Reading Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales | Featured Image

Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Vagabonds

“The cock said to the hen, ‘It is nutting time; let us go together to the mountains and have a good feast for once, before the squirrels come and carry all away.’ ‘Yes,’ answered the hen, ‘come along; we will have a jolly time together.'”

The cockerel and the hen from Mr. Korbes are back, as are some of their friends. This tale (Das Lumpengesindel is the original German title) has moments of violence and surprise like the story before it, and also ends with a sort of out-of-the-blue moral that I’ll discuss in a minute. But first, the chain of events.

The pair sets off to the mountains but are unprepared for the trip home. Evening falls and neither wants to walk back. The cockerel decides to build a carriage out of nutshells, but then neither he nor the hen want to be the one to pull it along. Honestly these two…

Conveniently enough a duck walks into the scene, and greets them with this: “‘You thieving vagabonds, who told you you might go to my mountain? Look out, or it will be the worse for you!'” She flies at the cockerel , who ends up “hack[ing] at her with his spurs so valiantly that she begged for mercy, and willingly allowed herself to be harnessed to the carriage.” The cockerel then tells her to run as fast as she can.

“When they had gone a part of the way they met two foot-passengers – a pin and a needle.” This pair is welcomed by the cockerel to join the group on account of their slimness; they don’t take up much room in the carriage.

Later on they arrive at an inn, and since the duck cannot go on any further they inquire about available sleeping quarters. “The landlord at first made some difficulty; his house was full already, and he thought they had no very distinguished appearance.” The group of vagabonds made many promises and “fine speeches”, telling the landlord that he could keep the hen’s egg (which she laid over the course of their little evening journey), as well as the duck (who laid an egg every day). The cockerel was quite bold and shameless in his offer of the duck – fairy tale [dark] whimsy or patriarchy? It can be both.

To continue – the landlord let them all stay but of course, the cockerel had a scheme ready to go. Early the next morning, he woke up the hen and took up the egg promised to the landlord, poked a hole in it and the two of them ate it up. Yes, the hen’s egg. I could dwell on this purposeful act (chickens may eat an egg in a coop if it is broken, especially in a crowded coop – they could also have a calcium deficiency or just be bored, allegedly) – but let’s keep going with the tale.

After placing the eggshells on the hearth, the cockerel picked up the needle and placed him in the landlord’s chair cushion, and “placed the pin in his towel”. The cockerel and the hen then “flew over the hills and far away.”

The poor duck wakes up to the rustling of their wings, and fortunately finds a brook “down which she swam a good deal faster than she had drawn the carriage.”

Hours later the landlord wakes up and washes, then reaches for his towel. “He drew the pin all across his face, and made a red streak from ear to ear.” He then goes into the kitchen to light his pipe, “but when he stooped towards the hearth to take up a coal the eggshell flew into his eyes.”

“Everything goes wrong this morning,” said he, and let himself drop, full of vexation, into his grandfather’s chair; but up he jumped in a moment, crying, “Oh dear!” for the needle had gone into him.

Now he became angry, and had his suspicions of the guests who had arrived so late the evening before; and when he looked round for them they were nowhere to be seen.

Then he swore that he would never more harbor such vagabonds, that consumed so much, paid nothing, and played such nasty tricks into the bargain.

In addition to the whimsical details – how much time was there between late evening and early morning? Have the cockerel and the hen eaten the hen’s eggs before? What kind of chickens are they that they can fly over hills? Why were the pin and needle so complacent in their roles? – I’m interested in how the tides turned in this tale (compared to Mr. Korbes). This time, the cockerel had direct influence in the suffering of the landlord, and with the inclusion of the “bad man” line at the end of the previous tale (present in later editions of this collection), the cockerel, hen, and company are made out to be the good guys. No chance of that here.

The moral of this tale – presented in the last sentence – reminds me of the moral of The Hare and the Hedgehog, although not as openly hateful. On the surface, it’s a little sad that the landlord would no longer be open to showing the generosity he did by allowing the group to stay in his full inn. However, the fact that he chooses to “never more harbor such vagabonds”, recalls the landlord’s first impression of the group – he found that none of them had a “distinguished appearance”. Will he now be attaching the vagabond label to all weary-looking travelers? I suppose it’s quite fruitless and unsatisfactory to speculate such a thing – in this fairy tale and others – but after all that is what a moral message is for; take the information, and especially if it’s a little unclear, try to make sense of it with more questions and reflection.

Share your thoughts about this tale, and/or your impression of the story’s moral in a comment below.

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