Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | The Bremen Town Musicians | Summary

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Summary

An old donkey is beginning to lose his strength. When he realizes his master wants to kill him, he runs away. On his journey he's joined by an exhausted old dog who has fled his home for the same reason. They soon meet an elderly cat, whose mistress wants to drown her, and a rooster who's about to be made into soup. All four decide to join forces and head to the town of Bremen, where they hope to become musicians.

On their way they come to a house occupied by some robbers. Thinking fast, the animals arrange themselves in front of one of the windows and start "making their music": braying, barking, meowing, and crowing in a frightening cacophony. The animals crash through the window and the robbers flee, leaving the house to the four friends. The animals make a good meal and fall asleep in various comfortable spots.

At midnight the robbers return, hoping to retake possession of the house. Their captain orders one of his men to investigate. The robber steals into the kitchen, where he mistakes the cat's glowing eyes for two coals. He's reaching down to strike a light from the "coals" when the yowling cat flies into his face. The robber turns to run, but the dog is lying in his way and bites him in the leg. The robber stumbles outside and starts across the yard but runs into the donkey, who kicks him hard. This wakes the rooster, who stands up and crows loudly.

Terrified, the robber makes his way back to his companions. He reports that a witch has scratched him, a man has stabbed him in the leg, a monster has beaten him with a club, and a judge up on the roof has yelled "Bring me that scoundrel!"

The robbers are too frightened to return to the house, and the four animals decide to make a home there.

Analysis

This story appears to cut off abruptly when the four animals decide to live in the house rather than continue on their journey. But since there's no way they could have succeeded as musicians in Bremen, this ending is more satisfying.

The story gives modern readers a distressing look into the lives of farm animals. These four have served their masters faithfully; they don't deserve to be killed just because they're old and tired. But farmers can't afford to be sentimental. Livestock that can't work just becomes another mouth to feed. Notice that although the four animals dread their fates, that fact is conveyed only by dialogue. The third-person narrator continues to relate the story in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone.

Still, the story is full of subtle digs at humans. The fact that the house is full of robbers makes it fair game for the animals. Since they've done nothing wrong, they have more right to live there than criminals do. When the four animals get into formation and begin "making their music," both the sight and sound are meant to be funny. But the terrified robbers flee, revealing themselves to be cowards. The robber captain shows similar fearfulness when he delegates one of his men to investigate the house, rather than bravely doing it himself.

In contrast, the story presents the animals in positive terms. It's impressive that elderly creatures can stand in a pyramid! These animals may be too old to work, but their determination and cooperation make them very appealing. The four animals show only kindness and consideration for one another, and their ability to work so well together may be mild praise of collectivism.

Unlike many of the Grimm tales, this one ends with a farewell from the narrator: "The lips of the person who last told this story are still warm." This flourish adds a humorous note and draws attention to the fact that a storyteller is at work.

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