“That was a shame,” said Our Lord.
“Oh, she won’t be missed,” answered the smith; “but the devil ought to be ashamed: he is hardly keeping to what stands over my door.”
– From “The Smith Who Could Not Get Into Hell”
Like most stories that fall onto the fairytale-parable spectrum, Peter Christen Asbjörnsen’s and Jörgen Moe’s story is fairly short, but it remains packed with meaning. In only a few pages, the authors depict a fictional, complicated interaction between mankind and spiritual beings. Cheeky and witty with a nod to Christianity, the story combines humor and teaching, encouraging readers to become better people.
This story is a pseudo-parable about a blacksmith who makes a Faustian bargain with the devil to become the greatest smith on earth for seven years. Almost immediately, the smith encounters Christ and the Apostles as they travel through the area. Christ questions the smith’s boasting about his supreme prowess, and the smith challenges Christ to do better. They have an informal competition, which the smith loses, but Christ still gives him three wishes. The smith uses the wishes to avenge himself on the devil and deny him his soul, but soon he realizes that his conduct with both Christ and the devil might affect his prospects in the Afterlife. In an attempt to discover his situation after death, he journeys both to hell and heaven.
Even without accounting for the tale’s underlying focus on morality, Asbjörnsen and Moe deserve credit for creating an amusing story in such a short space. Not only do they present an outlandish plot, but they portray their otherworldly characters in both an entertaining and (relatively) tasteful way. Their humor ranges from dry wit in dialogue to farce in action, making it easy to continue reading.
With elements of a parable, however, the story also emphasizes how humans ought to behave, and it uses the smith to challenge us. Just as his pride and vengefulness cause him to alienate most everyone around him, so can an average person’s. (Of course, alienating the devil isn’t a bad thing, but the smith also doesn’t do too well with Christ, which could create another set of problems.) Through the smith, we are forced to consider the long-term impacts of our conduct.
The story remains effective because Asbjörnsen and Moe address those impacts and use the smith to show that they apply to even the best people. Although the smith’s personality never receives clear presentation, there’s evidence that he’s a fairly mellow, likeable guy. When read in context of the story, the passage at the top of this post displays the extent of his easygoing nature in the face of a terrible event. He’s pleasant and friendly with the devil, so much so that the devil trusts him even when it’s clear he shouldn’t. In a way, the smith is supernaturally winsome because he is able to deceive the Deceiver. Yet in the end, the smith’s conduct still forces everyone to leave him. Even the devil, the individual traditionally depicted as wanting the soul of every human being, refuses to take the smith. It’s the ultimate depiction of a person alienating others around him. The consequences of our poor conduct, then, aren’t up for debate.
In spite of those consequences, there’s still a way out; redemption and atonement remain possible by the story’s end. Although the smith creates the pact and behaves so poorly, he has an opportunity to enter heaven. For him, this is a symbolic chance to find redemption for his mistakes. The situation is a total reversal that completes the story; both he and we can atone for our transgressions and be better (both in a mundane and spiritual sense) if we really want it. Perhaps it’s this encouragement, coupled with the story’s humor, that makes it worth reading.
“The Smith Who Could Not Get Into Hell” can be found Great Short Stories of the World, ed. Gerda Charles (New York: Gallery Books, 1990), as well as online.