Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2023 The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and the Cat

Warwick Goble

Good Bread

“We’re here for the bread,” Melissa states.

“And a glass of wine?” I suggest.

“And a glass of wine.”

We are entering Noble Rot, the Lamb’s Conduit Street location. I know they also have a shop in Soho. The place is quite inviting; dimly lit in a cozy way, wooden floors, dark green wainscoting, which runs around most of the room, and each table has a tea light in its center. We take a table near the crackling fireplace. It is February after all.

“A bread plate each is all we need,” Melissa tells the waiter.

I am looking at the menu. “And, perhaps, the slip sole,” I add.

Melissa rolls her eyes.

“And a splash of wine?” the waiter asks.

“Oh, yes,” I say, picking up the wine list.

My lord, it’s the size of a novella!

Thirty-two pages. I am overwhelmed.

“I guess white wine with bread.” I venture.

“And German,” says Melissa.

“By the glass?”

We nod.

“Then it will be the Stein Palmbury Reisling.”

“Excellent,” I say. As the waiter leaves, I ask Melissa, “Why German? You’re being thematic, I will guess.”

“I am. I’ve been rather curious about a Grimm tale, The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and the Cat.

“Delightful. Refresh my memory.”

Actually, I don’t think I ever read it.

“It is something of a Puss and Boots and The White Cat variant.”

An old miller, with no wife or child, neared his retirement; a time, he said, when he wished to sit by the stove. He told his three apprentices that he would give the mill to one of them, providing that the new owner would sustain him in his old age. The contest would be decided by who could venture out and bring back the best horse.

The three apprentices started out together, but the elder two soon found a way to abandon Hans, the youngest. Wandering about, with no direction, he was approached by a multicolored she-cat that offered to give him a horse—the cat already knowing his need—if he would be her servant for seven years.

He agreed and was taken to her castle, where all the servants were kittens.  They served Hans and the cat their dinner, during which the kittens played on a double bass, a fiddle, and a trumpet for their entertainment. When the meal was over, the cat asked Hans if he would dance with her. He refused, saying he did not dance with pussycats. She then instructed the kittens to take him to his bed. The kittens tucked him in and then in the morning they woke him, washed him, dried him with their tails, and got him dressed.

After that, he proceeded to be the cat’s servant, for the most part chopping wood with tools made of silver. He also mowed her meadow with a sliver scythe and built a silver cottage with silver tools.

When the seven years were up, the spotted cat showed him his fine horse, told him to return to the mill, and said, in three days, she would come with the horse. Unfortunately for Hans, during the seven years, she had not given him any new clothes. Ragged as he was, the miller and the other two apprentices laughed at him and would not let him eat or sleep in the mill. He had to content himself by sleeping in the goose house. Since he did not return with a horse, they mocked him. They, at least, returned with horses, although one was blind and the other lame.

However, on the third day, a princess arrived in a coach pulled by six fine horses with a servant leading a seventh horse, the likes of which had never graced the miller’s yard before. The princess had her faithful Hans washed up and nobly dressed, and he appeared to be as handsome a lord as any. She told the miller he could keep his mill as well as the horse.

She and Hans returned to the silver cottage he had built, which had become a huge silver and gold castle. The marriage followed and Hans never wanted for more.

Our waiter returns with the plates of bread. The delectable aroma alone is worth the sojourn to Noble Rot. 

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2023 The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and The Cat

George Percy Jacomb-Hood

An Insertion

On the plate are three kinds of bread, two pieces of each kind: soda bread, focaccia, and sourdough, plus a pat of butter. The waiter sets down the glasses of riesling to complete the picture. Knife in hand, I apply the butter to a piece of soda bread as a starter.

“I rather like the bit about the kitten servants drying Hans off with their tails,” I say.

“I did too.” Melissa takes a sip of wine. “Which is why I have half a mind to call Wilhelm to Miss Cox’s garden and scold him.”

“Whatever for?”

“When I came to the part about the spotted cat wining and dining Hans, who then refused to dance with her, that struck me as a significant moment in the story.”

The soda bread might be my favorite, even though I haven’t tried the other two.

“However, she does not seem to take offense. The next day, Hans appears to take up his duties as a servant and the events go on from there.

“I’d not run across this refusal-to-dance motif before. I racked my brain to think of a parallel. What could this signify in the folk mind in which these tales arose? Out of caution, I went back to the 1815 version of the tales in Jack Zipe’s book, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. I discovered that the stuff about the kittens, the music, the wining and dining, and tail drying were not there. At all. The 1815 story goes from Hans agreeing to be the spotted cat’s servant to a description of his duties for the next seven years.

“Here I’d gone off, mistakenly, into thinking the refusal-to-dance might be an unrecognized story element, perhaps steeped in Germanic folklore. Instead, it turns out to be Wilhelm’s fanciful insertion.”

I laugh gently while sampling my focaccia. “I know the Grimms did alter the stories when they realized they had a younger audience than for which the first edition had been intended. They removed sexual content, replaced pagan elements with Christian subjects, and turned evil mothers into stepmothers.”

“True,” Melissa frowns. “But this change does not qualify for any of those reasons. I assume Wilhelm attempted to appeal to his bourgeois audience. He simply upped the storyline a little. It makes me wonder how often he allowed his German Romanticism to creep into these reputedly folk-inspired fairy tales.”

No, the focaccia might be my favorite.

“I guess,” I muse, “we should have been suspicious when the story gave too much visual description; the double bass, the fiddle, and the trumpet, not to mention the delightful thing about the tails used for drying. Details like that are sparingly given unless necessary for the storyline.”

Melissa nods, nibbling her sourdough. “After I saw what must have happened, it became clear to me that the tone of the section with the kittens differed from what went before and what followed. On consideration, I conclude it was a rather clumsy, somewhat confusing, unnecessary thing for Wilhelm to have done.”

Oh my, the sourdough is as good as the other two.  

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2023 The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and The Cat

Something More

The slip sole arrives, a small flatfish fillet with a smoky, honey glaze that creates an olfactory sensation.

“I tried,” Melissa continues, “checking the Grimm notes in Margaret Hunt’s book to see if there might be some enlightenment. All I got was an even crazier version of the tale. Are you ready for this one?”

“Carry on,” I say. I am happy to let her chatter while my epicurean soul delights in the aquatic sole.

A miller sends his three sons out to find the best horse and claim the mill. The youngest meets a little gray man, whom the lad serves as a woodcutter for a year in return for a good horse. The lad meets his brothers on the way home. Their horses are either lame or blind. In jealousy, they throw their younger brother into a lime pit. The little gray man pulls him out, restores the lad to life, and retrieves the horse. 

For reasons unexplained, the father decides the mill will go to the son who can bring him the best shirt. The lad gets the best shirt, meets up again with his brothers, who tie him to a tree and shoot him dead. Again, the little gray man appears and brings him back to life.

When the lad returns to the mill the second time after dying, the elder brothers convince their father that the younger is in league with the devil. (Which from their point of view was arguably true given they had left him for dead twice). The father proposes a third test; this time one of them must bring back the best loaf of bread, since, as the story states, “. . . the devil has no power over bread.”

The lad, on his quest, shares his food with an old woman in the forest, who gives him a wishing-rod. When he uses it, a little tortoise comes to him declaring, “Take me with you.” He puts the tortoise in his pocket, and the next time he puts his hand in, there is the tortoise and lots of money.

He sets the tortoise up in the best room at an inn and travels on from there for a year, unsuccessfully searching for the best loaf of bread. (The arrangements for the tortoise to live at the inn in the meantime are not well explained.) Upon returning to the inn, the lad sees that the tortoise has two, pretty, white feet. That evening, he sees a shadowy figure kneading bread. In the morning, there is a perfect loaf of bread. Taking the loaf home, he can no longer be denied ownership of the mill.

On his return again to the inn, there in the bed is a princess as well as the tortoise. She explains that he has broken the spell over her, and they can now marry. But first, he must return home and wait for her. She tells him that when he hears the first cannon, she will be getting dressed. When he hears the second cannon, she will be getting into a carriage. When he hears the third, he should look for a carriage being pulled by six white horses.

Afterward, they are married and might have lived happily ever after except that he let the tortoise fall into the fire. Outraged, the princess spits in his face. Devastated, he goes off, digs a deep cave for himself, over which is carved the inscription, “Here none shall find me, save God alone.” There he lives and prays for many years.

Eventually, an old king, having fallen ill, travels the country looking for a physician to cure him but without success. He comes by accident to the cave and is miraculously cured. Seeing the inscription, he instructs his people to “dig down” until they find the hermit.

When the king finds out that this hermit is his son-in-law, he brings about reconciliation between his daughter and the hermit, and they all live long and happily.

“Good grief,” is all I can say.

“Yes, well,” Melissa smiles, sipping the last of her glass, “I think our bread and wine was the perfect little repast.”

I agree, but I am fingering the menu, and my eyes fall upon the dessert section.

Basque Cheesecake and Rhubarb.

Your thoughts?

One thought on “Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2023 The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and the Cat

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