The Death of the Hen: Chapterhead illustration

The Death of the Hen: Initial capitalnce 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.)

The Death of the Hen: Chapter end illustration

One thought on “Helping

  1. A few observations:

    1) If you offer to help with something, its your responsibility to understand what help you are offering and when you are needed. If you offer to help move a piano the time to remember you have a bad back should not be when you show up. Also your help is of no use if you show up on Wednesday and the move happened on Tuesday.

    2) Everyone understands your time is valuable and you are offering to give some of it to help another person. That’s great. But the time and effort of the other people who are involved is also valuable, and you need to respect that as well. You aren’t the only special snowflake involved.

    3) Nobody expects everyone to help every time. If you can’t help, a brief explanation to the person needing help is all that is needed. Lengthy public explanations aren’t really needed, and often feel like a “doth protest too much” sort of thing.

    That said, it is really a moving experience to see a group of people all pitching in to give of their time, effort, and skills to be of assistance in a time of need.

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