unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through

The Louse and the Flea


here’s a tale like this tale everywhere. Scholars like me have confirmed it.

Sometimes we ask too much of tales, scholars. We ask them where they live and what they like to eat, where their parents were from and what language they spoke at home. Then we tell them, solemnly and with proof, that they’re generally wrong.

Too much of that, grumbles the reader. We just want to read the story and enjoy it.

But we ask too much of tales, too. We ask they have happy endings. We ask them to agree with what we think, and disprove things we don’t think. We ask them to accommodate us, to please us, to give us fodder for profound blog posts.

But then—this.

My dear cat, catch the mouse, for the mouse won’t gnaw the rope, the rope won’t hang the smith, the smith won’t hammer the axe, the axe won’t split the yoke, the yoke won’t throttle the ox, the ox won’t drink the water, the water won’t quench the fire, the fire won’t burn the fir, the fir won’t crush the Finn, the Finn won’t shoot the bear, the bear won’t slay the wolf, the wolf won’t tear the fox, the fox won’t bite Nanny, and Nanny won’t come home in time. I am so hungry and want my supper.

This, of course, is not Grimm’s ‘The Louse and the Flea.’ That’s a different sort of tale altogether. But this sort of tale—why, there’s dozens. Just look at this list here. Better yet, read your way through it. It’s nothing sort of hilarious, nothing less than hypnotic—stories that make you want to read them aloud, to shout them, to play them on the fiddle and dance to them.

If there’s a moral to these tales—which I doubt—it’s a doozy. We of the serious scholarly bent might say how there’s a carnivalesque quality to these tales, a ribald absurdism that tears apart the nature of causality, that at once employs and burlesques the chain of cause and effect. We of the readerly mind might say, rather, that it’s about a well-ordered society, about needing to do the job at hand, about everything having its place.

Like the girl with the water jug, that is:

Then said the little spring from which ran the water, “Girl, why art thou breaking thy water-jug?” “Have I not reason to break my water-jug?”

“The little louse has burnt herself,
The little flea is weeping,
The little door is creaking,
The little broom is sweeping,
The little cart is running,
The little ash-heap is burning,
The little tree is shaking itself.”

“Oh, ho!” said the spring, “then I will begin to flow,” and began to flow violently. And in the water everything was drowned, the girl, the little tree, the little ash-heap, the little cart, the broom, the little door, the little flea, the little louse, all together.

And the Grimms have found a way to have all the unnecessary characters die horribly. Except in this story, no character is strictly necessary. Like the elephant stampede in Thurber’s ‘Oliver and the Other Ostriches’ (1956), the events of the tale are ‘frightened by nothing, fleeing nowhere.’ Everything happens by a sort of deliberate accident. Everything dances a mad jig at the whim  of the storyteller—whilst sweeping the storyteller along with it in a torrent and riot of hilarity beyond his control.

The louse falls into the fire. The pancake jumps out of the oven. The nanny goat refuses to come home. Jack builds a house. The old lady swallows a fly.

Why do these things happen? Well, why does anything happen? Do we really know? Does it really matter?

However we answer those questions for philosophy, for these stories the answer is a cheery NO. What matters is the telling and the hearing of the tale. The Grimms were not innovating when they gave a sudden, zinging punch line to the tale. The abrupt, stinging end is part of the form.

It’s too easy with these tales to play the intent grad student and write long articles with titles like ‘Have I Not Reason…?: Social Formation, Subversive Heteroglossia, and Carnivalesque Anti-Narrative in the Grimm’s Chain-Folktale ‘The Louse and the Flea.’* But the tale is meant to be told. Not exactly to be relaxed in—it’s too convoluted for that—but to be enjoyed, both in the usual definition of that word, and in C. S. Lewis’s definition.

Truth be told, we don’t exactly know why we like these tales so much. It’s more like liking a favourite melody or a rhythm—no real reason, maybe. But we tell them anyway. And we listen to what the tale tells us. Even if we can’t put it into words, we know we’ve laughed for a while—or better still, helped someone else to laugh. So we tell the tale again.

Maybe that’s why these tales are everywhere.



*I may write that essay myself, actually…


One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. She’s dead, of course.

    As somebody who just got to sing “I know an old lady…” to a room full of hard-to-impress people–long story there– my guess is that these stories are popular because they work. Go on, just try to sing it without smiling; you won’t make it past “wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.” Maybe it’s the combination of playground rhyme, memory game, and whimsy.

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