nce upon a time last year, I took an online literature class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (it re-runs periodically and you might enjoy it too.) The first week’s reading assignment was Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Household Stories, and I ended up reading some Grimm stories I was less familiar—or even completely unfamiliar—with. As I mentioned last year, one particularly stuck with me, a short fable called The Death of the Hen. Like a lot of fables it presents the amusing adventures of talking animals to present a moral lesson; but the lesson was not one I expected.
In short, it tells us that to be useful, help must be both timely and appropriate. Help of the right kind withheld until the moment has passed is of no use; help given generously and promptly but of the wrong kind makes things worse.
- In the tale, the brook and the bride’s withholding of help delay their assistance until it is too late to save the hen; the result is the right kind of help, but too late. But the hen was already choking and so is no worse off – she would have died without the help, she dies with it as well.
- The straw and coal’s help was well-intentioned and timely, but was of the wrong kind so it caused others to die who did not have to.
- The stone’s help was timely and of the right kind, but all the other “helpers” – wolf, bear, stag, lion, and all the beasts in the wood – overwhelm the help which the stone can provide, and so all are lost.
This has popped back to mind several times since I read it thanks to real-life examples, most recently this weekend when a friend needed help from many of us. I felt angered that the fable was being re-told in real time (though I think our hen is actually doing fine since we had more stones than brooks, lions, and straws.)