unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through



here is an ethic to elfland, as Chesterton and others have pointed out—a grim, unbending code of conduct when one ventures in the Perilous Realm, a swift and unbreakable chain of cause and effect, action and consequence. The most recent and, to me, most powerful statement of this code is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Instructions.’

This tale, however, subverts that ethic. At once, seems somehow weird and wrong. It’s jarring, almost sadistic in its vision. Ashliman, who translated the title ‘The Strange Musician,’ called it a ‘cruel tale.’ Even the Grimms, so bland about child cannibalism and exquisitely hideous executions (barrel full of adders set on fire and rolled down a spiked hill into boiling tar, anyone?) seem uncomfortable with the tale. In their notes they suggest it’s unfinished—there should be some explanation, they say, for the musician’s deceit.

I think there should be explanation for the woodsman.

The story’s simple. A musician wanders in the forest and gets bored. He wants a friend. So he plays he fiddle. Along comes a wolf, which wasn’t what the musician hopes would happen. Teach me to play, says the wolf. Oh, I’ll teach you to play all right, says the musician. Stick your paws in the crack of that tree and let me jam them there with this stone. Ha! Fiddle yourself a jig now, wolf. Stay there till I get back. The musician swaggers off, leaving the wolf trapped in the tree.

Repeat, with a fox. Only this time, the musician tells the fox to put himself into a particularly uncomfortable snare, with a didactic patience that’s far more unsettling that vats of snakes or red-hot shoes. When the third hopeful student—a hare—approaches, the musician ties him to a tree and has him run round it till he chokes.

According to the ethic of elfland, there is only one end to this story. The musician has betrayed trust three times. “Oh yes, I’ll obey you like a scholar obeys his master!” each animal insists, and it’s “Wait there till I get back,” a mocking taunt to a helpless and hurting creature. Therefore, the musician should fall into some difficulty of his own, and cry for help, but the wolf and the fox and the hare cannot and will not help him, because (duh!) they’re trapped. Or, they should get free and tear him to pieces for his treachery.

Instead, the musician finds a friend.

The musician had once more played his fiddle as he went on his way, and this time he had been more fortunate. The sound reached the ears of a poor wood-cutter, who instantly, whether he would or no, gave up his work and came with his hatchet under his arm to listen to the music. “At
last comes the right companion,” said the musician, “for I was seeking a human being, and no wild beast.” And he began and played so beautifully and delightfully that the poor man stood there as if bewitched, and his heart leaped with gladness.

When the enraged wolf, fox, and hare descend on the musician to exact ruthless justice, the woodsman intervenes with his handy axe. The musician plays a thank-you-song, and continues on his way.

Why is there this sudden departure from the norms of fairy tale? Why this sudden subversion of the fairy tale ethic? I looked in vain for evidence that the woodsman was a ‘nicifying’ addition, that the original, uncollected version ended with the musician torn limb from limb. But there isn’t any, at least none that I could find. The story remains as it stands. But why?

Is it, as Eugene Drewermann’s analysis inspires me to suggest, a psychological tale, even a dream narrative? The story then follows the advancement of ‘civilization’ of a human mind. More particularly, an artist’s mind. The musician uses his art to summon, confront, and subdue the deep instincts of his psyche. The wolf may be brute nature, quest for power, cruelty. The fox is wit, a sort of feral cunning, that we use to survive on the streets and in the stock market. The hare is timidity, loss of individuality, flight from the aspects of the self that aren’t ‘nice’ and ‘safe’, a longing for comfort that the wolf and the fox want to destroy.

The woodsman, then, is ‘civilization’, or ‘humanization’ more correctly, living as an individual, with power over and understanding of the repressed psyche, but still in harmony with the woods and with nature—the mature person the musician longs to become. Again, what’s significant about this tale would be the musician’s use of music to explore these various stages, and that his music can take him further and deeper even than a fully realized human self.

Or is the musician the devil? He has a scientific delight in cruelty, and his music bewitches and controls animals and people alike. He does not say that he is a human, merely that he desires human companionship. His hearers seem at once entranced and repulsed. And the devil is about the only being who can get away with (seemingly) unpunished evil in fairyland.

As I said at the beginning of the post, it is not troubling to me that the musician would be cruel. I think we have even less reason to be surprised at irrational cruelty now, post-Holocaust and the rest of the 20th century, than the Grimms did two hundred years ago. What surprises me, given the nature of these tales, is the woodsman—the man who will defend the cruel artist, who will, for the love of enchantment and beauty, uphold a perversion of ethics. Is he the Nazi art critic, admiring Hitler’s collections raped from the Jews? Is his the modern day critics who fear censorship more than blatant evil? Is he duped by the devil, or ignorant of the musician’s cruelty?

Is he just a woodsman?

A strange musician with a stranger tale, indeed.

One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. Uh-oh, a budding Conductor in that fiddler. 😉

    Mr. Pond – your insights are fantastic and you ask very good questions! I agree that the woodsman shares great culpability in the treatment of the creatures of the forrest. The story is a painful one on many different levels for me, not the least being a reveal of literal animal cruelty (which I personally crusade against).

    But back to the woodsman. It seems the woodsman is a groupie. Celebrity justice existed even then. It is interesting (and I recognized it immediately) how the woodsman was lulled into following the musician. I know that talent-love exists and it never ceases to amaze me. People who wouldn’t think of talking to you, find out you have a special talent (and a talent foreign to the innate goodness or badness inside you) and then you become their best friend. It’s like the geek from high school who becomes a famous rock star with bad behavior that’s tolerated due to his new status. If an everyday peasant was cruel to the animals and they came after him, the woodsman would tell him “you reap what you sow”. Justice. But because of his talent – the musician gets a free pass, and not only that but the woodsman goes out of his way for him.

    Music is powerful and can be dangerous. It can be used as a weapon and as propaganda. As we found out about in WWII. It’s interesting that a ticket to Bayreuth is still the hottest ticket to Opera in the world. Some things, some people will look the other way for. I wonder if this is human nature.

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