“There was once an ass whose master had made him carry sacks to the mill for many a long year, but whose strength began at last to fail, so that each day as it came, found him less capable of work.”
When I read the title of this tale, the part of my brain that stores memory sounded a small alarm, but I could not place The Bremen Town Musicians based on just those four words. Shortly into the story, however, childhood nostalgia flooded my mind and I remembered reading an iteration in the form of a children’s picture book. I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now about the Grimm version.
The ass in this story – whom I will be calling the donkey from here on out; I don’t want to keep typing ass in this blog post – gets the correct feeling that his master was thinking about “turning him out”, so he sets off for Bremen “for there he thought he might get an engagement as town musician.” On the way, the donkey meets a hound, a cat, and a cock[erel], who all, for one reason or another, are fated to die by their owners’ hands (unable to hunt because of old age; dull teeth that are no good for catching mice; going to be made into a soup). I’m not going to summarize this part more than that, because although the descriptions for these animals’ planned ends are short, they are also gruesome. What is most important to know is that all three animals join the donkey on the journey to Bremen to become musicians.
The group decides to stop when it gets dark, so the donkey and dog lay beneath a tree, while the cat goes up onto a branch, and the cockerel flies to the top. He spots a subtle light in the distance, and alerts his companions “that there must be a house not far off”. They all agree to go there for the night, in hopes of a more comfortable place to rest. They find the house, and after looking in through a window, discover “‘a table set out with splendid eatables and drinkables, and robbers sitting at it and making themselves very comfortable.'” How the animals know that the inhabitants are robbers is not made clear; the reader just has to trust that their knowledge is accurate.
It was decided that the robbers must be removed from the dwelling, so the four animals stack up on one another outside the window, and at the same time play their “music” – “the ass brayed, the dog barked, the cat mewed, and the cock crowed; then they burst into the room, breaking all the panes of glass.” This method is effective, and the robbers run out and away from the house, and the animals are free to settle in for the night.
According to the tale the robbers did not go far, however, because around midnight they noticed the house was dark, so they decided one of them would go and check it out. The robber enters the house and ends up upsetting each animal; the cat spits and claws at him, the hound bites his leg, the donkey kicks him, and then the cockerel “cried out, ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!'” The injured robber rushes back to his robber friends in the woods and gives an account of what happened:
“Oh dear! In that house there is a gruesome witch, and I felt her breath and her long nails in my face; and by the door there stands a man who stabbed me in the leg with a knife; and in the yard there lies a black specter, who beat me with his wooden club; and above, upon the roof, there sits the justice, who cried, ‘Bring that rogue here!’ And so I ran away from the place as fast as I could.”
The final lines of this fairy tale follow this speech, so I will put those here, too:
From that time forward the robbers never ventured to that house, and the four Bremen town musicians found themselves so well off where they were, that there they stayed. And the person who last related this tale is still living, as you see.
While I don’t remember word for word the children’s book about these musicians that I used to read, I am quite certain it did not include most of the troubling details that are present in the Grimm’s fairy tale (not surprising). I had hoped to link up the exact book I read as a child below in EXTRAS, but there are more than a dozen versions, and based on the cover art, none that I’ve found match the illustrations I remember. I would like to read some of the ones that seem easily accessible – my library has a couple of them – to see how or if the adaptations differ. Which now has me wondering: why are there so many adaptations/contemporary children’s books based on this fairy tale? It must be the whimsy of four different animals becoming musicians (I remember from the book I read as a child that the animals used actual musical instruments, as opposed to just their animal sounds), or, depending on how much background is given in a modern iteration, the improvement of life all four animals achieved after leaving their previous situations. What do you think?
Before ending this post, I do want to emphasize the last sentence of this fairy tale: “And the person who last related this tale is still living, as you see.” This threw me for a loop, and I’m honestly still puzzling over it. Is “the person who last related this tale” a character in the time of these Bremen musicians? Or was it meant as a fun setup for readers and storytellers who were to come along after this tale was bound with all the others? It’s such a self-aware statement that doesn’t quite match the tone of the fairy tale, but works anyway because it concludes a fairy tale. Oh, the whimsy.
- Aarne-Thompson classification system – 130: Outcast Animals Find a New Home (ANIMAL TALES, Wild Animals and Domestic Animals)
- Watch and listen to an animated version of The Bremen Town Musicians
- Learn a little about the state of Bremen in northwestern Germany