unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through

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his tale is not a fairy tale. I suppose that’s a rather bold statement to make about a tale drawn from the canon of fairy tales itself, but I’m not exactly the one making it. If we follow—as I do—Professor Tolkien’s explanation of fairy tales (“On Fairy-stories,” 1947), then this is a beast tale, in distinction from a fairy tale. As such, it has more in common with the fables of Aesop than with the traveler’s tales from the Perilous Realm.

It’s completely unjust to compare this to Aesop, however. It pretends to have a moral, but it doesn’t—not really. It’s a bizarre, wacky romp through a surrealist world, a world of tricksters and talking needles, of spontaneous social structures that exist to deconstruct themselves.

In glum academic terms, we might call this story ‘problematic’—which is dignified code for ‘we don’t know what to make of it.’ It is the first of all these tales where I have heard distinctly the voice of the storyteller. It is a tale that’s meant to be told. The point is in the telling. Try to unproblematize it any further and it might self-destruct.

The tale is simple enough. Rooster says to hen, let’s go up the hill and find all squirrel’s nuts before squirrel does. They do, and have a grand old time before duck shows up. You stole all the nuts that I was going to steal, wails duck. Ha, say the chickens, we even made this carriage out of the shells. So they fight. Duck looses. Broken and bloodied, she’s made to pull the carriage for rooster and hen.

Who should they meet in the road but pin and needle, a bit worse for wear from having a wee tipple or five at the pub. ‘As they were thin people,’ says the narrator, ‘who did not take up much room, the cock let them both get in, but they had to promise him and his little hen not to step on their feet.’

They get to an inn, and innkeeper says ha, and the innkeeper says, hum, and the innkeeper says, I don’t usually give rooms to talking animals, or pins. They bargain—you can have our egg, and the duck—and get a room. But in the night, rooster and hen plant the needle in the innkeeper’s towel, the needle in his chair, eat their own egg and leave the shell in the hearth, and vanish into night, cackling with glee. Duck wakes up and says, I can do that do, dives into the water and swims to freedom.

The ending is worth quoting in full:

The host did not get out of bed for two hours after this; he washed himself and wanted to dry himself, then the pin went over his face and made a red streak from one ear to the other. After this he went into the kitchen and wanted to light a pipe, but when he came to the hearth the egg-shell darted into his eyes. “This morning everything attacks my head,” said he, and angrily sat down on his grandfather’s chair, but he quickly started up again and cried, “Woe is me,” for the needle had pricked him still worse than the pin, and not in the head. Now he was thoroughly angry, and suspected the guests who had come so late the night before, and when he went and looked about for them, they were gone. Then he made a vow to take no more ragamuffins into his house, for they consume much, pay for nothing, and play mischievous tricks into the bargain by way of gratitude.

This is not exactly a moral. The word ‘Lumpengesindel’, translated here as ‘ragamuffins,’ can also be rendered as ‘riff-raff,’ ‘rabble,’ or ‘scum’—apparently it’s a derogatory term. To take this word from the innkeeper’s point of view, the moral would be roughly: ‘This is what happens when Those Sort of People get out of their place!’ Which, if it were the moral, wouldn’t be the first obnoxiously bigoted message to appear from these tales.

But that message doesn’t seem to match the timbre of the tale, which—like it or not—seems to intend that you root for the rooster and the hen. It’s a trickster tale. The wily chickens dupe and exploit everyone, from the squirrel to the innkeeper, and careen laughing into the sunrise.

The tricksters create a social order. Not a new one—if it’s a revolution, it’s an unhealthy revolution. Through overthrowing the squirrel’s control of the nuts, they allow themselves to create a higher social standing, shown though their refusal to walk. They turn on their fellow revolutionary—the duck—and oppress her to maintain their new social status, enslaving her and subsequently using her as barter, treating her as property. They then create a commercial venture, with the inebriated pin and needle, setting themselves up in a place of mercantile oppression as well.

When confronted by the innkeeper, however, they abandon their airs in the face of a stronger, more entrenched status quo. They maintain and reorient their trickster economy, exploiting their customers and the slaves to—not exactly overthrow, but certainly discomfit the innkeeper. The economy, the social order, exists for this purpose—to subvert, to ridicule, to trick. Having achieved its purpose, it dissolves into laughter and fury, leaving a swearing innkeeper behind.

The moral? ‘Well, that’s what Tricksters do, ain’t it? Quit yer whining!’

All this talk of socioeconomics is critically intriguing, and I think there’s some mileage in the idea of a trickster economy. But the slapstick ending—‘and it certainly didn’t stick him in the face!’—seems to subvert any serious reading. Simply put, a trickster tale is like a trickster economy. It exists for the gag. The storyteller tells the tale to spring the trick. He becomes the trickster himself.

Ultimately, the tale implodes. It is not, as a said, a fairy tale. It serves a different purpose. When the laughter and the absurdity has died away, we realize with a sudden awkward start—and now, through the tale, to our own amusement—that are the trickster’s victims, we have been mocking ourselves.

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One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. Pingback: variation on a theme « The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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