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?

2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2012 The Bremen Town Musicians – Part One

  1. mary grace ketner says:

    It may not be a moral lesson or value the Grimms had in mind, but, as I accumulate years, I take some comfort in the fact that these aging critters, declared too old of use, sought and found for themselves a contributing role to play in the community and a home to live in and even banished the bad guys. Go Geezers!

  2. dtkrippene / December 2, 2012
    The disconnect of children, and many adults with respect to pets and the chicken nugget on their plate, is not an uncommon scenario. Never ceases to amaze me how we can take kids to the petting zoo for time with a creature that will likely end up in a fast-food menu. A modern malady, me thinks.

    On the ass thing, saw a humorous line last week that if Thomas Jefferson had pushed donkeys as a Thanksgiving offering, instead of Turkey, we’d be getting a piece of ass.

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