“The story, my dear young folks, seems to be false, but it really is true, for my grandfather, when relating it always used to say, ‘It must be true, my son, or else no one could tell it to you.’ The story is as follows.”
This fairy tale is a bit of a whirlwind. It’s also one of the few fairy tales I’ve read so far that clearly states the moral of the story – but I’ll talk about that in a minute.
First, a summary. This tale is about a hedgehog who decides to take a walk through his field of turnips while his wife gave the children their baths. Well, whether it is actually his field could certainly be debated: “The turnips, were, in fact, close beside his house, and he and his family were accustomed to eat them, for which reason he looked upon them as his own.” Oddly enough, this detail does not factor into the tale’s stated moral message.
Anyway, in the field the hedgehog comes upon a hare, who makes fun of the hedgehog for going on a walk, because the hare feels that the hedgehog “might use [his] legs for a better purpose,” taking note of the hedgehog’s naturally crooked legs. This makes “the hedgehog furiously angry”, his pride gets the better of him, and he challenges the hare to a race. So they agree to meet in a half an hour, and the hedgehog quickly returns home. When the hedgehog explains the situation to his wife…well, the exchange goes like this:
“Good heavens, husband,” the wife now cried, “are you out of your mind? Have you completely lost your wits? What can make you want to run a race with the hare?” “Hold your tongue, woman,” said the hedgehog, “that is my affair. Don’t begin to discuss things which are matters for men. Be off, dress, and come with me.” What could the hedgehog’s wife do? She was forced to obey him, whether she liked it or not.
The hedgehog then explains his wife’s role in his plan of deceit. Since they look alike, the wife was to stand at the end of the race-course (a long sloping field), and when the hare reached it first she was to shout “‘I am here already!’” Then when the hare ran back, the hedgehog would still be standing at the start, and would shout the same thing. This plan tricked the hare, who ran the course seventy-three times. “At the seventy-fourth time, however, the hare could no longer reach the end.” I’ll spare you the gory details and simply tell you that the seventy-fourth time was the end of the hare. Did I mention that the prize – other than enflamed pride and life, apparently – was a bottle of brandy?
Before I copy down the last paragraph of this fairy tale (the one with the moral statement), I feel like I should mention a detail that is brought to light in the paragraph between the demise of the rabbit and the moral: “This is how it happened that the hedgehog made the hare run races with him on the Buxtehude heath till he died, and since that time no hare has ever had any fancy for running races with a Buxtehude hedgehog.”
I thought that perhaps the Buxtehude heath still exists, and with a Google search I discovered the historical town of Buxtehude in Germany. Through this I also learned about the German Fairy Tale Route – but this is not the post to describe my excitement and enthusiasm for that (but seriously, how have I not discovered it before?!). What was I talking about? Right. Buxtehude “was the first German city planned around a central harbor basin.” There’s a hare-and-hedgehog bicycle route around “the fairy tale town”, which really embraces its role in this fairy tale; “everything in Buxtehude revolves around comical animals: ballet performances, art exhibitions, children’s books and souvenirs.” It sounds like a charming place to visit.
Now back to end of the fairytale.
The moral of this story, however, is, firstly, that no one, however great he may be, should permit himself to jest at any one beneath him, even if he be only a hedgehog. And, secondly, it teaches, that when a man marries, he should take a wife in his own position who looks just as he himself looks. So whosoever is a hedgehog let him see to it that his wife is a hedgehog also, and so forth.
First of all, that initial sentence could have been positive, had it stopped before that last comma. You could argue about “great” and beneath”, but these words can be subjectively interpreted. What is pretty objective, is that the message still upholds the idea of the “other” – it discourages actively hating (jesting) but seems to uphold the passive hatred or contempt of this being that is only a hedgehog.
Second of all, that final sentence is just horrific. It does track with some of the [horrific] events of the tale – the hedgehog being condescending to his wife and forcing her to follow him. Don’t submit to the joys of a relationship built on love and mutual respect, take a wife. Don’t think about happiness and marriage longevity, focus on position and looks. And if you’re only a hedgehog, you better only accept a hedgehog as a partner.
As a more general comment, I had never heard this fairy tale before my recent reading of it for this post. If you are familiar with “The Tortoise and the Hare” by Aesop (like I am), you may be aware that Aesop’s fable came before this one from the Grimm brothers. I expected “The Hare and the Hedgehog” to have much more in common with Aesop’s tale than just two animals running a race against each other. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is entertaining and has a simple but affecting message: take your time, perform to the best of your ability, and you will be successful (that’s how I interpret “slow and steady wins the race”, anyway). “The Hare and the Hedgehog” is just rough, and likely had a profound impact on readers across communities and places with strict social classes and xenophobic values. Unless I find a re-write where the female hedgehog leaves her husband behind to live her best life with whomever she wants in a utopic society, I’m not interested in returning to this fairy tale.
- Aarne-Thompson classification system – The site I’ve used that classifies all of these fairy tales does not have this particular one listed. According to the University of Pittsburgh’s website (where you can find and read Grimm’s fairy tales), The Hare and the Hedgehog is type 275, which gives it the logical classification of ANIMAL TALES and Other Animals and Objects.