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

Pop Culture Grimm

To go with my online class Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, I started a series of posts listing companion materials in pop culture, preferably ones that are a little forgotten, have not received the attention I think they deserve, or take an unusual angle.  All the better if they are available online, double-plus for free.

These are the ones I propose to accompany Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Household Stories:

Castle Waiting Vol. 1Linda Medley’s graphic novel series, Castle Waiting, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Medley both writes and illustrates the book, which explores the secrets and connections of fairy-tale characters and weaves them into a gorgeous tapestry.  While she does not limit herself to Grimm characters, they are featured prominently.

I highly recommend the edition collected as hardcover books, it is pretty, durable, and worthy of the delightful tales inside.  The cast of  quirky and lovable characters keeps finding new ways to intrigue and reward the reader.

Red -- No Rest for the WickedAndrea L. Peterson’s webcomic No Rest for the Wicked gleefully explores a number of fairy tales, mostly from the Grimm brothers but also from Charles Perrault and others: Puss in Boots, Hansel and Grethel, the Princess and the Pea, etc.  The characters are explored and retold in long story arcs that never fail to make me grin.

It’s one of my very favourite webcomics for its mix of storytelling, humour, darkness, surprises, and art experiments.  It’s updated at a slow rate, but it’s been on-going for a decade and is still coming up with fresh new ideas.

FablesBill Willingham’s graphic novel series Fables published under DC’s Vertigo imprint, especially those pencilled by Mark Buckingham.  I admit that in recent years the comic’s strength has waned a bit, but it pioneered the renaissance of retold fairy tales as dark (or at least gray-scale) urban fantasy which has now reached television in the guise of Once Upon A Time and Grimm.

The premise is that when the fairy tale lands were overrun by a dark enemy referred to only as The Adversary, creatures and characters from tales (“fables”) took refuge in our own world.  Many of them now have their haven in Fabletown, a little-known district of New York, as well as a location upstate known as “the Farm.”  We get to see how the likes of Snow White, Cinderella, King Cole, Little Boy Blue and the Big Bad Wolf have adapted to our world.

Once Upon a Time cardsOnce Upon a Time (Atlas Games): A storytelling card game that encourages creativity and collaborative play. One player is the Storyteller, and begins telling a story using the fairytale elements on her Story cards (e.g., “A Prince“, “Someone is lost“, “A wish is granted“), guiding the plot toward her Ending Card (e.g., “And they were never seen again.”) The other players use their own cards to interrupt her and become the new Storyteller. The winner is the first player to use all her Story Cards and play her Ending Card. The object of the game, though, isn’t just to win, but to have fun telling a story together. Even better, the publisher just issued a handbook on using the cards from the game for writing stories.

Cover: Seven Leagues

Seven Leagues (Malcontent Games): A role-playing game that uses a very light, unconstraining system created to support role-playing fairy tales, from the myths of Antiquity to modern urban fantasy. The text provides an excellent overview of the symbolism and structure of fairy tales. The system is based on narration and uses a twelve-sided die; it is simple enough for children as long as they can count and add, but the tone and theme are also appropriate for more serious themes and darker stories, including modern fantasy from magical realism to gothic urban magic. To learn more, you can read the detailed review I wrote a few years ago, including examples of play.

Cover: Faery's Tale

Faery’s Tale (Firefly Games): An interactive storytelling game, suitable for ages 6 and up, based on faery folklore. You play a pixie, brownie, sprite, or pooka, etc., in the enchanted forest of Brightwood in the land of fairy tales. You foil dark faery plots, rescue youngsters from giants, overthrow sorcerous tyrants, awaken princesses from their enchanted slumber, watch over faery godchildren, and have many other amazing adventures, happily ever after. Simple system using a narrative approach and six-sided dice. Tokens can be useful too.

Cover: The Zorcerer of Zo

The Zorcerer of Zo (Atomic Sock Monkey Press): Tailors face giants, enchanted queens dance with human peasants, talking creatures perform domestic duties, witches cast curses and fairies grant blessings. And all are seeking their Happily Ever After. The book contains very useful advice on how to run a role-playing game, including with children of various ages. The text takes the reader through every step of of campaign creation, from the initial little capsule description through setting design, actual play and final happily-ever-after. Simple system using a narrative approach and six-sided dice.

There are many more titles, but these three are good ones for practicing the interactive use of the symbols and trappings of fairy tales to create your own stories.

Read online: works by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm on

The Brothers Grimm’s “Household Stories”

Walter Crane: Sleeping BeautyThe first week’s reading assignment for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World was Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Household Stories, as translated by Lucy Crane and illustrated by her brother Walter Crane in 1882.  I found two complete versions online, the facsimile available on Open Library and the Project Gutenberg scan.

In addition, it looks like the English text of the very useful Grimm Stories online resource is preferentially from the Crane translation, although without the illustrations.  The latter is very nice, though, because it allows one to look at the translation side-by-side with the original German text (or with another language).

Anyhow, I had jotted down many pages of reading notes on the stories, but class participants are limited to between 270 and 320 words for their essays, so one has to narrow the focus considerably.  The intended reader is a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course;  the essays must aim to enrich the reading of this peer.  This means we get to skip the preliminaries (such as title, author and summary of the work reviewed) and go directly to insights on the readings.

With so many and so varied stories, I had to skim to only a few since I wanted the space to support my statement by pointing to the works.  I concentrated on stories for which my notes converged on a single topic.  Here is the essay, using every one of my allotted 320 words:  Continue reading “The Brothers Grimm’s “Household Stories””