Thoughts on “Riffraff”

by crfricke

D.L. Ashliman at Pitt.edu notes that no two English translations use the same title for this little story. Zipes uses “Riffraff,” so that’s what we’re going with, but here are some of the others out there:

  1. The Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet: How They Went to the Mountains to Eat Nuts (Edgar Taylor, 1823).
  2. The Pack of Ragamuffins (Margaret Hunt, 1884).
  3. The Vulgar Crew (Francis P. Magoun, Jr., and Alexander H. Krappe, 1960).
  4. A Pack of No-goods (Ralph Manheim, 1977).
  5. The Pack of Scoundrels (D. L. Ashliman, 2001).

The story is short and nonsensical, full of low humor and pratfalls. A hen and a rooster decide to steal a squirrel’s nuts from the top of a mountain. After eating their fill, they’re too tired to walk all the way home, so the rooster builds a little cart out of the discarded nutshells (a whimsical image that I love). But of course, neither of them wants to pull the cart. They harness a passing duck against her will, and pick up a pin and a needle who are too drunk to travel any further on the path. The entire pack stops at an inn overnight.

In the night, the rooster and hen eat the egg they’d promised to the innkeeper, toss the shells into the fireplace, then seize the pin and needle and stick them in the innkeeper’s towel and chair respectively before running off without paying their tab. The innkeeper wipes his face with his towel and is scraped by the pin. He starts his morning fire, and gets blasted in the face by eggshells. Then he sits down right on the needle. In his rage, he vows never to let “riffraff” in his inn again.

In most trickster tale traditions, the ruses played by the trickster are interwoven with philosophy about how the world was made, or how it fundamentally functions. In Grimm, however, many of the tales that feature trickster figures don’t share that complexity—or if they do attempt a philosophy, it’s rather bleak. Some people suck, get used to it, be on your guard. “Riffraff” has some charmingly humorous imagery—the nutshell carriage, the pin and the needle stumbling home after a night at the tavern—but as in “The Marvelous Minstrel,” it all adds up to very little in terms of overall narrative satisfaction. A pack of innocent characters have been mildly scalded (including an offstage squirrel, we can presume), and the perpetrators get off scot-free. The only one who can be said to have a happy, or at least just, ending is probably the duck, who gets to swim away under the cover of night after a real dog of a day.

What’s funny to me about this story, on a personal note, is that I’ve recently run into the word “riffraff” in a couple of different contexts, when really, who uses this word anymore? In a New York Times write-up on the opening of a new design store in Rhinebeck, the owner flippantly said that “only riff-raff go to Poughkeepsie.” Guess who has two thumbs and lives in Poughkeepsie? This gal. The shop owner has since apologized (personally, even, to me—that’s what comes of making a stink on social media), but that doesn’t diminish my amusement at seeing such an antiquated word crop up in an unexpected place. Riff-raff. Hilarious. Makes me want to hitch up the old nutshell carriage and go stick pins in some high-priced sofas.

Read my writing response here, and feel free to add your own freewrite in the comments. And read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu.

illustration by Heinrich Lefler

illustration by Heinrich Lefler

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