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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A symbolic world and the children who played at slaughtering

Gold guilder of Mainz elector archbishop John II of Nassau
(minted around 1400 in Höchst) Wikipedia
A rather  peculiar post in honor of Shrove Tuesday

For various reasons--most of them deadlines--I have not been reading as much as usual this year. One thing I have been slowly reading is the Jack Zipes translation of the original collection by the Brothers Grimm. Many of these stories would soon be cleaned up or swept right out of existence in later editions. They are not romantic enough to suit the brothers, or else they are crude and violent.

Here's one that made me stop and reread. It has an oddly specific location, rather than a once-upon-a-time and far-away realm, that makes a reader wonder. Did the story have a source in life (a thing we can never know), and might it be the sort of oral tale that is symbolic, packed with compressed wisdom? (The second story under the title involves three dead children and two dead parents, but it is firmly back in the time and place of "There once was.")

How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

In a city named Franecker, located in West Friesland, some young boys and girls between the ages of five and six happened to be playing with one another. They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy to play was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig. Then they chose one girl to be a cook and another girl her assistant. The assistant was to catch the blood of the pig in a little bowl so they could make sausages. As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

A councilman was walking nearby and saw this wretched act. He immediately took the butcher with him and led him into the house of the mayor, who instantly summoned the entire council. They deliberated about this incident and did not know what they should do to the boy, for they realized it had all been part of a children's game. One of the councilmen, an old wise man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand and a Rhenish gulden in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If the boy took the apple, he was to be set free. If he took the gulden, he was to be killed. The judge took the wise man's advice, and the boy grabbed the apple with a laugh. Thus he was set free without any punishment.


I've seen a number of commentaries on this, mostly brief, and they tend to suggest that this is a cautionary tale underlining issues of accountability in childhood. Some suggest that it is one of those tales intended for adults. I wonder. In a more primitive setting of a one- or two-room house, say, exactly how often were adult stories segregated from children's stories? How often today do we see children at movies that seem too "old" for them? Isn't it common, even in a home setting, for children to hear or see things that are meant for an older audience, big brothers or sisters or parents?

What happens if we look at a folk story like this not as simply a cautionary tale but as part of a world that sees all acts as important and events as symbolic? That's not the world most of us live in today, but it is what the world looked like to a great many people in the past.

The story gives us an image of sacrifice but a strange one: we have the perverse picture of a little girl of 4 or 5 catching another child's blood in a little bowl. In a symbolic light, the account immediately links up with another image of catching blood in a container. By the late 12th century, the Holy Grail was first depicted as a drinking vessel from the Last Supper. Moreover, Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to lift the grail at the crucifixion in order to catch Christ's blood. So we have a sacrifice, a major element in Western culture, where someone catches blood in a vessel.

Oral stories tend to be symbolic, packed creations that reflect culture. An early listener may well have found that the story of the poor little boy-pig made the mind spring back to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and another "bowl" or chalice of blood. After all, these tiny children who want to play at making sausages are enacting the sacrifice of innocence, and the sacrifice of innocence on the cross would have been an important piece of goods in the spiritual cupboard of medieval man and woman.

Even though the child has done a terrible thing and so makes a very weird sort of analogy to Christ, the mayor's council and the confusion on passing judgment may also have reminded listeners of the arrest of Christ. There is a similar awareness of the little butcher's essential innocence. At 5 or 6, he is not at "the age of knowledge" as yet. So the councilmen feel at an impasse, all but "the wise old man."

In symbolic terms, who is the "wise old man" who offers the choice between a lovely round piece of fruit and a round gold coin? In those same terms, what is the choice extended to the boy? And what is the apple, what the coin?

In the garden of Eden, God allows the innocent Adam and Eve to "eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden." But they may not eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; they may not pluck "the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die" (NRSV.)

The Solomonic wise old councilman stands in the place of God, offering two sorts of gifts to the innocent. The little butcher picks from "the fruit of the trees in the garden" in reaching for the apple. The gold coin he does not choose is allied to the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Choice of the round gold would disprove his innocence and mean his death, just as reaching for the fruit from the fatal tree means being cast out of innocence and into a world where death exists for Adam and Eve. So the gold coin is a symbolic object that conjures both the fruit and the intrusion of death into the lives of Adam and Eve but also the condemnation to labor in Genesis because we know that coins are the fruit of, the payment for labor. So the little boy, still acting in innocence, picks life over death. The lovely round apple is more alluring to him than gold, which some day he will have to earn by "the sweat of his brow."

Perhaps in a larger sense, the story put before medieval listeners the pain of death or the choice of larger life. Larger life in spiritual, symbolic terms would be found in the remembrance of Christ's sacrifice, the acknowledgement of sin, and the ongoing effort to choose rightly. In the words of the fourteenth century Wycliffe bible, "Behold thou, that today I have set forth in thy sight life and good, and, on the contrary, death and evil...  I have set forth before you life and death, good and evil, blessing and curses; and so choose thou life" (Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19.)


And on that note, a happy Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Carnaval, and Shrove Tuesday to you!

Photo by Joseph Valentine,

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering." In The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, pp. 78-79. Princeton University Press, 2014. Original German: Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "Wie Kinder Schlachtens miteinander gespielt haben." In Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, Vol. 1, 101-03. Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1812.


  1. Your folkloric base and my are quite different. I want to think about the differences and use them. Happy writing!

    1. Ah, well, I'm fascinated with many things in world folk and fairy tales--but I love the way things that seem smallest in early European stories can point toward the largest.

  2. Does Zipes include his note in this edition about the origin of this piece? The Grimms took it from a newspaper, and it was possibly written by Heinrich von Kleist. It sounds like Kleist - fits his view of the world.

    1. Hah, that's interesting. I'll have to look into that. I'll have to find the book (I'm always losing the books I am reading) and dig it out. If he wrote it rather than collected it, what a weird imagination!

  3. You're going to have to forgive me for this but I was very young at the time. My attitude has, of course, radically changed but perhaps the situation I describe sheds some light on the fable you are exploring.

    My upbringing was middle-class, a statement that probably means nothing in the US. Let's say we were comfortably off, knew where our next meal was coming from, that our house had three bedrooms. And we were surrounded by, say, a hundred families enjoying similar endowments.

    One edge of the sub-suburban area in which we lived (I'd call it an estate but there are contradictory definitions of this word in our two countries) was bounded by a high wall. Say 12 feet. At the other side was a slum, a genuine slum, where the hold on life was more tenuous. The slum was occupied by The Scruffs, a term used by both adults and children on our side of the wall. Our aim was never to have anything to do with The Scruffs.

    But we (the middle-class kids) were young - say 6 - 8 - and not given to studying causal effects. From a tree overlooking the wall we jeered at The Scruffs kids. Just one occasion and never again. With incredible and frightening ease, two or three Scruffs kids (one of them a girl I think), scaled the wall and were quickly among us, chasing hard. I don't think I'd ever been more terrified as I ran for home, pursued by menaces that sounded both fatal and plausible.

    But here's the point. The Scruffs kids were our size and therefore our age. But I couldn't rid myself of the impression that I was being chased by small adults. There was an assurance, a forced maturity and an athleticism about these filthily clad homunculi that seemed entirely alien to children. They intended to punish us which was what adults did. And their rhetoric, though profane, carried authority.

    It was a long time ago and I was an inward looking child. But I wonder if this phenomenon was representative of deprived urban children. (Think of the adult attitudes of the children who form Fagin's gang in Oliver Twist.) If one factored in this possibility to the fable you recount might it alter some of the assumptions?

    1. Nothing to forgive! Great story.

      What do you mean, "some of the assumptions"? Should I stop thinking about the underlying structure of Western literature? It certainly is something few people wish a writer to do, these days, so I'm not bothered by the idea.

      I have no doubt that children can be ferocious and cruel--I have no doubt that human beings of all ages (even those better bred than the Scruffs) can be ferocious and cruel. That does not deny the fact that mythic structures underlie folk and fairy tales. How could it? Those same structures take account of human failing.

    2. The point I was trying to make is that these unbenefited children seemed to have become old before their time, self-protectively no doubt. That hard times had consumed their youth, for many the most idyllic part of life. Bearing this in mind, might it throw a different light on the behaviour of the children in your fable?

      Perhaps I was wrong to use assumptions; it tends to have unfortunate overtones. It should of course be considered neutral; we look at facts, me make assumptions, from thence conclusions.

      "Should I stop thinking about the underlying structure of Western literature?" you ask of me. My knees buckle. Never has the potential of my forensic skills been so over-estimated. I feel I should take a kitchen chair to the nearest beach, allow the incoming tide to cover my feet, and bleat, "You see, I just couldn't do it. Honest. I'm not that man."

    3. I know what you mean, certainly. I think about my father, growing up as a sharecropper's boy, smart but plowing all day, running away when he could, joining the Army Air Corps at 17. There have been plenty of ways to grow up too soon in the history of the world.

      Well, yes, I can look at the story through a lens like that. It's the first layer of the story in some ways--these children, unwatched, and what they do.

      I guess that I'm a Melville devotee who wants to jump off the edge of the world and do some crazy deep diving. And maybe that is crazy! Crazy and rich, too.

  4. I would guess that you probably don't reject the idea that some of Western literature can be viewed in symbolic terms. Maybe that's not right. I would also guess that you think it's silly for life to be viewed that way. And you're saying that this is just life, even though it's life that's highly suggestive. (But why shouldn't life relate to the underlying patterns of human life in the universe?)

    Meanwhile, I'm fascinated by the bible, mythology, and symbolism. I don't even really see how I could be informed about the nature and history of Western literature without knowing the basic Christian underpinning and having a decent grasp of mythology and legendary materials that also come into play.

    So we are just quite different in how we look at literature. What do you love best in that realm? My favorites include Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvel, Herbert, Tom Jones, Bleak House, Great Expectations, The Woman in White, any Austen, Yeats... Lots more. Give me a few of your favorites?

    Sheer curiosity and nosiness!

    1. The above, later, post seems to pick up on something I said about fantasy. I realise it probably sounded antagonistic and I truly regret that. Nor is it entirely based on truth, although the fib only became word as recently as last week. Twas then I was reading: "Love, Sex & Tragedy. Why Classics Matter." by Simon Goldhill (Professor of Greek at Cambridge) and I had to agree with his general premise: that the Greeks, aided less forcefully by the Romans, provided the foundations for most of our present-day intellectual considerations. And that these foundations were communicated via what I would call myth, perhaps fantasy's midwife.

      I wouldn't urge you to read it because I know you are busy. But if you could spare time to read one of the favourable reviews... Zadie Smith described it as "sparkling".

      From your list I would confirm Shakespeare (I regularly re-use the BBC's boxed set of all the plays), Donne, Marvel, Tom Jones, Bleak House, Great Expectations, all Austen, Yeats. To which I would add... but you don't really want all those predictable tombstones. Let's put it this way: I set out during a two or three year period to read the generally agreed masterpieces (there were fewer than I thought), however hard, starting with Moby Dick and ending with Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. I failed with The Brothers Karamazov and I didn't even start Finnegans Wake. I think I now know what constitutes a masterpiece, in my bones at least, if not on the tip of my tongue.

      But is there such a thing as a small masterpiece? And might it be one of a series of thrillers, a genre which doesn't thrill you? But what are we expecting from a masterpiece? That it acknowledges and illuminates a recognisable morality. That the characters live. That we enter a different form of life even though the surroundings may be entirely familiar. That the narrative is skilfully envisaged, and professionally executed. That there is wit (that indefinable quality). That the environment is both literary (ie, planned) and real (a quality defined by the author; perhaps persuasive would be better). That we read the book with a barely suppressed sense of privilege.

      There is or was such an author. Thanks to ABE Books I think I have most of his published output, sometimes from secondhand bookshops in Anonymousville, Tennessee, and sometimes from the equivalent town in Idaho. The chase was my pleasure. He goes unmentioned in any collective assessments of the genre and has the misfortune to have a name that is similar to a writer that does get mentioned in such collections. His background could have been mine except that he was American - wholly American I might say, partaking of the best parts of that multifarious society. He is never arch, nor self-conscious. He is good fun with something deeper. He is Ross Thomas and I kid myself that he is mine, alone.

    2. I'm flying out the door! Will get back to this later, though...

    3. Hmm, Ross Thomas. I will have to look up that name!

      The Goldhill sounds really interesting too...

      I think that energy, a sense of moving life, is the most desirable trait in a book. So many flaws can be overcome if the book is somehow weirdly alive.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.