Monday, March 21, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Godson

For today's Roger Zelazny book review, I'm looking at Godson.  I don't know anybody who doesn't like Godson. It's such a great story. The only thing that could possibly make it better would be if the author adapted it into a musical. But what are the odds of that?!

When discussing Zelazny, one often hears the criticism that his older books were his best. I think there is some element of truth to that, but the same can't be said of his short stories, which were consistently great right up until the end.

It's one of those great stories where nothing is less than perfect, just like The Last Defender of Camelot and every element fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The story is taken more or less directly from the fable of Godfather Death. If you don't feel like clicking on the link, I'll summarize it here. A man is looking for a Godfather for his son. After passing on God and the Devil, he accepts Death's offer to be the boy's godfather. In the original story, Death teaches the boy to be a physician by instructing him how to find and apply a certain magical herb. Death decides who will live and die by standing at the head or the foot of the patient's bed. The Godson defies Death's will by saving the king. Death then makes the king's daughter fall ill, and the Godson saves her too. Then Death spirits him away to his lair, which is filled with countless candles, each of which represents a human life. The Godson's candle has almost burned out and he pleads with death to transfer the flame to a fresh candle, but Death is still upset with him, so he extinguishes the candle in the guise of fumbling with it.

That's more or less the plot of the Zelazny version. The godson, David, is actually a doctor in this one, and uses the magical herb to supplement his more traditional remedies. The king is a governor, David lives at the end, and Death likes football. It has some lines about Death being a power over life that hearken back to Creatures of Light & Darkness.

The name of the herb which Death instructs David  how to grow and apply is bleafage. It's such a random name that I thought there must be some kind of meaning behind it, but there's no suggestion of this in the annotations in the Collected Stories version and I didn't come up with anything meaningful when I ran the word through an anagram unscrambler (Though Fable Age has a certain poetry to it)

Anagrams of bleafage:

Alga Beef
Gala Beef
Beagle Fa
Fable Age
A Flab Gee
A Gab Feel
A Gab Flee
A Bag Feel
A Bag Flee
A Leaf Beg
A Flea Beg
A Flag Bee
A Gal Beef
A Lag Beef
Gab Fa Eel
Gab Fa Lee
Gab La Fee
Bag Fa Eel
Bag Fa Lee
Bag La Fee
Alb Fa Gee
Lab Fa Gee
Gale Fa Be
Lea Fa Beg
Lea Fag Be
Ale Fa Beg
Ale Fag Be
Fa Gal Bee
Fa Lag Bee
Fag La Bee
A Fa Be Gel
A Fa Be Leg

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the musical version of Godson.

I happen to like local theater. The only thing better than a local play is a local musical.  Godson occasionally gets performed at conventions, which is just awesome. I'm sorry that I didn't know about the Boskone one because Mass is not at all a long trip for me. (I see it's being performed again at this convention, but unfortunately, that's too much of a hike for me. If anything, the play tightens up an already stellar work, keeping much of the language of the story, but giving Betty an expanded role and introducing her earlier.

The songs look an enormous amount of fun. My personal favorite is "Oh, Wondrous Weed!" ("You tonify and purify and fix up damaged parts/ You outbiot the antis and you stabilize our hearts!")

It's so great. I can't think of a single thing I would change about it.


  1. I had the fun of performing a cameo as Dr. Puleo in the world premiere of this musical at Boskone, and I'm supposed to repeat that at Renovation this fall. As far as I know those are the only two performances ever. It was never performed while Zelazny was alive except for one occasion when he did it solo as a live reading for a group of friends. The script of the play had been presumed lost until I found it in an archive (and also Zelazny's childhood friend, Carl Yoke, later offered me an identical copy that he'd had in his possession).

    Having watched most of the musical from the audience at Boskone, I can say that the script is in need of some editing for timing and some awkward dialogue, and some of the lyrics similarly need a bit of editing. These are the sorts of things that would have been taken care of by Zelazny had he participated in having someone stage the play, or had a musician written the music so that Zelazny could hear the songs performed. But without Zelazny's involvement, and especially as an amateur production, one can really only use the script and lyrics as is.

    Overall, I agree, the story is wonderful and the script & lyrics are a lot of fun to read.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. I should add kudos to Dave Grubbs who not only staged the first performance and played Death (and will repeat all of this at Renovation), but who took on the task of writing music to fit the lyrics so that this play could truly be performed as a musical (the way Zelazny intended). That a first performance even took place is almost solely due to Dave's tremendous efforts. And I'm also glad that he cast me in a role that comes naturally to me, kept me offstage for the most part, and didn't require me to do any singing...

    Chris Kovacs

  3. I really liked Godson when I first read it, then when I picked up the Collected Stories and read some of the notes that followed the story, I lost a little bit of respect for it. I know that Zelazny often used myths and fables as the basis for his stories (and I love him for it), but when I read the description of the Godfather Death fable, I thought I was reading an exact summary of Godson. It really seemed like very, very little had changed from fable to short story.

    Don't get me wrong, it's still good, but it just doesn't seem original enough now that I know the original tale.

    As far as the script for the play goes, I'll agree with Chris about the awkward dialogue (even though I haven't actually seen the production on stage). When I was reading through the script in the collected stories, I felt like a lot of the dialogue was forced exposition that I didn't see in the original story. I guess it's just harder to get some of the important plot information across when you don't have non-dialogue narration to lean on. I'm no expert on theater (or writing in general), but I know that when I read some of those lines and pictured someone saying them on stage, it sounded more than a little off.

    All that being said, Godson's still a good story, no doubt. =P

  4. VideoChrist (anagrams are fun) sez . . .

    "Godson" is one of my favorite Zelazny stories. I didn't read it until fairly recently, in the Collected Stories. The fact that it's closely based on a fable doesn't bother me, especially since Z improved on the original. (Death as a football fanatic -- that's just priceless.)

    --Chris DeVito (ID'ing myself here just in case my anagrammatical alter ego isn't clear enough)

  5. I was very surprised by how little Zelazny had changed from the original fable, and I'm still not sure if the fact that it's based extremely closely on the fable is a net plus or minus for me.

    On one hand, I'm not a fan of changing things just for the sake of changing them and a big part of the appeal for this story is minor details like Betty's observation that chess and football represent physical and abstract violence, which is something that didn't spring from the original.

  6. Don't forget that Godfather Death ends with the young man dying, his life snuffed out like his candle. Zelazny continues the tale beyond that.

    I don't think I'd ever read the fable before I read Godson, so when I realized later that the first half or two-thirds of the story was based on the fable, I too was quite surprised. But I don't think I minded.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. Like I said -- Zelazny improved on the original. Shakespeare, that overrated hack, made a career out of polishing up lumpy old rocks and putting a nice stylish spin on them. Why criticize Z for doing it?


  8. I should have posted mention of this months ago. Zelazny's musical "Godson" will be performed at the 2011 WorldCon (Renovation) being held in Reno, Nevada, next Wednesday evening (August 17). It's most of the same cast who performed at Boskone in 2010. Perhaps it's not too late to make it there, Josh? I'll be doing a cameo as Dr. Puleo again...

  9. I'd love to come, but unfortunately have other obligations! But please have a great time on behalf of everybody who reads here, and don't forget to post pictures!

  10. Did a bit of searching. Long shot, but Blea can mean heartwood or sapwood. It can also mean bare or rough (as in bleak). It is also an Old English variant of "Blae" or " Blue".
    Fage is also a name for "Beech" as in a Beech tree.
    So the name could conceivably mean something like Beech heartwood.

    1. Very interesting. That was the one element of the story that didn't quite fit for me, because Zelazny was always so meticulous with his writing.