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Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: Old Sultan

“There was once a peasant who owned a faithful dog called Sultan, now grown so old that he had lost all his teeth, and could lay hold of nothing.”

This fairy tale is an excellent example of how much these fantastical stories can offer to their readers. Old Sultan balances fright and action with softness and personal values, and almost all of the characters are animals. I’m placing this fairy tale into the category of those on the sweet side, because although it begins frightfully (the peasant says he is going to kill Sultan ‘tomorrow’ because of the dog’s age), everyone makes it out okay.

The poor dog Sultan overhears his owner, as well as the peasant’s wife sticking up for Sultan, so he sneaks away to his wolf friend to tell him what was going to happen. But the wolf tells Sultan not to worry, and comes up with a plan.

The next day, the peasant and his wife were out hay-making, and Sultan was laying down in the shade with their baby. The wolf snuck up and ran off with the baby, then dropped the baby so Sultan could return the child to its parents – appearing as the hero. It worked, and Sultan was saved. “From that time old Sultan was made so comfortable that he had nothing left to wish for.”

Shortly after, the wolf tries to cash in a favor by asking Sultan to turn a blind eye to his plot to take a sheep from the peasant’s pasture. Sultan did not consent, admitting that he would not turn against his master, but the wolf did not think he was serious. However, Sultan alerted his master about the wolf’s plot so the peasant stood in the pasture “and gave [the wolf] a fine hiding with the threshing-flail” when the wolf arrived that night. “So the wolf had to make his escape, calling out to the dog, ‘You shall pay for this, you traitor!'”

The wolf then teams up with a boar to challenge (fight) Old Sultan, who then searches for his own second (partner). He encounters and accepts the company of a three-legged cat, then heads to the woods. As they enter the spot where the wolf and boar were situated, the cat’s raised tail looked like a saber to the pair, and as it was limping on its three legs, they thought it had to be “lifting a big stone to throw at them.” The wolf and boar became frightened, so the former “clambered up into a tree” and “the wild boar crept among the leaves.” I think it would be better to copy down the ending of this tale, so here is what happens next.

However, the wild boar was not perfectly hidden in the leaves, and the tips of his ears peeped out. And when the cat caught sight of one, she thought it was a mouse, and sprang upon it, seizing it with her teeth. Out leaped the wild boar with a dreadful cry, and ran away shouting, ‘There is the culprit in the tree!’

And the dog and the cat, looking up, caught sight of the wolf, who came down, quite ashamed of his timidity, and made peace with the dog once more.

You might have as many questions as I did after finishing this story. How did Old Sultan become friends with a wolf, and how did he know to confide in him? Why did Old Sultan give his master a warning about the sheep, when he was good and ready to put Old Sultan down? Why a boar? Why a three-legged cat? What other adventures or antics has Old Sultan and the wolf been up to?

I don’t have any exact answers, of course. Animal folklore is quite common; the use of different types of animals provide hints of symbolism; and the number three has divine implications – what I’m trying to say the potential of analysis and speculation is deliciously vast.

Old Sultan is the protagonist and driving force behind this tale. He is loyal even to those who may not value him as much as he deserves. He seems to be forgiving, and trusts seemingly in an unconditional manner. The wolf helps Old Sultan at the beginning, but expected to be repaid – he didn’t help out of pure kindness and concern. Old Sultan seems to honorable in the historical sense of accepting a challenge and not backing down.ย  Additionally, the last line of the tale, and especially the last two words – “once more” – make me believe this sort of back-and-forth is a common situation. Why does Old Sultan give in to forgiveness? Ah, another question.

I like the more complex, less clean-cut track of this fairy tale. By now I’ve stopped expecting all of Grimm’s fairy tales to have straightforward lessons, but I like how this one challenges the idea that learning morality and incorporating it into our very identity is as simple as following a few draconian rules. Or maybe I’m thinking about it too simply.

What do you think?



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