unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Read Through illus-155   illus-155-title

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his tale isn’t really a fairy tale. Tolkien would define it as a beast tale. It’s folktale, clearly, and a truly wonderful tale to tell aloud. It is not a story to be taken seriously. At least not when telling it, or when listening to it.

Afterward, however…

Afterward, it sticks around as one of those tales that—that you just like. It wasn’t just that you like laughing, or that you like talking donkeys, or that you like seeing villains in stories getting hard done by. There’s a deeper meaning here, as with all good tales and all true tales, that lingers. Not a moral, not a didactic teaching—just a deep sense that this, this is real. Whatever it is.

That is why I consider this one of the Great Tales.

There are two possible explanations I’d like to offer for this. They are fundamentally the same explanation. First of all, this is a tale about the telling of stories. It raises questions about who should tell them, and how they should be told.

The tale begins, for instance, with the donkey having served his master good and faithfully and well. Now he’s worn out and old, and the master is on the phone ringing up the knacker man. We’re presented with an immediate, usual narrative—one based on economy, production and consumption, master and beast. It’s a story we’ve heard before. It’s a story perhaps we’ve lived.

Not that the master is necessarily evil—perhaps he’s a kind-hearted man who doesn’t want to see his faithful old donkey suffer. Regardless, the narrative is the same:

There was a donkey, and he grew old and died.

The donkey chooses a different story. He makes up his own:

There once was a donkey, and he was the finest fiddler in Bremen town.

So he sets off to Bremen—that is, he leaves his master’s story, and sets off with his own, to where his own story will be true. That it’s Bremen instead of Chicago is beside the point, really. And his story is infectious. He tells it to others, he lives it, and he invites others to tell it with him. So, the dog, the cat, and the rooster—all alike are old and worn and fit (in one story) only to be killed. But in the donkey’s story, they’re the finest musical troupe in Bremen town, and so it’s to Bremen town they go.

The story itself becomes the donkey’s story—it’s called the Bremen Musicians, not the Dying Donkey. It doesn’t matter that they never arrive at Bremen town. They arrive at a house the heart of the forest—the centre of the imagination, as it were. They drive away the killers and thieves, as if chasing away the destructive, rapacious stories they’ve fled from and used to believe, and set up shop as the Bremen Town Musicians. Even though they’re not musicians, and they’re certainly not in Bremen town.

All this, of course, is a cause for endless hilarity. A house full of robbers, a group of animals who think they’re fine musicians, and a forest that most certainly isn’t Bremen—as a storyteller, everything is just screaming ‘Comedy!’ at you. The slapstick-but-nuanced collision of stories makes for a highly enjoyable story encounter.

Consider the following. The robbers, who’ve convinced themselves that the awful racket—the animals’ music—probably wasn’t the devil like they thought, are trying to return:

The messenger finding all still, went into the kitchen to light a candle, and, taking the glistening fiery eyes of the cat for live coals, he held a lucifer-match to them to light it. But the cat did not understand the joke, and flew in his face, spitting and scratching. He was dreadfully frightened,
and ran to the back-door, but the dog, who lay there sprang up and bit his leg; and as he ran across the yard by the straw-heap, the donkey gave him a smart kick with its hind foot. The cock, too, who had been awakened by the noise, and had become lively, cried down from the beam, “Cock-adoodle-doo!”

Then the robber ran back as fast as he could to his captain, and said,“Ah, there is a horrible witch sitting in the house, who spat on me and scratched my face with her long claws; and by the door stands a man with a knife, who stabbed me in the leg; and in the yard there lies a black monster, who beat me with a wooden club; and above, upon the roof, sits the devil, who called out, ‘Bring the rogue here to me!’ so I got away as well as I could.”

What happens has happened and what is thought to have happened and what might have happened if anyone had an idea was going on are three different things. The stories conflict, but the conflict goes unnoticed. The Bremen Musicians live happily ever after; the robbers rush away in terror convinced that all the devil in hell on on their tale. Stories, when believed, work themselves out howsoever they like.

This first explanation flows into the second: this is a Great Tale, in that it demands of us to consider what stories we tell. What story do we have for aging? What story do we have for dying? For ourselves? For others? Do we accept the product-value of the masters, drowning cats and donkeys? Or are we willing to look for wonder—even for nonsense and hilarity—willing to write our own stories and tell our own tales? Willing to listen for the tales others tell? Do we tell tales that destroy and devalue the aging and the disabled? Or tales that pierce us with wonder and laughter and joy?

These are the questions the tale demands—through the laughter of the telling and the lingering of the memory. The questions, as I’ve asked them, may vanish from our minds quite quickly.
The tale remains.

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4 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. I love this story–one that was in my Childcraft collection of folktales when I was little. And I love your reading of it. I wish I had something more constructive to add, but I’m afraid my admiration is getting in the way.

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