Friday night folktale: The Soul of my Dear John

This is a story known to most Icelanders, if not through the folk-tale, then through the poem Davíð Stefánsson wrote based on it, or the play Gullna hliðið (The Golden Gate - that's the Icelandic name for the Pearly Gates) he also based on this tale. It’s a story about worthiness, sacrifice and love, and is unusual in being quite critical of Christian morals.

Once upon a time there was a couple, an old woman and an old man. The old man was rather unruly and unpopular, and in addition he was lazy and did not do his share of the work that needed doing in the home. His wife didn’t like this one bit and kept nagging him and saying that all he was good for was to waste and spoil all that she contributed to the household, but she was always active and working to get what was needed, and was a shrewd businesswoman who was not easily tricked. 

Although this disagreement existed between them the old woman still loved her man very much and made sure he wanted for nothing. This went on for a long time, until the old man fell seriously ill. The old woman sat constantly by his bedside and when it was clear that he was weakening it occurred to her that he was not very well prepared for his own death and that it was doubtful whether he would be given entry into Heaven, so she decided that maybe it would be best if she were to take care of that herself. She took a small bag made of leather and when he breathed his last breath she held the bag open over his face and captured his soul as it left the body and immediately tied it firmly closed. She then walked all the way to the Pearly Gates and knocked on the door. Saint Peter opened the door and asked he what her business was. 

“Greetings,” said the old woman, “I have brought the soul of my dear John; you may have heard of him. I want to ask you to allow him into Heaven.”

“Well, well" answered Peter, “unfortunately I cannot do that; as a matter of fact I have heard of your John, but it was nothing good.”

The she said: “I didn’t think, Saint Peter, that you were so hard-hearted, and you have clearly forgotten what happened to you way back when you denied your Lord.” Upon hearing this, Peter went back inside and locked the door behind him, but the old woman stood outside, moaning and sobbing.

A short time later she again knocked on the door, and this time it was Saint Paul who answered the door. She asked him to give entry to her dear John’s soul, but he did not want to hear about it and said her John did not deserve such grace. This made her angry and she said:

“So tell me, Paul: I suppose you were more worthy of grace back when you were persecuting God and all good men! I will ask no more of you.” Paul turned around quickly and locked the door.

When the old woman knocked on the door for the third time it was answered by the Virgin Mary herself. 

“Greetings, my dear” said the old woman. “I hope you will let my dear John inside even if Peter and Paul will not.”

“I am sorry,” said Mary, “but I dare not, for your John was such a rascal.”

“I do not blame you for that,” said the old woman, “but I thought you knew that other people besides yourself can be frail, or have you forgotten that you had a child and could not name his  father?” Mary would hear no more and shut and locked the door as fast as she could.

Now the old woman knocked on the door for the fourth time and this time it was Jesus Christ himself who came to the door. She humbly spoke:

“I wanted to ask you, dear saviour, to let this wretched soul inside the door.” 

Jesus answered: “It’s that John – no, good woman, he did not believe in me.”

As he was shutting the door, the old woman moved quickly and flung the bag with the soul in it in through the doorway so that it flew far into Heaven, before the door slammed shut. It took a heavy weight off the old woman’s heart to know that her dear John had made it into the Holy Kingdom, and it was with a light step that she returned home. How she fared after this we do not know, and what became of the soul of dear old John is anybody’s guess.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

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