Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Term of Life

"Three studies of a donkey" by Gerard ter Borch the Elder (ca. 1612)
Watercolour and ink on paper?, in Museum het Rembrandthuis (Amsterdam)
From Wikimedia Commons

"Die Lebenszeit" from the fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm:


When God had created the world and was to decide the life's term for every creature, the donkey came and asked, "Lord, how long shall I live?"

"Thirty years," answered God. "Do you agree to it?"

"Oh, Lord," the donkey countered, "that is a long time. Bethink my weary life: from morning till night carrying heavy burdens, hauling sacks of corn to the mill so that others can eat bread, and to be encouraged and refreshed by nothing but blows and kicks! Remit me part of this long time."

Then God had mercy and presented him eighteen years.

The donkey went away reassured, and the dog appeared.

"How long do you wish to live?" God said to him. "For the donkey thirty years are too many, but you will be satisfied with it."

"Lord," answered the dog, "is that your wish? Bethink how much I must run; my feet will not take it so long. And once I have lost the voice to bark and the teeth to bite, what would be left for me to do but to walk from one corner to the other and growl?"

God saw that he was right and remitted twelve years.

Thereupon the ape came. "You will probably like to live for thirty years?" the Lord said to him. "You must not work like the donkey and the dog and are always in good spirits."

"Oh, Lord," he answered, "That is how it seems, but it is different. When it rains millet porridge I have no spoon. I must always play funny tricks, make faces, so that people laugh, and when they hand me an apple and I bite into it, it is sour. How often sorrow hides behind comedy! I could not take thirty years."

God was merciful and presented him ten years.

Finally man appeared, was joyful, healthy and fresh and bade God to decide his term. "You shall live thirty years," the Lord said, "is that enough for you?"

"What a short time!" the man exclaimed. "When I have built my house and fire burns on my own hearth; when I have planted trees, which flower and bear fruit, and I consider becoming happy with my life, then I shall die! Oh Lord, prolong my time."

"I will pass on to you the eighteen years of the donkey," said God.

"That is not enough," answered the man.

"You shall also have the twelve years of the dog."

"Still too little."

"Very well," said God, "I will give you the ten years of the ape then, too, but you will receive no more."

The man went away but was still not content.

So man lives seventy years. The first thirty are his human years. These pass quickly; then he is healthy, happy, works with joy and enjoys his existence. Hereupon follow the eighteen years of the donkey, where one burden after the other is laid on him; he must carry the corn which feeds others, and blows and kicks are the wage of his faithful service. Then the twelve years of the dog come, when he lies in corners, growls and has no more teeth left to bite. And when this time is gone, the ten years of the ape draw it to a close. Then man is weakminded and foolish, cuts silly capers and becomes the laughing-stock of children.

Translated from Grimms Märchen (Gondrom Verlag), more liberally than usual
The tale in the German original, in various editions, can be found at Wikisource here; the version like the above text is the last (1857).


"Landscape with the Flight into Egypt" by Roelant Savery (1624)
Oil on panel, 54.3 x 91.5 cm, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
From Wikimedia Commons


For one thing I like tales where the characters' lives are determined by conversation and bargaining with (a) God rather than by majestic decree.

For another I like the self-deprecating idea (which also often appears in Greek myths), that we — men and women — are rather greedy in material and spiritual respects, and much less clever (or at least less wise, so in the end it is misguided effort) than we think.

As far as the animal characters are concerned, the sympathy for their labour is pleasing, and as in other fables the idea that they are our companions in daily life too is warming; and I wouldn't be surprised if one of Aesop's tales ran along the lines of this story.

On the other hand the description of old age is a trifle unflattering; it is a reflection more of the poor quality of life in the 19th century, in my view, than of inescapable truth.

Not a very religious story in some ways, and I doubt the Church would be quick to own it; but the nature of life for man and "beast" is a theological question, after all, and I don't want to be too firmly entrenched in an established religious canon. That is why it is suitable for the Sunday theme.


"A Donkey Sings to the Accompaniment of a Harp" by Ambrosius Holbein (1515)
from the Holbeins' drawings in the margin of a copy of Erasmus's
Praise of Folly (no. 55)
Pen and black Indian ink and black ink oxidised to brown, Kunstmuseum Basel
From Wikimedia Commons

(Right-click and open image to see it better.)

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