Half a Blanket

adapted from “Das Vierte Gebot,” or “The Fourth Commandment,”
a folktale from medieval Germany

There was an old king once in France
Who grew in time too weak to reign.
So, he renounced his jeweled crown
To give his son his wide demesne.

“I pledge I will take care of thee,”
The new king to his father said,
But soon thereafter that young wight
Had to a pretty princess wed.

She cared not for the former king
And made unto her spouse complaint.
“There is no pleasure at our board.
That old man coughs without constraint.”

Her husband then, to please his queen,
Beneath the stairs his father kept,
Where like the kennel hounds, on straw
And hay he made his bed and slept.

The years passed by. The old man lived.
Meanwhile, the queen a son conceived
Who grew to be a gentle lad
And who to loving kindness cleaved.

He knew the plight of his grandsire
And how things in the palace stood.
So, to relieve his wretchedness,
With him the boy would share his food.

One day, the hapless man requested,
When next his grandson should come back,
He bring an old worn saddle blanket
When winter cranked its icy rack.

The lad ran off, and in the stalls,
He found a new wool blanket there.
He rent the cover clean in two
And left uncloaked its destrier.

The boy returned. His father saw,
By chance, the deed his heir had done.
“Why hast thou halved my good horse cloth
That warmed my great war mount, my son?”

The lad replied, “One-half is for
Thy father thou hast locked away.
The other half I keep for thee
When thou hast grown too old and gray.”



The Old Man and Death

adapted from Sir Roger L’Estrange’s 1669 collection The Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists

An old bent peasant gathered wood
To build himself a fire,
But as he trudged back toward his hut,
The man began to tire.

He threw his bundle on the ground
And cried, “Oh, come, kind death!
Release an old man from his toil!”
Yet ere he caught his breath,

Death stood before him and inquired,
“What is it you demand?”
“Please help me pick my burden up
By lending me a hand.”



Terry L. Norton is professor emeritus of literacy acquisition at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of Cherokee Myths and Legends: Thirty Tales Retold as well as academic books and articles on literacy and literature for children and young adults. His poems have appeared in Ekphrastic Review, Kakalak Review, The Chained Muse, and The Society for Classical Poets. His renditions of first century Latin poet Phaedrus received second place in the 2020 translation competition sponsored by The Society.

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13 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    Wow! That ‘Half a Blanket’ is wonderfully poignant. And in ‘The Old Man and Death’, I do hope Death has a sense of humour.

    You are indeed a witful wight, Mr Norton!

    • Terry L. Norton

      Thank you. When I read the German folktale, I found it particularly touching. As with the other poem, I think of an adaptation as engaging in a conversation with another piece of literature.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Terry, I love these smooth-flowing, engaging adaptations. They take me back to afternoon story time, when, as a five year old, I sat cross-legged on the classroom mat and disappeared into an alternate universe of myth, magic and wonder. I particularly like the subtle humor of “The Old Man and Death”. My only complaint is the absence of a monkey. Please bring the monkeys back. 😉

    • Terry L. Norton

      Thank you, Susan. When I came across the prose versions of these narratives, I thought they would lend themselves to verse adaptations.

      As for monkeys, I have several other poems I could submit (and will thanks to your encouragement). I had feared that people might grow weary of them. Although monkeys may be presented as curious, playful, and sometimes noble and sacred in world folklore, the majority of stories about them are not kind. But these views are projections of various sides our own nature as human beings.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Terry, the work that has gone into these poems is evident and I’m most grateful for your endeavors to bring these fables and folktales to an audience in poetic form – always a pleasure to read.

        I didn’t mention “Half a Blanket”, and just wanted to say how beautiful and moving the tale is. It speaks of an era when love, responsibility and morality featured highly in literature.

        I’ve always been drawn to animal folk tales and know the mischievous, wily monkey often gets a bad rap. I had never thought of it from the projection angle, but it makes perfect sense. However naughty a monkey is, my intrigue remains.

        I look forward to reading more of your poetry, with or without the simian flourish.

  3. Yael

    Nice poems, both of them, thank you for sharing.
    I really like Half A Blanket. It’s a good translation and well rhymed. It’s peculiar how it references the fifth Commandment of God as the fourth, the way the old Catholic Bibles have it.
    I searched for the German original text and found it in Google books:
    I do admit to liking the terse style of the original German version better, especially the last 3 stanzas.
    The tale reminds me of Harry Chapin’s song Cat’s in the Cradle, so I looked for it on YouTube and found this very moving song cover by a son to his father: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gf491i3B3Q
    And so it comes full circle.

    • Terry L. Norton

      Thank you, Yael, for your comments. When I did research for the poem, I discovered the information concerning the fourth commandment and found that interesting regarding Catholic renditions of the Ten Commandments. In composing my version of the story, I used several prose parallels, if I remember correctly. It seems to be one of those folktales that traveled widely in Europe, with some variants longer and better developed than others. There may be variants from other world cultures, but I did not pursue investigating that possibility.

      I also thank you for the two links. I just now viewed the second one, and it brought back a flood of memories from a few years ago when I would visit my father who was similarly bed-ridden for over a year. I am still haunted by a comment on his death certificate concerning the cause of death as ‘failure to thrive.” I think this is one reason, among many, that I found the medieval tale very moving.

  4. Daniel Kemper

    Clever to take the fourth commandment, so very old, and grab a story where it has been transformed, old, and yet apply it to today. That’s a neat telescoping effect~

    • Terry L. Norton

      Thank you, Daniel, for the insightful comment. The ideas you mention come from my time when I taught children’s literature and storytelling with folktales.

  5. Donna Wylie

    I enjoyed this German folktale with it’s theme of retribution. “ You reap what you sow.” When I was a caregiver, I witnessed a similar attitude, although not as harsh, from the family of the elderly client I took care of 5 days a week from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.

    I also liked your adaptation of The Old Man and Death. As I grow older, I realize living long is not for sissies. I’ve also learned the lesson as the old man did, “be careful what you wish for.”

    • Terry L. Norton

      Thanks, Donna, for your comments. Both of these works from our world heritage struck similar chords with me as well, spurring me to attempt a retelling of each that might enhance their insight into the human condition.

  6. Evelyn A Eickmeyer-Quinones

    Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed both translations, especially “Half a Blanket.” It brought a tear to my eye…..

  7. Terry L. Norton

    Hi Ev,

    When I first read the folktale, I found it touching and wanted to render it into verse to attempt to enhance its emotional quality.


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