Friday, December 20, 2013

Genre Splash #3: The Brothers Grimm [B]

Continued from Wednesday

Godfather Death: This next is as much cautionary tale and historical parable as anything else, though there is some evidence that it is also based on a single incident and not invented wholesale. The titular figure is representative of the Serpent People, living as he does in catacombs beneath the earth and, like witches, already old by the time that man enters the scene. What is at the heart of the story is their relationship with man, alternately vicious and caring, retributive and mentoring. Early myths, such as that of Qayin the Serpent's Son reinforce the idea that the Serpent People took some interest in man's development. Though the witches bestowed their own form of writing to their servants they neither had any skill in nor use for the advanced sciences. Instead it was the Serpent People who, perhaps inspiring later stories of the Grigori or Watchers (which suggests interesting possibilities for interpreting the nephilim), taught these things to humankind. Most prized were the arts of medicine and alchemy, and these twin powers of regeneration and transformation have ever remained associated with the figure of the snake in our history.

And yet at other times in our interwoven history the Serpent People have laid plots for the demise of entire nations, murdered and eaten scores of people, and subjected others to endless tortures in the name of some sort of alchemical advancement. Why these sudden, jarring, and too-frequent shifts from one extreme to the other? If adopted parents they are to mankind, then there are none more abusive than they. The answer, as explored in Godfather Death (and perhaps even the many stories of mankind's fall from grace and exile from paradise), lies in the culture of the Serpent People. Their moral system is fundamentally based on the law in a way that ours is not, taking the law not as a means but, in some respects, as the chief end. Any law is better than no law, and no matter how terrible it is there can be no alternative to following it if it cannot be changed. This seems to have grown out of an early obsession with oaths, promises, and contracts, which allowed their species to develop a wider civilization as quickly as they invented social contracts  (it is conceivable that legends of the fair folk and goblins were inspired not by the Bran Cult People and their contemporaries but by the Serpent People, who interestingly enough seem to have some links to the aforementioned cultures either way).

To return to topic, however, this cultural obsession (there is no other term that we could possibly use) points to the possibility suggested by the Brothers Grimm: The sum of our interactions with the Serpent People, both good and ill, are based on whether or not we are holding up our side of a contract that our people made with theirs countless generations ago. That we do not remember the existence of this contract, let alone its terms, is something that the Serpent People either do not understand or do not care about.

What is clear from this story is that both the Brothers Grimm and Death himself view him- as representative the Serpent People- as being the epitome of fairness in his own way. He is inscrutable, but generous. Strict, but willing and even eager to teach and provide for the boy. Even willing to forgive at least one case of the contract being broken and let his godchild off with only a warning. Indeed, his very reasons for demanding that the contract be honored are integral to maintaining the balance of the world, because all must die at their appointed time regardless of their power or influence or even their personal relationship with Death. As Maria Tatar notes, Death has an "exquisite sense of social justice." The source of our conflict with the Serpent People is that, no matter how fair they may try to be, their thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are their ways our ways. Were they able to understand us better then they might forgive us, but we must surely appear to them as being willfully recalcitrant.

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