Thoughts on “The Marvelous Minstrel”
Like “The Good Bargain,” but not nearly as politically incorrect, “The Marvelous Minstrel” is another tale from the Grimms’ ouvre that some argue is better forgotten. Though it’s a rather cynical story about a musician whose talent renders him neither likeable nor virtuous, I have to admit that the first few lines of the story had me entranced:
“Once upon a time there was a marvelous minstrel who walked through a forest all alone and thought about all kinds of things. When there was nothing more to think about, he said to himself, ‘I’m getting bored here in the forest, and I need to get myself a good companion.’”*
Reading such lines, you might expect an equally whimsical tale to follow, one that might reaffirm the bonds of brotherhood between fellow men, or even take a turn for the romantic. But the minstrel, for all his wide-reaching thoughts, quickly becomes defined by one repetitive distinction—that his ideal companion is not a beast of the forest. And with this in mind, he proceeds to become the unlikeable star of a short but frustratingly clunky story.
As he plays, a wolf and then a fox and finally a hare emerge from the trees and ask if he will teach them to play so beautifully. The minstrel, who has only just decided he needs a companion, isn’t interested in these animals, but he says yes anyway, only to lead them into a series of traps. When the animals free themselves and band together to get their revenge, they follow the minstrel into town, where the minstrel has just met and similarly taken up with a woodcutter, who threatens the animals with his axe. The animals run away in fright. The minstrel plays the woodcutter “one more tune” out of gratitude, then moves on his way alone again.
Many detractors of the tale focus on how mean the minstrel is to the animals, and this is more than fair. He’s downright sadistic, and a very aggravating trickster figure, since those he tricks don’t seem to deserve what they get at all. But I also wonder how many people read this tale as an ironic tragedy on the minstrel’s part—he is, after all, alone again in the end. I doubt this was the Grimms’ intention, as their fairy tales, like most fairy tales, don’t tend to dabble in either irony or vague endings. But I am drawn into this tale by the thoughtful whimsy of the first lines, and intrigued by the minstrel’s lonely state at the story’s close. The nonsense in between, well…chalk another one up to the tests of time, and ask yourself why “The Marvelous Minstrel” isn’t the first Grimm tale you think of.
* The translation quoted above is Jack Zipes’, from his Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm.