A distinct feature of the Grimm tales (and folk tales in general) are repetitive narrative patterns and recurring motives. Among these, talking animals are particularly prominent. I am drawn to such stories because I like animals. More importantly, I’m intrigued by tales with talking animals because many of them can be viewed as little morality plays, not in the sense that they have a pat moral, but in the sense that a moral issue is at stake, if in a playful manner. For example, trust and the betrayal of trust are at the heart of Cat and Mouse in Partnership.BTW The image is by my favorite Grimms illustrator, Otto Ubbelohde, who deserves a separate post.
A subclass of the talking animal stories deals with farm animals. I know from my own experience (I lived for four years in a small rural village) that these animals often have a hard life, and it must have been even harder at the time the Grimm tales were told. When an animal was no longer useful, it was disposed of unceremoniously—beaten to death, or drowned, or beheaded and eaten, as the dog, the cat, and the rooster, respectively, lament in The Bremen Town Musicians. In the latter story, and in Old Sultan and, to a lesser degree, The House in the Forest, these exploited creatures receive a voice and are allowed to take their fate into their own hands. By teaming up, they manage to outwit their masters. The loyalty the animals show among each other contrasts with the disloyalty exhibited by humans—the animals prove, in the end, to be the “better people.”
A further appeal of these stories is that the moral lesson, if there is one, is not treated in a heavy-handed manner. There is much humor in them—Old Sultan, in fact, ends in a burlesque as the toothless dog of the title and a three-legged cat manage to win a duel against a wolf and a wild boar, both perfectly healthy, who turn out to be veritable cowards. And The Bremen Town Musicians is distinguished by a humorous tone sustained throughout.
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