Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2012 The Bremen Town Musicians – Part One

Arthur Rackman

Arthur Rackham

A Humorous Tale

The Grimm brothers’ collection of fairy tales is known for carrying a message, a moral (though rarely as well spelled out as in the Aesop fables’ instructive tag lines): Good triumphs over evil, faithfulness will be rewarded, and patience is a virtue.

But not always. In fact a goodly number of the tales are quite humorous and unconcerned with passing on cultural values. The Bremen Town Musicians may be the most popular of these lighthearted stories.

A donkey, dog, cat, and rooster have all been turned out by their masters for being too old to be of service. The animals quickly agree to the donkey’s notion that they become town musicians for Bremen.

As night falls, they come across a den of robbers who are feasting. The animals decide to sing for their supper. The donkey puts his hooves on the window sill, the dog jumps on his back, the cat onto the dog’s back, and the rooster flies up on top, forming the enduring image of the story.

They bray, howl, caterwaul, and crow, then accidentally crash through the window. The robbers flee in terror and the minstrels settle onto the meal. Afterwards, the four friends retire for the night, the cat by the hearth, the dog by the door, the donkey by the dung heap, and the rooster in the rafters.

One robber is sent back by their captain to see if it is safe to return. He is scratched by the cat, bit by the dog, and kicked by the donkey; all the while the rooster is cock-a-doodle-dooing. To his companions the poor robber testifies he was clawed by a witch, knifed by a man, beaten by a monster with a club, and over them all a judge called, “Bring me the rascal!”

The robbers left. The animals stayed.

The tale ends with the nonsense tag line, “And the last person who told this tale has still got warm lips.” The Grimms seldom used nonsense tags. Of the two hundred and fifty tales, eight of them have these tag lines. Unexpectedly, Hansel and Gretel is one, otherwise filled with menacing images it ends, “My tale is done. See the mouse run. Catch it, whoever can, and then you can make a great big cap out of its fur.”

There are some followers of fairy tales who would give significance to the master/slave relationship between the animals and their owners. Some have taken the four creatures in turn and looked at the attributes these animals represent in other fairy tales. The egalitarian order of the animals’ band has been contrasted to the hierarchical arrangement of the robbers. But I hold to a simpler analysis.

It’s a silly story.

The Grimms had their agenda. When they put together their collection they wanted to capture the voice and mind-set of the German folk. Whether they got close to that is another question, considering the historic ebb and flow of Germanic and French speakers through the region. A number of the Grimms’ friends and neighbors, from some of whom they collected stories, were French Huguenot.

Nonetheless, the Bremen Town Musicians serve their place in the collection as an example of German folk humor, and, I believe, nothing more.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2012 The Bremen Town Musicians – Part Two

Watler Crane

Music to My Ears

I spent more time in the market square today than I should have. I wasted a good bit of it standing with a small crowd listening to the hurdy-gurdy player. I know this is not fine music, but the mind-numbing drone has its hypnotic charm. I left a coin in the musician’s hat. I wonder if Wilhelm would have done the same.

If one only looks at The Bremen Town Musicians, where the animals simply assume they can be musicians with no effort on their part, one might conclude the Grimms thought little of itinerant musicians. If one broadens the scope and considers The Marvelous Minstrel, The Jew in the Thorn Bush, and Hans My Hedgehog, the conclusion might be that… the Grimms thought little of itinerant musicians.

In The Marvelous Minstrel the musician attracts unwanted company when he plays his fiddle. In turn a wolf, a fox, and a rabbit show up, each animal wishing to learn to play the fiddle. The minstrel gets rid of them by agreeing to teach them, if the beasts will do exactly what he asks. In this way he entraps them, heartlessly leaving them to die.

Seeking revenge, the animals escape and pursue the scoundrel, but by then he has befriended a wood cutter, who defends the minstrel from the wronged creatures. The Grimms did not attempt to put a moral on this tale.

Reading The Jew in the Thorn Bush, one would think political correctness was not going to happen for another two hundred years. The musician in this story, who starts out looking like a nice young man, shoots the bird the Jew is admiring, sends the Jew into the thicket to retrieve the bird, then plays his magic fiddle, which forces the Jew to dance in the thorns. Despite this insult and in a turnaround of justice, the Jew is eventually hung. The Grimms apparently thought less of Jews than of itinerant musicians.

Hans My Hedgehog casts its musician in strange style. The hero, who is half man/half hedgehog, sits atop a rooster, playing his bagpipes while tending to his pigs and donkeys in the forest. The beautiful music of the bagpipes is heard by kings who are lost in the forest, and of whom Hans My Hedgehog takes advantage. When our hero finally sheds his beastly form he sheds the bagpipes as well. (The story ends with a nonsense tag, by the way: “My tale is done, and away it has run to little August’s house.”)

The Grimms, of course, did not write these stories, but they did some heavy editing and put their spin—and prejudice—upon them.

The Grimms were Reformed Calvinists. John Calvin considered music to be worldly and limited its role in the church to the unaccompanied singing of the Psalms. In contrast, Martin Luther, who loved music, allowed all sorts of instrumentation as long as it served the greater glory of God. The Lutherans’ propensity to play fast and loose with music in their sanctuary caused their Calvinist neighbors to judge their religious sincerity with suspicion and to view their fellow Protestants as strangers.

The Grimms, having grown up with the notion that music quickly slips into the profane, naturally handled the musicians in the tales in an appropriate manner: at arm’s length.


Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2012 The Bremen Town Musicals – Part Three

Walter Crdane

Walter Crane

Off With Their Heads

In 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses, a suburb of Paris, a pig was tried in a court of law, found guilty, and executed. Arguably, that was the first time an animal appeared as a defendant in a European court, but it was not the last time. Periodically other pigs as well as cattle and horses stood trial for murder or criminal damage.

I have been discussing this anomaly with my cat, albeit a one-sided conversation. While she did not acknowledge the validity of my point, or even condescend to answer a direct question, she was listening. Her stare remained steady.

My point was that human relationships with our fellow animals are fraught with illogic. For example, the very same animal that we routinely butcher and make into bacon, we have also put on trial for murder.

When I read The Bremen Town Musicians it crossed my mind that this might be the only story in the Grimms’ collection where the animals have deceived and gotten the better of humans. An hour or two of paging through the collection proved the opposite. I discovered half a dozen tales where domestic and wild creatures won out over us humans.

Of these half dozen stories I found The Dog and The Sparrow most interesting. A wagoner deliberately runs over and kills an old dog. The dog’s friend and protector, a sparrow, vows revenge, but the wagoner only taunts the bird.

The sparrow pecks out the bungs of the wine barrels, the wagoner’s freight. As the man inspects the damage, the sparrow pecks out the eyes of his horses. The wagoner flails at the sparrow with an axe, repeatedly missing the bird and killing his horses.

Abandoning his wagon, empty barrels, and dead horses, the man walks home to see the sparrow and a thousand of its relatives descending upon and devouring his wheat crop. When the sparrow gets into his house, the wagoner grabs the axe again, chopping up all of his possessions in pursuit of the bird. His wife, also axe in hand, fares worse, accidentally chopping off her husband’s head as the sparrow flies up and away.

In this tale an animal makes a moral judgment on a human, and is his jury and executioner. Surprisingly, I don’t find myself uncomfortable with the story. Justice does prevail. Evil is punished as it should be. However, the wagoner—we—have been judged by a bird!

I tried to explain to my cat that, when we look at the contradictory relationship we hold toward each other, the nonsense is easy to find.

Many humans, with no compunction, eat ham, bacon, veal, and steak, but we involuntarily recoil at the thought of eating our pets. (Other cultures have other reservations about what animals can or cannot be eaten, but the quandary is similar.)

Theologically speaking, animals do not have souls, but there are businesses available that provide the benefit of a proper burial for our nonhuman loved ones.

We call people we don’t like “asses.” Yet it was an ass that carried Jesus into Jerusalem and an ass that brought Mary to Bethlehem. Should we not honor the ass for that burden? And, in fact, almost every creche includes a donkey.

Perhaps, I told my cat, I made too much of this bit of illogic. We humans abound in illogical pursuits. For example, we make up, remember, and pass along fairy tales, which feed no one and bring little monetary profit, yet some of us persist.

My cat jumped to my lap, sniffed and rubbed her nose to mine, then abruptly leapt away. I think she was trying to console me.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2012 The Queen Bee – Part One

Of Little Consequence

Thalia had me read The Queen Bee three times before she would climb from my lap and amble off to bed, clutching her battered book and dragging her teddy bear.

In The Queen Bee the two eldest sons of a king have wandered off, ending up as wastrels. Their younger, simpleton brother goes out, finds them, and they travel on together. The youngest brother forbids the two eldest from harming ants, ducks, and bees for their pleasure.

They come to a castle, the stable for which houses stone horses in its stalls. They explore the castle, finding it empty except for a mute gray dwarf. The dwarf shows them hospitality for the evening and, in the morning, presents to the eldest brother three tablets that describe three tasks to be performed. The eldest takes up the challenge, the first task of which is to find a thousand pearls scattered in the forest. He fails and is turned into stone. The second brother suffers the same fate.

The third brother is helped by the creatures he spared. The ants gather the pearls, the ducks retrieve a key from the bottom of a lake, and a queen bee picks out the youngest sister from three sleeping princesses.

The spell is broken; the castle and its inhabitants return to life. Of course the youngest brother marries the youngest princess, they become king and queen, and the eldest two brothers are married off to the eldest two princesses.

“Again,” Thalia had said, upon returning to my study from her bedroom.

“I’ve read it three times.”

“I’m worried about the horses.”

“Oh! That part. I think I forgot to read that.” I reopened the book. “And when all the castle people returned to being themselves, including the stable boy, the horses nickered loudly for their grain. They hadn’t been fed in a long, long time.”

Satisfied, Thalia took back her book and, once again, toddled off with her teddy in tow.

Really, what about those stone horses?

It is one of the few descriptive details that the Grimms included in The Queen Bee, and certainly the most striking. What popped into my mind were the horses of the Wild Hunt in Tamlin:

O first let pass the black, lady,

And syne let pass the brown,

But quickly run to the milk-white steed,

Pu ye his rider down.

But certainly the horses of the Wild Hunt are not the stone horses.

Then there are the white horses with red ears seen by Childe Roland when he entered the fairy world and was obliged to cut off the head of the horse herder. These are not the stone horses either.

That the stone horses have a history, I have little doubt. Perhaps some teller, somewhere, at some time, could have made them up out of his or her imagination, but I am going to guess not.

My sense is that the old tellers were not out to surprise their listeners with something unusual and novel, but rather to present their audience with something familiar in new clothes. Often we find pieces of myth reflected in a fairy tale (A Sprig of Rosemary/Cupid and Psyche). Or a common spinning wheel becomes a device of magic (Sleeping Beauty).

One of the common crimes committed by modern-day storytellers and others who render these old tales for present consumption is to edit out elements no longer understood. How many twenty-first century children know about the duck in Hansel and Gretel, much less the cat and the pigeon on the roof?

I cannot say I know the significance of the stone horses, but when I tell that tale, or read it to Thalia, I leave in these immobile equine. Am I better off for facing my ignorance and passing it along, than to suppress those elements that cause us to wonder and question?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2012 The Queen Bee – Part Two

 Walter Crane


Perchance to Dream

The realm of the fairy tale and that place we go to when we dream may well be the same terrain. Those lands both share the feature of being surreal, always holding forth something inexplicable and unexplained to be treated as common fare within the illusion. The motif of the three sleeping princesses in The Queen Bee is one of those unexplained givens that populate the fairy tale.

In the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales we can find other sleeping princesses in the stories of Little Briar Rose, Snow White, and The Glass Coffin. The notion of the sleeping princess appears to be a borrowing from Germanic mythology. The Grimms boldly state in their notes that Briar Rose is the sleeping Brunhild of the Vőlsunga saga. There are various stories about the love between Brunhild and Sigurd, but common to them is Brunhild’s sleep within a ring of fire. Brunhild, one of the Valkyrie, offended Odin, who turned her into a mortal woman to be claimed by any man who could breach the magical flames. Only Sigurd had the strength and bravery to do so. Here was far too great an image to be left in the land of mythology. Storytellers quickly carried it off to the fairy-tale realm. (Content warning: this saga of love is mythological and therefore the romance ends badly, unlike fairy tales that, more than usually, end happily ever after, one of the defining differences between myths and fairy tales, as noted by Bruno Bettelheim.)

If I consider dreams and fairy tales as sharing the same ground, then how shall I view the three sleeping princesses, Briar Rose, or Snow White as they sleep within a dream?

The sleepers within the dream fall into a similar pattern. They are usually princesses for whom betrothal to a prince awaits them upon awakening. This sleep is not the property of commoners, although, in the case of the Grimms’ Little Briar Rose, everyone in the castle falls asleep, from the king to the kitchen boy; their sleep is conditional upon the princess’s sleep. In The Queen Bee it is implied that outside of the princesses all others are turned to stone, except their father, who is the gray dwarf. The Grimms’ Glass Coffin has a variation on the pattern in that the maiden is a daughter of a wealthy count, and the hero a tailor who rises in station with this marriage.

The sleeping-princess theme was popular with the Grimm brothers, but Giambattista Basile’sSun, Moon, and Talia and Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, are both examples of sleeping princesses that predate the Grimms’ works.

Despite slight differences in the common theme, the tales feature the same progression from sleep, to awakening, then to marriage.

The subliminal fascination of the above stories is the magical nature of the repose of girls transforming into women. In what realms did they wander while we saw them as unsurpassed beauties in a death-like slumber?


Fairy Tales of the Month: October 2012 The Queen Bee – Part Three

 Walter Crane

Grateful Animals

There is an October rose in Miss Cox’s garden, one solitary bloom that has not given up on summer although the calendar marches toward winter. Today it was visited by one lone bee. A worker bee of course, but it turned my mind again to The Queen Bee.

I have found the queen bee in a second Grimm tale, The Two Travelers, and in another German tale, Rosemaiden (found in The  Seven Swabians and Other German Folktales.) In these tales she did heavy duty, making a castle of flowers in one story and a miniature castle of bee’s wax in the other, in each case fulfilling a young hero’s task. In The Queen Bee she needed only pick out the youngest of the identical three sisters. In all cases she was most helpful, taking her place among “The Grateful Animals,” which is Aarne-Thompson tale type 554.

These creatures are among the supernatural helpers so prolific in fairy tales. The grateful animals typically appear in sets of three who repay the hero for a kindness shown to them. In our fairy tale of the month they are ants, ducks, and bees, perhaps representing earth (ants), water (ducks), and air (bees). In The Two Travelers the supernatural helpers are a foal, a stork, a duck, and the queen bee (one more helper than the usual pattern allows).

Interestingly, in Rosemaiden the queen bee helps the hero at the beginning of the story entirely out of kindness. Later a raven, a fox, and a fish help the hero, as promised for having saved them in their moment of need.

Often there is only one helpful animal, as in Puss in Boots, where a young man’s inheritance from his father is a cat. The cat speaks to the lad, asking for a pair of boots and a bag, and goes about turning virtually nothing into great wealth for his master. The detail I find most interesting in Puss in Boots is the pair of boots that gives the cat almost human status, allowing him to be presentable to a king.

Another example of a sole animal helper is The Golden Bird. In this tale a fox inexhaustibly aids a foolish young man to win a princess. For his reward he asks the young man to slay him. Reluctantly the youth does, transforming the fox back into his human form, he having been a victim of enchantment. Along this line I could also cite The Frog King, in which the helpful but also annoying frog is actually an enchanted king.

All of these types of helpful and/or grateful animals are largely a European thing. Many other cultures are far less inclined toward talking animals. An animal talking to other animals is fine, but an animal talking to humans can be uncomfortable for non-Europeans. This kind of communication elevates them to human status, much like putting boots on a cat. Talking animals that are actually enchanted humans might be more acceptable, but, generally, talking animals are viewed as unnatural and offensive. At one time Alice in Wonderland was banned in China, largely because Alice conferred with dodos, mice, and mockturtles.

Curious to some other cultures is our willingness to elevate creatures to human status when we are as likely to eat, hunt, swat, or step upon them. What does that say about us?

The lone bee that flew about the October rose has come to settle on the sleeve of my coat. I wait for it to say something profound.

Your thoughts?