A poor man had 12 children. When his wife gave birth to their 13th child, he went out to look for a godfather. He first encountered God Himself, but he did not understand the ways of God. In particular, he did not understand why the rich enjoyed prosperity while the poor suffered hunger. So he did not accept God as a godfather. He then encountered Satan but rejected him also. Then he met Death. Since Death treated all people alike, the poor man decided that Death was a good godfather for the child.
When the boy reached maturity, his godfather gave him a marvelous herb that could heal the sick. He would become a famous physician if he observed the following rules. Whenever he came into a sick room, Death would stand by the patient’s head if he was destined to live. The godson would then apply the herb and cure his disease. However, if Death stood by the patient’s feet, the godson would sadly tell the people that no doctor could heal him.
The godfather sternly warned his godchild that he should never apply the herb to a patient when Death was standing at his feet.
With such unerring information at his disposal, the godson quickly became rich and famous. His fame reached the ears of the royal court, so that he was summoned when the king became ill.
When the physician entered the sickroom, he saw Death standing at the patient’s feet. He turned the patient around so that Death was at his head. He then applied the herb and healed the king.
This trick angered Death. He decided not to punish his godchild this time but warned him that he would die if he disobeyed his instructions again.
After a while, the daughter of the king became ill. The king was very fond of her, and he promised that she would become the bride of anyone who could heal her.
When the famous physician entered the sickroom, Death was standing at the feet of the princess. The princess was so beautiful that he turned her around and healed her in spite of the warning that his godfather had given him.
This time Death took him. He brought his godson to an underground cavern in which there were a great number of lights, some big and some small. The big lights were the lives of people who still would live for a long time. The small lights were the lives of people who were about to die. The light of the godson was about to go out.
The godson begged death to kindle a new light for him so that he could marry the princess and become king. Death said that he could not do so because one light had to be extinguished before he could kindle a new one. So the godson begged him to put his light right on top of a new light so that a new light would be burning for him in the exact instant that his old light went out.
Death pretended to comply with the godson’s request. However, he pretended to make a clumsy mistake. The light went out, and Death had his revenge.
Maerchen.com: Der Gevatter Tod