“A cock and a hen once wanted to go on a journey together. So the cock built a beautiful carriage with four red wheels, and he harnessed four little mice to it. And the cock and the hen got into it, and were driven off.”
Sort of like The Dog and the Sparrow, this fairy tale went from zero to one hundred in a matter of a few paragraphs. Here’s how it goes.
Right after that intro, the cockerel and hen meet a cat. The cat asks where they are going, and this is the answer it gets from the former:
“On Mr. Korbes a call to pay,
And that is where we go today!”
The cat immediately asks to go with them, so into the carriage it goes. The cockerel continues with his rhyme:
“And pray take care
Of my red wheels there;
And wheels be steady,
And mice be ready
On Mr. Korbes a call to pay,
For that is where we go today!”
The small group then meets a mill-stone, then an egg, a duck, a pin, and a needle, and all of them jump into the carriage to go to Mr. Korbes’s house. When they arrive, Mr. Korbes isn’t home. So the mice put the carriage into the barn, the cockerel and the hen perch up on a beam, the cat sits next to the fireplace, the duck floated on the water (in a wash basin, I guess), the egg wrapped itself in a towel, the pin dove into the cushion of a chair, the needle laid under the bed pillows, and the mill-stone sat by the door. Here is the end of the story:
Then Mr. Korbes came home, and went to the hearth to make a fire, but the cat threw ashes in his eyes. Then he ran quickly into the kitchen to wash himself, but the duck splashed water in his face. Then he was going to wipe it with the towel, but the egg broke in it, and stuck his eyelids together. In order to get a little peace he sat down in his chair, but the pin ran into him, and, starting up, in his vexation he threw himself on the bed, but as his head fell on the pillow, in went the needle, so that he called out with the pain, and madly rushed out. But when he reached the housedoor the mill-stone jumped up and struck him dead.
What a bad man Mr. Korbes must have been!
Before I talk about the severe and violent turn of events, I want to speculate about the characters who did not have a direct part in Mr. Korbes’s death: the cockerel, and the hen (I’m leaving the mice out because they were just used to move the carriage and I feel bad for them). Because of the rhyme, it’s clear that the two of them were already going to pay Mr. Korbes a visit before picking up the rest of the gang. Were their intentions sinister? Friendly? They stay out of the direct demise of Mr. Korbes by perching on a beam, but does that mean they are good/non-violent, or does that make them the harsh and dangerous leaders of the group?
Now about Mr. Korbes’s death. Why? How were all of these animals and objects effected by his existence and actions, whatever those were? Were some of the characters there for revenge, or to support other characters seeking revenge? I read that the last line of the tale did not make an appearance until the sixth edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (published around 1850 – the first edition was published in 1812), and then was taken out of the final edition (published later that decade). This adds an excruciating level to the motivations in this tale. Without that last line, it’s easy to see the other characters as the villains – as plotting, vengeful individuals. Sure, it’s also possible to speculate that Mr. Korbes had it coming; they “why” in either of these scenarios is still present. But adding “What a bad man Mr. Korbes must have been!” explicitly turns the other characters from villains to possible victims and heroes of the story. It implies that they would have no reason to kill Mr. Korbes if he wasn’t a bad man – if he wasn’t guilty of something. I would like to believe this is true, but I know enough about Grimm’s Fairy Tales and reality that sometimes the picture isn’t as perfectly explained as this. Based off of what I learned in The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean and The Death of the Hen, I know very well that Mr. Korbes could definitely be the villain, but so could the other characters. Why, why, why?
Do you prefer to think one way or the other? Or do you want to keep the “why?” open like I’m going to? Share your thoughts below!
- Aarne-Thompson classification system – 210: The Traveling Animals and the Wicked Man (ANIMAL TALES, Domestic Animals)
- Literature Wiki – Herr Korbes
- Resistentialism (a theory about problem-causing inanimate objects exhibiting spite and directing hatred at humans)
- The Malice of Inanimate Objects by M.R. James