“There lived in a certain village a poor old woman who had collected a mess of beans, and was going to cook them.”
This short origin story is full of surprises – which is to say it’s a delightful fairy tale that plays to the imagination. The old woman mentioned in that first sentence “made a fire on her hearth” and added a handful of straw to help it burn better, therefore cooking the beans to her satisfaction. “When the beans began to bubble in the pot, one of them fell out and lay, never noticed, near a straw which was already there; soon a red-hot coal jumped out of the fire and joined the pair.”
What happens next is quite unexpected; the straw, the coal, and the bean start talking to each other about surviving their fate while “comrades” met theirs (the handful of straw thrown into the fire, the other coals that would be reduced to ashes, and the other beans in the boiling pot). They then come to the conclusion that they “‘will go abroad into foreign lands'” together to live their lives as they wish, and so they do.
Shortly, however, they encounter a brook which has no point of crossing. The straw decides he will stretch across the brook like a bridge so the coal and bean can cross – which leads to some curious questions about the width of that brook, the size of the straw, and the size of the old woman and her fire if she’s throwing these long pieces of straw into it. Anyway, the straw stretched and the coal started moving across, but as she reached the middle she became frightened at the sound of the water rushing beneath her, so she froze. Because she stopped moving, the coal burned through the straw, snapping it in half and sending them both into the brook.
The bean had stayed behind on the bank, and found the scene before her quite comical so she laughed and laughed. So much so,
that she burst. And now would she certainly have been undone for ever, if a tailor on his travels had not by good luck stopped to rest himself by the brook. As he had a compassionate heart, he took out needle and thread and stitched her together again. The bean thanked him in the most elegant manner, but as he had sewn her up with black stitches, all beans since then have a black seam.
First, let’s talk pronouns. I find it interesting that specific ones for each “character” are used. Repeating “it” every time one of the characters spoke would be monotonous and potentially confusing, but considering the status of gender roles across other fairy tales, the “he” and “she” designations stand out to me. The straw and the tailor are both male, and both take on the roles of savior, or problem solvers. The coal and the bean on the other hand, exhibit disruptive faculties – the coal becoming afraid thus breaking the straw, and the bean laughing at the unfortunate circumstance in the brook. However, in this case, I think it is quite easy to switch around those pronouns in whatever way you prefer when reading the story, or just leave them as is and focus on getting to the end – the charming conclusion of this origin story.
Like in other instances, as I write my reactions and analysis of this fairy tale, I’m struck by another thought. The bean’s laughter at a sorry situation causes her/it to burst, then she/it needs to be stitched back together, but is forever marked with an imperfection. Can the lesson here be that hardheartedness – as symbolized by laughing at the straw and coal’s equal demise rather than feeling sorry or sympathetic – will always be worn like a scar, no matter how one is able to move on? Or is it just karma?
What I really like about this fairy tale is that it stretches across the line separating fairy tale and myth. The explanation of why beans have seams (although I don’t think I’ve seen a bean with a black seam) – or the explanation of this “natural phenomenon” – puts this tale into a mythological category.
There isn’t really a distinction between good and evil, or really even a lesson – as is typical with fairy tales.* However, there is the potential lesson of karma or the consequences of unkindness, as well as the fantastic element necessary for a story to be called a fairy tale: a talking piece of straw, coal, and a bean. I would even consider the tailor to be a bit magical because of his ability to identify a burst bean and stitch it back together. Perhaps that tailor deserves the historical title of legend.
Have you ever read this fairy tale? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas, contradictions, and reactions in the comments.
- Aarne-Thompson classification system – 295: The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean (ANIMAL TALES, Other Animals and Objects)
- The Master Review offers a breakdown of Legends, Myths, and Fairy Tales
*I had written this paragraph before the previous one, and have crossed out this line (rather than delete it) to show how my ideas changed as I thought more deeply about the tale. This may not be important to you, but it is to me.