Cautionary Tales

Let’s talk about German children’s stories.

The other day I was at Silke’s and, as I am apt to do there because Silke is the mother of two delightful little mädchen and my German is of a similar standard to her three year old’s, idly flicking through a children’s book. The book followed the trials and tribulations of a small girl and her various pets and seemed to hinge on the fact this little girl’s mouth was round. And the fact that mund and rund  rhyme. Anyway, the actual story is immaterial because what really grabbed my attention, about halfway through the book, was a carefully illustrated shit. I said, ‘oh gosh, look at that, a shit.’ Sure, it was in a potty and no doubt part of the plot (it escapes my memory indeed how, I just remember the dialogue being quite forceful) but the vivid depiction of its form and colour gave me a little jolt. Silke looked at me and said, in a manner which conveyed a level of coolness with neatly spiralled toddler turds in picture books, ‘of course.’ And then she said, ‘haven’t you heard of ‘Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte wer ihm auf den Kopf gemacht hat?’ I politely asked what it was the mole had found on his head and Silke said, ‘a shit.’

Here is an animation of the story you may find amusing/charming/wonderful/informative.

The story follows a mole who, upon popping up out of his burrow to start the day, is the recipient of an anonymously donated crap, deposited directly atop his head. Unimpressed, he goes in search of the careless culprit and, happening upon a succession of farm animals – a cow, horse, pig, goat and rabbit etc-  asks if they are to blame for his headdress. All of this while the turd remains undulating on his head. Each animal essentially says, ‘how could I have done it? My shit looks like this …’ and then gives the mole an impromptu example of the differing form their excretion takes. In each case, the mole waits patiently at the rear end of the animal, inspects what is excreted and goes on his way. The shit still neatly coiled on his head. Ultimately, the mole comes across a pair of flies perched upon the cow pat and they agree to sample the shit on the mole’s head and upon doing so tell him it almost certainly came from a dog and the mole, with fresh purpose, sets off for the dog’s kennel. You will notice the shit slides off the mole’s head as he nears the kennel, as if, now certain of the soul responsible, he no longer needs the physical evidence. The dog is sleeping when the mole arrives to confront him, providing the mole with the perfect opportunity to take revenge. An eye for an eye. A shit for a shit. The end.

This isn’t the first time I have marvelled at a German children’s book. In fact the German children’s literature landscape is littered with gems. If you, like me, have ever wondered why Germans are so good at abiding by rules, I am going to posit the theory it’s because they grew up on a steady diet of stories promising an agonising death if they didn’t eat their soup or stop rocking backwards on their chair.

Struwwelpeter

I refer, of course, to Heinrich Hoffman’s seminal Struwwelpeter (scraggly/shaggy Peter) which is actually a volume of ten rhyming stories detailing various naughty children, their naughty escapades and their somewhat disproportionate punishments (usually death or loss of limb). You can find the full list here (and English translations here) but a couple of notable inclusions are Suppen-Kasper (Soup Kaspar) who refuses to eat his soup for dinner and consequently dies of starvation; Flying Robert who, against advice, goes outside into a storm and gets blown away; and the thumb-sucker who sucks his thumb despite his mother’s disapproval and has his thumb snipped off by a tailor who happens to be in the area. No overweight bears with a fondness for honey here, folks, just ‘The Dreadful Story of the Matches’ about a girl who plays with them and burns to death.

The Brothers Grimm, of course, deserve a mention because, despite their tales not originally being intended for a young audience, they  have become some of the most vital stories for children ever written. Albeit cleaned up by a brother himself, for younger audiences – although not scrubbed and polished nearly as much as the sanitisation carried out by Disney – the stories from the Brothers Grimm are extremely dark. Wolves eat grandmothers, witches fatten up children, jealous stepmothers order the deaths of their prettier stepdaughters. These stories, collected from all over Europe, told and retold, passed to the brothers and given their magic dust, have come to form a core part of German literary identity and they’re about kids and they’re scary.

And what about Max and Moritz? The 1800s spat them out as well as the Brothers Grimm and Struwwel Peter’s badly behaved pals. Struwwel Peter, I have omitted from telling you thus far was guilty of being unkempt – he didn’t comb his hair or cut his nails – and as a result, had no friends. So he got off lightly. But Max and Moritz were a most wicked pair. They played a series of pranks on unsuspecting villagers – like putting gunpowder in an old man’s pipe and watching him light up and knock himself unconscious –  narrowly avoided getting baked to death after falling into a vat of dough mid-prank on the baker and ultimately met their match in a homicidal farmhand. While, irritatingly, slitting grain sacks in a farmer’s Max and Moritz are caught out by the farmhand, put in sacks themselves and popped through the mill. Their remains are fed to the ducks.

Just some light bed-time reading before one heads off to the land of nod, night lamp on.

Max and Moritz

I mean, look, English literature has produced its fair share of dark children’s stories. I was flipping terrified of witches and checked every woman for shell shaped nostrils and signs of an itchy scalp. I gave a great deal of thought to the utter endlessness of being a mouse forever, even if I did have a cool Nana who would keep me in her purse and feed me and my fat friend bananas. But I don’t remember walking away from Roald Dahl thinking I would get turned into a mouse if I was naughty … only if I was unlucky enough to get sniffed out by a witch.As a kid, it was my job to be cunning and alert and outsmart the witches. And I cannot for the life of me remember a story book that so accurately detailed the colour, texture and form of different kinds of animal shit.

German literature has also, of course, produced some adorable tales about happy things with happen endings and very likeable characters. A personal favourite of mine is Pony, Bär und Apfelbaum, which I will keep for my (mythical?) children, I love it so much. And then there is this cute little guy who says goodnight to the kids every night on TV with a sprinkle of his magic sleeping sand;

The Sandman

But, still, all things considered, my theory remains: if you want to know why Germans are such direct, frank people with a deep appreciation for rules and the consequences of breaking them, look no further than their bedtime stories. The ones they read after the Sandmann sprinkles that magic dust in their little eyes. The ones that promise punishment will be swiftly served, unless you do as your mother says.

Image credits

– Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte wer ihm auf den Kopf gemacht hat?

 Struwwelpeter

Max und Moritz

The Sandman

19 thoughts on “Cautionary Tales

  1. This had me howling with laughter because it’s so spot on! Read it to German husband as well and he merely nodded and said, “That’s right!” and “I remember that one,”. Tales read to him my his tiny little Oma who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. I suppose he will credit these stories for allowing him to survive childhood. That and the tale his father told about the Reganmacher who live in the tower of a church behind their flat who would snatch away naughty little boys.

    1. Hahahaha, it is all so terrifying! Imagine if someone tried to get something like Struwwelpeter published today. It just wouldn’t happen!

  2. And that’s why their football is so dispassionate and irritatingly precise at its best…go Germany!
    I must dispel a myth I believed before I set foot in Germany though: that Germans are humourless. I think in this post you’ve also revealed why their humour is so nice and dry.

  3. As always, it’s not that simple – Wilhelm Busch for example also wrote some critical and ironical lines about Disziplinierung:

    (Zu guter Letzt, 1904)
    Es saust der Stock, es schwirrt die Rute.
    Du darfst nicht zeigen, was du bist
    Wie schad, o Mensch, daß dir das Gute
    Im Grunde so zuwider ist.

    (Die Fromme Helene, 1874)
    Ein guter Mensch gibt gerne acht,
    Ob auch der andre was Böses macht;
    Und strebt durch häufige Belehrung
    Nach seiner Beß’rung und Bekehrungg

  4. I still have my original Der Struwwelpeter from my childhood in Munich, a bit worse but still there. I loved those stories!

    This brought some evenings back.

  5. You will find neither Max & Moritz nor Struwwelpeter in my house, but moles with shit on their heads? Sure, no problem there ; )) Wonderful read, as always xxx

  6. I know all of them ^^ I had both the Struwwelpeter and the Max & Moritz books but I got rid of the Struwwelpeter pretty quickly, I hated those. Only kept Max & Moritz because they were a gift and had a dedication. Will not give either to my future children 😉 For me it’s Fairytales all the way! In all shapes, colors and sizes 😉 From dark original Grimm to cute and happy Disney 🙂

  7. What stupified me most, were the east-German books I got as a child. Why would you want to play borderguards, as the kids do in Alfons Zitterbacke, when everybody was afraid of them, my parents included?

    1. I totally understand why Germans don’t break the rules now … a childhood of being told they will, essentially, die if they do!

  8. I know I’m a bit (…) late to the party, but I just happened upon this and found it very enjoyable and true 🙂 Yes, I also think that the tales you are told as a kid actually influence you more than many people might think… Which of course isn’t only true for the nice, fluffy stories but also for the scary ones, they stick with you.

    I remember watching the movie Black Beauty as a kid, and afterwards being terrified of fire (also because there had been a fire at a farm nearby some time before that, and I knew some poor horses died in that fire)… I still don’t like fire all that much, if I’m honest.

    Do you actually think Germans have more of those scary “don’t do this, or that will happen” kind of stories? Would be an interesting thought, because I guess that people have always been inventing these stories to make their kids behave. Russians also have a lot of them, I think (though maybe they aren’t known to be quite as rule-abiding as the Germans? Mh.)

    Today those stories are mostly funny / a little weird / sad to me, but I kind of like the tragic poetry of the girl with the matches… If nothing else, those stories were at least well written 😉

    What still creeps me out though and always will is when those monsters kids are threatened with aren’t actually fictional. Most unsettling example of on of those songs: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Haarmann#Haarmann-Lied

    … Shudder.

    But apart from those, I guess children don’t react to violence the way we expect them to; they think it is perfectly reasonable for Hänsel and Gretel to burn the old witch in her own oven. And at two years old, I found the scariest scenes of Jurassic Park hilarious… Weird people, kids 😉

    1. We don’t…the thing is that cautionary tales are very much out of fashion since the 1960s…since then Germans are totally into “educational” books (and TV Shows for that matter) for children. I actually grew up with songs about the right to protest and female equality. Der Strubbelpeter is mostly still around because it is such an old book and kind of traditional.

  9. I’m from Germany and I have to say my parents have red this stories to me. My favorite was Snow White (schneewittchen) but I also now the struwwelpeter stories. And from these only the thing with the girl, who played with fire and the cats watching and crying (but do nothing) was scaring me.
    And then, a little bit later, I was told Russian fairy tails and these are more scary! They are full of monsters…
    Most of the characters in German stories actually exist. Stepmother, wolf, princess, hunter, frog,…
    Think about that 🙂

  10. To be honest: Roald Dahl terrified me! Because it didn’t matter if I was good or bad, I might end up as a mice, or as part of a painting or anything. Compared to that the stories (which are mostly out of fashion, btw, they are still around, but books like Momo, The Neverending Story, Räuber Hotzenplotz and the like are way more popular) you mentioned, which only end bad if you actually did something – I think I stick to German literature.

  11. I am german, and i would like to add another interesting twist of childrens books that were read to me as a child. I have a younger sister and in order to prepare me and my older sister for that life change, being 2 and 5 at the time, we were introduced to a book called “peter, ida and minumum”, which describes very liturally the making, growing and brith of a baby! (i advise you to type it into google picutres to better understandt)

    by the way, i did read all those stories. but struwelpeter and max und moritz were not among my favorits und like “Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte wer ihm auf den Kopf gemacht hat?” i simply adored that one.

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