Town musicians
This illustration taken from Rumpelstiltskin and other Grimm Tales, by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Markéta Prachatická

Welcome back for the 6th day of our Richmond Read-along! Today we’re reading another short story, although this would be more commonly referred to as a folktale. We’re sure the tales from the Brothers Grimm need no introduction, but we often think of them as infantilising children’s tales of princesses and heroes skipping around magical forests.

The original tales – and even many of the popular retellings – were far from these happily-ever-after fairytales. The Brothers Grimm collected these “household tales” to preserve what they saw as a German national heritage and mentality, and many of them reflect the struggles and anxieties typical in ordinary people’s lives – albeit in somewhat fantastical ways. Many of the tales as they were first recorded were incredibly gruesome. Cinderella is a prime example – in the first version, the stepsisters hack off parts of their feet to try and fit into the lost slipper, and then have their eyes pecked out by birds.

We’ve chosen a cheerier story for today’s read-along – the gently comic tale of “The Town Musicians of Bremen:”

The Town Musicians of Bremen

“There once was a man who had a donkey which had carried his sacks to the mill unflaggingly for many long years but was now getting old and weak so that he was becoming more and more unfit for work. The donkey’s master was considering whether to stop feeding him but the donkey noticed that there was an ill wind blowing and ran away, setting off for Bremen where he thought he could become a town musician.

When he had covered a short distance he came across a hunting dog lying on the road, yapping like someone who has run himself into the ground. “Well, why are you yapping so, old snarler?” asked the donkey. “Ah”, said the dog, “because I am so old and getting weaker every day and can’t go hunting any more, my master wanted to kill me but then I took to my heels. But how shall I now earn my living?” “You know what”, said the donkey, “I am going to Bremen to become a town musician. Go with me and take up music too. I shall play the lute and you can beat the drums.” The dog was happy with this and they went on together.

Before long they came across a cat sitting at the roadside with a face as long as a fiddle. “Well now, what has crossed you, old whisker-face?” said the donkey. “How can I be happy when I am in for it”, replied the cat, “just because I am getting on in years, my teeth are getting blunt and I prefer to sit and muse in front of the fire than to chase around after mice, my mistress wanted to drown me; I managed to get away but now I am really in a fix. Where shall I go?” “Go with us to Bremen. You are good at making music at night; you can become a town musican.” The cat thought this was a good idea and went with the others.

The three fugitives went past a farmyard where a farm cock was sitting on the gate and crowing with all its might. “Your crowing goes right through us”, said the donkey, “what’s up?” “I prophesied good weather” said the cock, “because it’s the day of our Blessed Lady, on which she washed the little shirt of Baby Jesus and puts it out to dry; but because it is Sunday tomorrow and guests are coming, the housewife has no pity and has told the cook to put me in the soup tomorrow; and she’s coming to cut off my head tonight. So now I’m crowing as hard and as long as I can.” “Come on, old redhead”, said the donkey, “come along with us instead, we are going to Bremen. Anything is better than waiting here to die; you have a good voice and when we play music together there will surely be a place for you.” The cock was pleased by this suggestion and all four of them went on together.

But they couldn’t reach the city of Bremen in one day and they came to a wood where they decided to spend the night. The donkey and the dog lay down under a large tree; the cat and the cock went up into the branches but the cock flew up to the top of the tree where he felt the safest. Before he fell asleep he looked around in the direction of all four winds and thought he saw a little light shining in the distance; so he called to his friends that there must be a house not so far away since he could see a light shining. Then the donkey said, “We had better go over there for the accommodation here is pretty bad.” The dog said he could also do with a few bones with a little meat on them. So they set off in the direction of the light and soon it got brighter and larger until they came to a brightly lit robbers’ house. Being the largest of the four, the donkey approached the window and looked inside. “What can you see, old grey nag?” asked the cock. “What can I see?” answered the donkey. “A table laid with lovely things to eat and drink, with a band of robbers sitting around and having a good time.” “Why can’t we do the same”, said the cock. “Ooh yes, if only we could be there!” said the donkey. The animals conferred amongst themselvers about how they could chase away the robbers and finally they hit on an idea. The donkey would put his front hooves on the window ledge, the dog would jump on the donkey’s back, the cat would climb on the dog and the cock would fly up and sit on the cat’s head. So they all did this and, at a signal, they began to play their music: the donkey brayed, the dog barked, the cat miaowed and the cock crew. Then fell through the window into the room, shattering the window-pane as they went. The robbers jumped out of their skins at the terrible clamour, thinking it must be a ghost, and fled in great fear to the woods.

Now the four companions sat down at the table and made do with what was left over, eating as if it was their last meal for a month.

When the four musicians had finished they put out the light and looked for a place to sleep, each according to his nature and desired comfort. The donkey lay down on the midden, the dog behind the door, the cat on the stove near the warm ashed and the cock sat on a perch; and, because they were tired after their long journey, they were all very soon asleep. Sometime after midnight the robbers noticed from afar that all lights in the house were out and everything seemed to be quiet. So the leader said: “We shouldn’t have let ourselves be frightened out of ours wits”, and asked one of the robbers to go and check up on the house. The robber found everything quiet, went into the kitchen to make a light, and mistaking the glowing fiery eyes of the cat for live coals, he held a match to them thinking it would light. But the cat was not in a joking mood and jumped at his throat, spitting and scratching. The robber was terrified and tried to run out of the back door but the dog, which was lying there, jumped up and bit him in the leg; and as he ran past the midden in the farmyard the donkey lashed out with his hind hoof; but the cock, who had been roused from his sleep by the din and was now fully awake, called out “cock-a-doodle-doo!” from his perch. The robber ran back to his leader at full pelt and said “there’s a dreadful witch in that house; she spat on me and scratched my face with her long fingers; and by the door there is a man standing with a knife, who stabbed my leg; and in the farmyard there is a black monster which attacked me with a wooden club; and on the roof there is a judge sitting who called out “bring the scoundrel to me”. “So I got away as fast as I could.” From that time onwards the robbers did not dare to go near the house but the four Bremen Musicians liked it so much that they didn’t want to leave again. And they all lived happily ever after.”

We took this version of the tale from Bremen’s own website, which also has some pictures of their statue of the town musicians. For a brief overview of the scholarship surrounding fairytales, their origins, meanings and uses, start with “Fairy Tale,” one of the Very Short Introductions available online for our members.

Remember to check back tomorrow for our next Richmond Read-along!