Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through
The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean
his tale is what Rudyard Kipling would have dreamed in opium induced nightmares, if he took opium. More likely, it’s the sort of tale that would have sounded good at the time, and wound up in the fire the next day, with a solemn vow among those who had seen it to never, ever, speak of it again.
Predictably, this tale is a heck of a lot of fun.
An old woman is making bean soup. A bean falls onto the floor as she’s measuring them out, lands next to a straw. A coal spits out of the fire, lands next to straw and bean.
What make you here, says each to the other? And a tale of desperate woe, oppression, and hegemony emerges. The old woman was going to boil me, says bean. I would have burned to ash in the fire, says coal. So would’ve I, said the straw. How fortunate indeed we have escaped!
“I think,” answered the bean, “that as we have so fortunately escaped death, we should keep together like good companions, and lest a new mischance should overtake us here, we should go away together, and repair to a foreign country.”
A bean that can speak in eighteenth century prose deserves respect, I’d say. And, yes, we eat advanced and highly cultured civilizations in our soup. You knew it was true.
The madcap adventurers set off, with no apparent object other than being Somewhere Not Here. All goes fine until they come to a river. Straw becomes a bridge, coal starts to cross but panics when he sees all that rushing, killing water. Straw burns in half, and coal and straw plummet together to their horrible deaths.
Bean laughs so hard at their miserable fate, she bursts in two.
And the Moral of the Story is: I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.
Not really. What really happens is a tailor comes along, and, for no comprehensible reason, or perhaps just to do Something Not Nothing, stitches the poor burst bean back together again.
And that is why beans have black seams down their middles. The tailor used black thread. Now shut up and eat your soup.
Is it just the weather, or is it really impossible to take this story seriously? I don’t think it’s meant to be serious at all. It comes very near to satirizing itself. The erudite, genteel speech of the inanimate objects, the pointless wandering of their quest, the irreverent humour of the bean in face of a typical Grimm death sequence, the gratuity of the tailor, and the lack of any moral sense or narrative cohesion whatsoever make this story a riot, a strangely abstract and disjointed fable that only needs a dose of acerbity to be the work of Bierce.
I could, I suppose, see the old woman as a capitalist oppressor, and read the tale as a bourgeois parable of the futility of working class solidarity. I could read it as some Freudian mess, with fear of the feminine leading to repression (flight to another country) and ultimately phobia and suicide when (fire seeing water) the feminine proves inescapable. I could read it as a moral parable, warning children about the dangers of running away from home—if you don’t wind up dead, you’ll be scarred for life. I could even read it as a parable of the human mind, with fire being passion, straw being tactile sense, the bean being motivation and desire, conflicting in the human psyche and distressed by the dream-consciousness, the stream, which destroys and absorbs the attempts at rationalizing passion and tactile sense, leaving our motivations in pieces.
But, really, what’s the fun in that?
The bean laughed so hard it blew up.