unsettling wonder

Reading Grimm’s Household Tales

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Table-Be-Set, Gold-Donkey, and Cudgel-out-of-the-Sack

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his tale may embody what a fairy tale should be, while being what we think a fairy tale probably isn’t. You’ll find no princesses, gender-politics, or heroic quests here. This is the tale of a malicious goat, a foolish tailor, three fine sons who can’t stay out of trouble, and the miracle of domestic implements.

This tale is ribald and ridiculous story. Everyone is the fool and the world is beset by irrational circumstances, address with all the solemnity of sober history. Hard work will get you places, the storyteller assures us, but not really. To really get somewhere, you need a magical implement that defies the any known or unknown laws of reason, and then make sure you’re not so stupid you go and lose it.

You can read it here. Please do. And then come back and tell me what you think.

It starts like this:

There was once upon a time a tailor who had three sons, and only one goat. But as the goat supported all of them with her milk, she was obliged to have good food, and to be taken every day to pasture. The sons did this, in turn.

The goat lies, deliberately and maliciously. She eats the finest herbs in the graveyard—her pasture of choice—and tells the attendant son:

I have eaten so much,
Not a leaf more I’ll touch;
Meh, meh!

But when she gets home, she sings (wait—this is a a singing goat?):

How should I be satisfied?
Among the ditches I leapt about,
Found no leaf, so went without;
Meh, meh!

And the tailor thereupon logically drives his son out of the house. In turn he drives all three sons away, while the goat grows fat and sleek. And only to late the tailor begins to wonder if he’s been had.

The sons set off to seek their fortune. And find it, and lose it again, after the way of these things.

What’s strikes me about this story is that their magical implements are so ordinary as to be absurd. Table-Be-Set seems to be an table equipped with house elves: tell it to set itself, and hey presto! it appears laden with all your favourite foods. It’s so ordinary that when the malicious innkeeper swaps it for a genuinely ordinary table, the elder son doesn’t notice.

So when he tries to throw a party for the extended family—it doesn’t end happily.

The second son gets, ahem, a flatulent donkey. This would be a problem, except that this donkey spews gold. Stand it on a sheet, yell ‘Bricklebrit!’ and ‘and immediately the beast began to let gold pieces fall from back and front, so that it fairly rained down money onto the ground.’ The innkeeper swaps this too, much to the embarrassment of the second son.

"Now watch," said he, and cried, "Bricklebrit," but what fell were not gold pieces, and it was clear that the animal knew nothing of the art, for not every donkey attains such perfection.

The third son fares better, being sharp enough to recognize that the innkeeper is crook. His present is cudgel-out-of-the-sack. When he commands the cudgel, it comes forth and smites evildoers until he tells it to stop. In this way, the third son secures the real enchanted table and the real flatulent donkey and goes home a rich man, who then enriches all his friends and family. Happy endings all round.

The goat, meanwhile, has made a comfortable living terrifying bears. (Really!)

Go read the story—it’s hilarious. And the Grimms’ editorial hand has deliciously elaborated and heightened the burlesque effect. Don’t just read it: read it aloud. Read it aloud to someone who hasn’t heard it before. It’s that sort of story.

And, in the way of fairy tales, the meeting of the workaday with the world of enchantment hinges on desire and the granting of wishes. After a fashion. The brothers attain luxury—from a rough wooden table. Wealth—from (ahem) a farting donkey. The ability to dispense justice—from a stout club of wood. What’s more, they gain their father’s approval. All because a goat told a pack of lies.

As the storyteller says:

I can see by your face that you would have liked to be there as well.

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