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