Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | The Golden Goose | Summary

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Summary

A husband and wife have three sons. The youngest—a seemingly dimwitted boy named Dummy—is the family outcast and is largely ignored by the others.

One day, the eldest son decides to go wood-cutting. His mother gives him cake and wine to take along. In the woods, the son meets a little man who begs for a bite of cake and a sip of wine. The eldest son refuses and shoos the man away. While chopping down a tree, the son accidentally makes a deep cut in his arm with the axe. He doesn't know it, but the old man's magic has caused the accident.

The story is repeated—only this time, the second son's axe chops him in the leg.

Dummy now asks to cut some wood. At first his father refuses, but finally he gives the boy permission to try. "You will be wiser when you have hurt yourself," he says.

For Dummy, his mother provides only sour beer and a cake she baked in the ashes. But this time, when the little man begs for food and drink, Dummy agrees to share his meal. The cake magically becomes sweet; the sour beer turns into wine. As a further reward, the little man tells Dummy to chop down a nearby tree. "You will find something in the roots," he promises the boy.

Dummy obeys—and finds a goose with feathers of pure gold. Taking the goose with him, he heads off to a nearby inn to spend the night. The landlord's three daughters are intrigued by the goose. Each in turn tries to pluck out one of the bird's golden feathers, and all three end up stuck together, with the oldest daughter's hand stuck to Dummy's goose.

The next morning, Dummy leaves the inn without noticing that the three sisters are being dragged along with the goose. As he walks, he meets various townspeople who get stuck in line. In time, the procession reaches a town whose king has proclaimed that whoever can make his daughter laugh may marry her. The daughter bursts out laughing when she sees the strange group trailing after Dummy and his goose—but her father stalls by exacting three impossible-sounding conditions.

First, he asks Dummy to find a man who can drink a cellar full of wine. Dummy goes to the forest and finds a very thirsty man who comes with Dummy and accomplishes the feat. The king's second task is to eat a mountain of bread. Again, Dummy finds a man in the forest who does the task. The king's third feat is to produce a ship that can travel on both land and sea. Dummy finds the little man, who admits to performing the first two tasks, and who produces the wondrous ship as well. The young couple gets married, and in time Dummy inherits the kingdom, where he lives long and happily with his wife.

Analysis

At the time these stories were first told, it was traditional for the eldest son to inherit any property his father might own. Younger sons had lower status. But the Grimm stories frequently reverse this pattern: the older two sons fail while the youngest one triumphs. (Three sons are the most common for this subgenre.) Often, the youngest son is thought by his family to be the least competent of the three.

The fact that the youngest son in this story is named Dummy shows what his family thinks of him! Yet because Dummy is kind to the old man, he ends up more successful than either of the other sons. Dummy is also less grasping than any of the people who try to touch the goose. As a result, he's able to pick up and put down the bird without sticking to it.

Dummy's such a simpleton that he seems not to notice he's leading a chain of seven people. But when the king sets him three tasks, he manages easily. True, this section of the story lacks tension. It seems too easy that Dummy has only to wander back into the woods to find three little men who have just the particular skill needed. But after all, it isn't fair that the king has tacked on these extra three tasks just because his daughter is marrying a dolt. It's a foregone conclusion that Dummy will succeed at all three. The swift resolution at least lets the reader witness Dummy's happiness quickly rather than postponing the happy ending.

Still, readers may be disappointed not to learn what becomes of the seven people attached to the goose—or to the goose itself. The action in folk tales is so compact that plot elements often disappear as soon as they've served their purpose.

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