Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Brothers Grimm and the Internet

          This was sent to me recently, as one of those email jokes which are forever being circulated: -
          Everyone of you will laugh at this!  I said so.....
                             On the first day, God created the dog and
said, "Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of twenty years."
              The dog said, "That's a long time to be barking. How about only ten years and I'll give you back the other ten?"
             And God saw it was good.
On the second day, God created the monkey and said, "Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I'll give you a twenty-year life span."
            The monkey said, "Monkey tricks for twenty years? That's a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back ten like the dog did?"
           And God, again saw it was good.
On the third day, God created the cow and said, "You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer's family. For this, I will give you a life span of sixty years."
           The cow said, "That's kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years. How about twenty and I'll give back the other forty?"
          And God agreed it was good.
          On the fourth day, God created humans and said, "Eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy your life. For this, I'll give you twenty years."
         But the human said, "Only twenty years? Could you possibly give me my twenty, the forty the cow gave back, the ten the monkey gave back, and the ten the dog gave back; that makes eighty, okay?"
         "Okay," said God, "You asked for it."
          So that is why for our first twenty years, we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves. For the next forty years, we slave in the sun to support our family. For the next ten years, we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren. And for the last ten years, we sit on the front porch and bark at everyone.
         Life has now been explained to you.

There is no need to thank me for this valuable information. I'm doing it as a public service. If you are looking for me I will be on the front porch.

          Over twenty years ago, I wrote this, in my book Ghost Song: -

Ghost Song
Kuzma said to him, 'Syngva, listen. I shall tell you a story:-
          In the beginning the Shaman who made the world called all his creatures before him, and he gave to them all thirty years of life.
          'But,' said the donkey to him, 'my life is to be spent bending my back under heavy loads. I am to be kicked and beaten to make me go fast when the load on my back makes me go slow. If that is to be my life, so be it - but thirty years is too long, Grandfather.'
          The Shaman pulled his beard thoughtfully, and saw that the donkey was right. So he took eighteen years of life from the donkey, and left him only twelve. The donkey was grateful.
          Next came the dog. 'Grandfather,' said the dog, 'my life is all running and biting and barking, and it is a good life. But how shall I live it for thirty years? Long before then my legs will be weak and lame, my teeth will be broken and worn, my bark will be unheard. Spare me this life without life.'
         So the Shaman was kind, and he took twelve years of life from the dog.
         Then came the monkey, and the monkey said, 'Don't make me live thirty years, Grandfather. I am only liked when I am funny. How can I be funny for thirty years? And though it pleases people to laugh at me, it is no pleasure to me to be jeered at and called fool. Take some of these years from me.'
        So the Shaman took ten years of life from the monkey.
        Then came man and woman, and they said, 'Grandfather, how long are we to live?'
        'Thirty years,' said the Shaman.
        'Oh, Grandfather,' said man and woman, 'at the end of thirty years, we shall have come to our full strength, we shall have built ourselves a house, we shall have planted a field, and we shall have children. Are we to die then, and leave all that? Thirty years, Grandfather - it's not long enough. Give us some more years.'
        The Shaman was pleased that one of his creatures wanted more of the life he had created. Gladly, he gave man and woman the eighteen years he had taken from the donkey.
        'Give us more, Grandfather.'
        So the Shaman gave them the twelve years he had taken from the dog.
        'Give us more, Grandfather.' The Shaman gave them the ten years he had taken from the monkey.
        And so men and women live seventy years in this world.
        And now you see, Syngva, what human life is. For the first thirty years, men and women live as the Shaman intended men and women to live. But then they must endure the eighteen years meant for the donkey: eighteen years of hard labour, of drudgery, of heavy loads. Then come the twelve years taken from the dog: twelve years lived weak and lame, toothless and aching, snapping and snarling. And, at the end, come the ten years from the monkey: ten years chattering and gibbering to themselves, while others point, and laugh and mock.
        ‘Syngva; is this what you choose?'
       '[My father] is in his dog-years,' Ambrosi said. 'I am still living as the Shaman intended men to live. It would be wicked to leave him now. Even when he's an old monkey, I shall try not to make fun of him. And when he is dead, I shall come with you.'
       'You must choose now,' Kuzma said. 'Three hundred years of life as a shaman, and power, and rebirth. Or thirty years of human life, followed by the years the donkey, the dog and the monkey are too proud to endure. Now choose, choose! Once and for all!'
      'Grandfather,' Ambrosi said, 'I can make no choice until my father dies.'
       Kuzma reached out his hand, and touched Ambrosi over his heart. From Ambrosi's shirt he drew a long, white thread. He said, 'You think that all these years I have been tormenting you.' Again his hand reached out and drew from Ambrosi's shirt a long, long black thread. 'You think that if you never saw me again, in dreams or awake, you would be at peace.' A third time Kuzma reached out, and drew from Ambrosi's shirt a thread of bright scarlet. 'But I have been protecting you, Syngva, from the spirits who marked you for a shaman, and who will not allow you to refuse.' He reached out and pushed Ambrosi backwards, so he fell back into the snow. 'Go and live the life you choose.'
          And Ambrosi fell out of his dream and into sleep on the floor of the tent, and from that sleep he awoke mad.'

          I invented Ambrosi and Kuzma, but I didn’t invent the story Kuzma tells. I adapted it from one of the Grimm Brothers’ less well-known stories. It had stuck in my head when I read it, and it suited my purpose (although, of course, in Grimm, the god of the story is the Christian god.)
         The Grimm Brothers first published their collection in 1812, over two hundred years ago. They collected their stories from the people around them, so presumably these stories were commonly known then. At a rough estimate, the story was probably a hundred years old when the brothers wrote it down.
         So a 300 year old folk-story is circulating as an internet joke.
          I would assume that some other reader of Grimm, like myself, had turned it into the email - except that my uncle once told me a story about how a cat pulled a loaded barge along a canal (he came from a bargee-family.) I later came across that story in a foot-note to a Ben Jonson play, explaining an obscure reference in the text. I am pretty sure my uncle had no interest in Ben Jonson's plays.
           I love the way these old stories circle the world like currents in the ocean - sometimes sinking down deep, sometimes rising to the surface.
          You may think that's a rare gem of philisophy you've just found in some forgotten book unearthed from a junk-shop and unread for a hundred years - but someone, somewhere, is sitting in a bar and telling the same story as a joke.
          Stories. Harder to kill than dandelions.

Picture credits: Collie dog, Canada Hky, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Ghost World Sequence can be found here. 


Joan Lennon said...


Anonymous said...

Kill a story and you will only add to it. They can't be killed!
A bit like the sourcerer's apprentice trying to split the brooms perhaps.