A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 166: The Four Musicians


4 musicians

Often what are called Fairy Tales or Folk Tales are considered simplistic children’s fare. In reality, those stories so often contain the very stuff essential to the core of humanity, to morality and to a healthy concept of our relationships to each other, God and our world. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once said, that a myth isn’t a story that’s not true but a story that always true.

About three years ago the art studio I help manage was given a commission to create a painting based on the Grimm’s tale “The Town Musicians of Bremen” or “The Four Musicians of Bremen”. I work for an organization that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The staff retreat theme for that year centered upon this Folk Tale and the important concepts found in it that directly related to the work of the organization: The value of all individuals, no matter what society might deem to be “valuable”; the value of cooperation and inclusion; and the value of each individual’s gifts and personality.

As an art studio, we used the basic colors of our organization, the orange and blue, and crafted the above painting. I drew out the design and outlined it on the canvas, which was filled in with color by a number of different people. The painting now graces the training room of our organization.

I had  never read this particular Folk Tale until we were given that commission. Now it has become one of my favorites. I share it to this blog in hopes that I can introduce it to others or remind some of the story they read or had read to them long ago.

The Tale of the Town Musicians of Bremen

Once upon a time there was a man who owned a donkey. The donkey had tirelessly carried sacks to the mill for many years but was now growing old and weak, and was no longer fit for work. His master was thinking about giving him away. But the donkey, sensing an ill wind, ran away and headed for Bremen, where he thought he would become a town musician…

When the donkey had gone a fair way, he came across a hunting dog lying by the wayside, howling woefully. “Why are you crying so, old fellow?” asked the donkey. “Well”, said the dog, “because I’m old, get weaker every day and can’t go out hunting any more, my master wanted to shoot me. So I fled. But how am I to earn my keep now?”

“I’m going to Bremen to become a town musician.”
“Come with me and take up music too. I’ll play the lute, and you can play the drums”, said the donkey.

The dog agreed, and they walked on together. After a while they came across a cat sitting by the wayside with a face as long as a fiddle. “What’s making you so miserable, old whiskers?” asked the donkey. “How can I be cheerful when I’m in fear of my life”, answered the cat. “Because I’m getting old, my teeth are getting blunt and I’d rather sit purring by the fire than go chasing mice, my mistress wanted to drown me. I did manage to slip away, but now it’s hard to know what to do. Where am I to go?”

“Come with us to Bremen!”
“You know all about night music, you can become a town musician.” The cat thought this was a good idea and went along with them. By and by, the three animals came to a farmyard, where a cockerel was sitting on the gate, crowing with all its might. “You’re making an awful din”, said the donkey, “What’s the matter?” “The lady of the house has ordered the cook to chop my head off this evening.
“They’ve got guests coming tomorrow, and I’m going to be turned into Sunday soup. Now I’m crowing at the top of my voice, while I still can.” “Well, I never”, said the donkey, “Come with us, we’re going to Bremen, you can find a better fate than death any day. You’ve got a fine voice, and if we make music together, we’ll make a wonderful sound.” The cockerel was pleased at this suggestion, and all four of them went off together.

But they could not reach Bremen in a single day.
As evening fell, they found themselves in a forest where they meant to spend the night. The donkey and the dog lay down beneath a big tree, the cat climbed up onto a branch and the cockerel flew to the top of the tree, where he was safest.

Before going to sleep, the cock looked around in all four directions and noticed a light shining. He told his companions that there must be a house nearby because he could see a light. The donkey replied, “So let’s get up and go there, because this isn’t a good place to sleep.” The dog thought longingly of a few bones with some meat on them.

So off they set, heading towards the light.
Soon the light grew brighter and bigger, and they found themselves outside a brightly lit brigands’ house. The donkey, being the tallest, went to the window and looked inside.

“What can you see, old chap?” asked the cockerel. “What can I see?” replied the donkey. “A table laid with fine food and drink, with brigands sitting round it enjoying themselves!” “That would do nicely for us”, said the rooster. So the animals considered ways of driving the brigands away.

Finally they had an idea. The donkey placed its front hooves on the window, the dog jumped onto the donkey’s back, the cat climbed on top of the dog, and the cockerel flew up and perched on the cat’s head. Once in position, at a given signal, they began to make their music: the donkey brayed, the dog barked, the cat miaowed, and the cock crowed. Then they all burst through the window into the room, with glass clattering all around.

The horrible yowling frightened the brigands out of their wits.
They thought a ghost was coming in, and they fled, terrified, into the forest. The four companions then sat down at the table, and they all enjoyed whichever food they liked best to their heart’s content. When they had finished, they turned out the light, and each animal found a comfortable place to sleep . The donkey lay down on the dung heap, the dog behind the door, the cat on the hearth near the warm ashes, and the cockerel flew up to the roof. And because they were tired after their long journey, they soon fell asleep.

Once it was past midnight, the brigands noticed that all the lights were out.
Everything appeared to be quiet, and the chief brigand said: “We really shouldn’t have let ourselves be frightened off like that.” He sent one of the brigands back to the house, to check whether there was anyone still there.

The brigand found that all was quiet. He went into the kitchen to get a light. When he saw the cat’s fiery eyes, he took them for glowing coals. He held a match to them, thinking it would ignite. But the cat, who was not in the least bit amused, jumped up into his face and clawed at him with all its might. The brigand was terrified and tried to run out of the back door. But the dog, which was lying there, jumped up and bit his leg. As the brigand ran across the yard and past the dung heap, the donkey gave him a mighty kick with its hind leg. And the cockerel, woken by the noise, cried down from the roof, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

The brigand ran back to his chief as fast as he could.
He cried out, “In the house there’s a hideous witch who hissed at me and scratched my face with her long fingers. By the door there’s a man with a knife who stabbed me in the leg. In the yard there’s a black monster which attacked me with a wooden club. And up on the roof there’s a judge shouting, ‘Bring the scoundrel to me!’ So I got away as fast as I could.”

After that the brigands never dared go back into the house.
The four Bremen Town Musicians liked it so much that they never wanted to leave.

From the tale by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 123: The Grateful Dead

grateful dead

You may be familiar with the Grateful Dead. But are you familiar with “the Grateful Dead”?

Say what?

The band by that name emerged from the hippie scene of San Francisco in the late 1960’s. They were a roots-rock outfit, putting a distinctly psychedelic spin on country, folk and the blues. They were a more trippy version of The Band, in many ways. Their name was trippy, for sure, and brought them some attention before they gained the cult following that came to define them: the legion of fans that would follow them on tour, the Deadheads. But the band fans simply call “The Dead” didn’t invent their unique name.

“The Grateful Dead” has a long history in folklore. In fact, many versions of the tale exist in cultures throughout the world. It is a leitmotif, that is, a recurrent theme throughout musical or literary history, one that has taken many forms but retains the same basic core. The story always centers on a recently deceased person who comes back in some form to repay good to the person who was good to them. Certainly, a hippie band from San Fran would appreciate the Karma in that! So the Grateful Dead (the band) took their name from “the Grateful Dead” (the ancient folk story).

I want to share with you one version of the tale. This take on the theme is from Costa Rica. Enjoy.

The Grateful Dead 

Once upon a time there lived a king who became blind. Not a single doctor was able to help him recover his eyesight, and so the king’s three sons called upon a wise old medicine woman.

“You must capture the magical bird trapped in a gilded cage in a faraway land,” the old woman said. “Brush the tail of the magical bird over your father’s eyes, and he shall see again.” The three princes vowed to find the bird.

The eldest son set off at once to find the magical bird. As he was riding past a church, he noticed a crowd gathered, and he stopped to ask what the commotion was. There on the steps lay the body of a poor man, but no one would pay for his burial.

“A shame,” said the eldest prince as he rode on.

A few hours later the second son set off to find the magical bird, and he too saw the people gathered at the church steps. But the second prince was in a hurry, so he did nothing to help bury the poor man’s body.

In the early evening the youngest son saw the crowd as he set off on his journey. He felt so sad for the poor corpse that he handed half his purse of coins to one of the men and said, “Go buy a coffin for this poor soul.” Then he paid the priest to offer prayers for the soul of the dead man.

When all was settled, the youngest prince traveled on. As darkness fell, he suddenly saw a bright light glowing ahead of him. He squinted as that light came closer. He felt a shiver of fear run down his spine. “Who goes there?” he asked nervously.

“I am the soul of the man you helped,” said a voice. “Follow me.”

Although he was fearful, the prince followed the light. After a while the voice said, “It was good of you to help me.”

“Why would I not?” the prince asked. “Each of us is sometimes in need.”

“Not everyone is kind,” the voice said. As they talked, the prince’s fear vanished, and soon he felt as though this voice were a dear friend.

Together they traveled by night and slept by day, until after many days they reached the land of the magical bird. The light of the dead man’s soul led the prince into an emperor’s palace, past sleeping guards, and into a glittering room where the magical bird sat in a golden cage.

As the prince reached out to take the cage, the bird began to sing, a song so beautiful that it made the prince drift into a trance. But that marvelous song awoke the emperor’s servants, and when they saw the intruder, they threw him into the dungeon.

Now the emperor asked to see this bold young man, for he thought such a brave boy might rescue his magical horse stolen by a fearsome giant. “I’ll give you the magical bird,” the emperor told the young prince, “in exchange for the return of my magical horse.”

“I shall help you,” the soul’s voice whispered to the prince, and so the light led the prince that very night to the spot where the giant kept the horse tied to a tree.

There stood the horse, black as night, with a bright white star upon its forehead. The prince climbed the leafy tree, reached down and began to loosen the cord, but the horse cried, “Master, someone is stealing me!”

When the giant woke, he saw nothing but leaves waving in the evening breeze; the prince was well hidden. “Go to sleep,” the giant roared, “and don’t disturb my rest again for your nonsense!”

This time when the prince reached for the cord, the horse remained quiet, and when he was untied, the prince climbed down onto his back. Then the voice whispered, “See the knob upon his neck? Turn it and see what you shall see.”

The prince turned the knob, the horse flew into the sky, and they rode back to the emperor.

But the emperor was not willing to lose his magical bird. “Thank you for my horse,” he said, “now be on your way.”

At this, the voice whispered, “Grab the cage and turn the knob.” The prince followed his friend’s instructions, and before the emperor could stop them, the prince, the bird and the horse sailed into the air and were racing back to the prince’s kingdom.

When the prince arrived home, he ran to tell his brothers the good news. Together they would save their father’s sight, he told them.

Alas, the brothers had failed in their search for the bird, and when they saw their young brother with the beautiful horse and the magical bird, they were filled with envy. And so they plotted to destroy their brother and steal his goods.

They invited the prince to dine, and into his drink they slipped a sleeping potion. When he collapsed, they carried him to a cliff and dropped him over the edge.

Then the two older princes returned to the palace to announce their joyous news.

The king was thrilled. “And where is your brother?” he asked.

“He has run away, it seems,” the princes said.

“So he shall not inherit any part of my kingdom,” said the king.

The older princes brushed the bird’s tail over their father’s eyes, but his sight did not return.

“You have made a valiant effort, and that is all a father can ask of his sons. The kingdom shall be yours,” he said. But at that very moment, two mule drivers rode up to the palace with the young prince in their wagon.

You see, as the prince was falling from the cliff, the light from the dead man’s soul led the prince’s body toward a tree that snagged him and saved him from falling to his death. And in that tree the two mule drivers had found him, and now they carried him home.

The moment the young prince entered his father’s palace, the magical bird began to sing so beautifully, everyone stopped and turned, and when they saw the prince, they were amazed.

“You ran away,” the king accused his youngest son.

“I did not,” said the young man, “and I shall prove that to you.” He brushed the bird’s tail over his father’s eyes.

This time the king’s sight returned, and the young man told his tale.

Now the king realized that his oldest sons had lied to him and betrayed their brother.

But the young prince embraced his brothers. “All is forgiven,” he said, “for I know well that each of us is sometimes in need, and you are in need of forgiveness.”

The grateful soul of the poor dead man saw that all was well, so he wished his friend “Adios” and disappeared.