How Children Played Butcher with Each Other

(Originally posted at on May 15, 2011 2:49 AM)

I just bought a copy of The Annotated Brothers Grimm (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) from a BOOKSALE outlet.  It contains stories from the 1857 edition of the Grimms’ Children’s Stories and Household Tales.  One of my favorites is the first version of “How Children Played Butcher with Each Other.”

In a city called Franecker located in West Friesland, it happened that young children aged five and six, both boys and girls, were playing together.  And they decided that one boy should be the butcher, another boy should be the cook, and a third should be the pig.  Next they decided that one little girl should play the cook, another was to be the assistant to the cook.  The assistant was supposed to catch the blood from the pig in a little basin so that they could make sausages from it.  The butcher, as had been agreed, chased after the boy who was playing the pig, pulled him down to the ground, and cut his throat with a little knife.  The assistant to the cook caught the blood in her little basin.  A councilor who happens to be passing by sees the whole miserable spectacle.  He dashes off with the butcher, takes him up to the house of the mayor, who immediately calls a meeting of all councilors.  They deliberated at length on the matter and had no idea what to do, for they realized that it had all been child’s play.  One of them, a wise old man, ventured the opinion that the chief judge should put a nice red apple in one hand and a guilder in the other and that he call the child in and stretch both hands out to him.  If the child took the apple, he would be declared innocent.  If he took the guilder, he would be killed.  This was done:  the child, laughing, reached out for the apple and was therefore not subjected to any kind of punishment.

There is a second version of the story, which, in my opinion, has a more gruesome ending.  Maria Tatar notes that “[t]hese tales may seem to deviate dramatically from the form of the fairy tale, but bearing in mind that the German term for fairy tales (Märchen) is a diminutive form of the word for “news,” these two reports, which read almost like newspaper accounts, conform to the nature of the genre.”  She adds that the first version “appeared in the Berliner Abendblätter, a short-lived newspaper edited by the writer Heinrich von Kleist.  The incident was based on a published report from 1555 and interested Kleist because of the test at the end of the narrative, with the child declared innocent because he has not yet attained an understanding of symbolic thinking.”  (A guilder is a coin representing a certain currency unit.)


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