unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through

The Good Bargain

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his story is not a fairy tale. If we follow, as I do, Professor Tolkien’s definition—or approximation, perhaps—of the fairy tale, this isn’t one. This tale combines two other tropes, the simpleton tale and the trickster tale. For this reader, it fails as a simpleton tale because for no apparent reason the simpleton suddenly becomes a canny, witty trickster. Also for this reader, this story fails as a trickster tale, because the trick is framed around racist presumptions which I find disgusting, even in a story like this.

‘The Good Bargain’ begins innocently enough. Unnamed peasant sells his cow for seven thalers. On the way home he hears the frogs squarking ‘aik aik aik!’ No, he says, only seven. Aik, aik, aik, the frogs insist. Count them yourselves, if you don’t believe me, shouts the peasant, and throws the seven thalers into the pond. The frogs aik happily. The peasant waits, and when they don’t give the thalers back, he storms off in a rage.

He goes the the market again with a slab of beef. ‘Wow, wow, wow!’ cries a dog at the gate. Yes, says the peasant, it is an impressive slab of beef, isn’t it? Wow! shout several dogs at the gate. Do you really think so, asks the peasant? Wowowowowowowowow, cry the two hundred and thirty-four dogs at the gate.

How the peasant then concludes that the dogs are offering to take the beef to the butcher for him, and will bring him back his money I will never know. It’s a simpleton tale, it doesn’t have to make sense. It’s not even supposed to.

In due course, the peasant and the butcher wind up before the king, where the peasant’s tale makes the king’s daughter laugh uncontrollably, and it ‘Congratulations, you just won the hand of my daughter and half my kingdom!’ time. Which is awkward, since the peasant is married.

At this point, the story dissolves. Simpleton turns trickster, wiling his way out of his promised beating, dodging and deflecting the king’s wrath. The butt of his tricks? A rascally, sniveling, red-haired, money lending Jew. I’m not making this up. I almost wish I were making this up. The Jew is a compendium of all the worst and most revolting anti-Semitic stereotypes we can think of. And we’re all expected to give a hearty cheer when the king declares him mad and the (presumably Aryan) peasant swaggers off with pockets full of gold.

I submit this story for Exhibit A in my contention that great writers do not consistently write great literature, and, therefore, there is such a thing as folklore and fairy tale that deserves to be forgotten. However, I’ve often groused to myself that we can’t judge older eras by modern standards (to an extent), and need to take literature as we find it. Not complain that it doesn’t match our current status quo.

Despite its serious flaws, there is a certain lumbering, uncouth grace to this tale. The peasant is plucky, pigheaded, and hearty. He’s a beefy character, not the sharpest knife in the drawer but certainly a very useful spoon. He uses canny common sense to subvert both the tropes of the tale and the social structures of his society.

The upper class characters—the Jew and (to be fair) a rough gate guard—assume the role of protector and helpers. ‘You don’t need that money,’ they say. ‘Let us help you carry it.’ They use the power of their position to exploit the lower classes. It’s the tyranny of the civilized, the leech of the city on the country, the wolves devouring the rabbits ‘for their own good.’

The peasant, however, exploits the existing power structures to wreak his revenge. The five hundred thalers the king has promised him are ‘heavy thalers,’ that is, blows of a rod—which the Jew and the guard share.

The peasant is thus shown as clever, but he is not shown as human. He is content working within the existing power structure, manipulating it to serve his own designs. By the end of the tale, he has fashioned himself, albeit comically, as an oppressor over the Jew. He does nothing to subvert the system despite his early promise. He is content to continue under its dehumanizing influence, dehumanizing the Jew and profiting from doing so.

That’s why I say this isn’t a fairy tale. There is no change, there is no revolt, there is no redemption. We are left with the oppression intact and unchallenged. The tale merely chronicles a slight shuffling of oppressors, and layers it with a nauseating dose of racial bigotry.

In the end, this is a disappointing tale. I expected, through my familiarity with simpleton tales, that the slow, absurd difficulties would accumulate in preposterousness until they overturned the scale and simpleton somehow wins (see ‘Hans in Luck’). Instead, he turns trickster.

So it’s not a simpleton tale either, not really. It’s a sort of panegyric for a rough, homespun wisdom, showing how a clever, folksy guy can wheedle the world to get a leg up and make a fistful of coins—revealing the plucky attitude that takes the world and climbs over it to the top. And revealing just how ugly that attitude can be.

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3 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Exhibit A is a relic of it’s time and you are quite right that it is disgusting. However – it should never, ever, ever be allowed to sneak away and be forgotten. It is evidence. Evidence of great horrors to come in it’s time and other eras. Evidence of how a little tale that is told to children can creep into their subconscious and become truths. It is a prophesy and a witness of cataclysmic potential.

    How did an entire country lose it’s moral compass? Perhaps it started with a couple of fairy tales. A few myths. A Ring Cycle….

  2. Right, Joivre. In some ways, these artistic artifacts are like memorials to the Holocaust–we must make ourselves look, and not look away.

  3. When I was in South Africa we visited the Apartheid Museum. Slogan: “Segregation is exactly where it belongs: in a museum!”

    That was especially interesting in this case because the events exhibited were very much part of living memory for everyone over the age of 12 or so; not exactly Ancient Egypt territory here. The idiom “It’s history!” means (1) it’s gone and (2) we shouldn’t forget about it.

    Also historically, it’s helpful if sobering to realize that Anti-Semitism wasn’t just some idea that popped into Hitler’s head out of the blue one morning in 1938. Today’s bigotry unchecked is tomorrow’s genocide.

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