday: Death and the Goose Boy

  1. I’m no expert, but this feels like a very disconnected story. The goose boy, which I take to mean he tended to geese, seems like a proper reference to birds as a proper fairy tale. Death being a person you can talk to also checks a fairy tale box. Only the last paragraph feels tacked on with sheep and king references that are biblical. There must be an older story that has been changed by later hacks to get to this weird tale.

    Liked by 1 person

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