Thoughts on “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”

by crfricke

Another trickster tale akin to “Riffraff”, “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean” is pretty silly.

An old woman lights a fire, using straw as her kindling, to make a pot of beans for supper. One coal jumps out of the grate, one straw falls to the floor, and one bean spills from the pot. They chat briefly about how they all narrowly escaped certain death, and decide to make their way together in the world “like good comrades.”

Presently they come to a brook. The straw stretches itself across so the others can pass, and the coal is the first to walk over. But he gets frightened by the stream, stops, and burns through the straw. The straw snaps, sending them both into the water. The bean, still on shore, laughs and laughs until its sides split. “Now, it would have been all over for the bean were it not for a traveling tailor” who stitches the bean back up again with black thread. This, the Grimms tell us, is why beans have a black seam running up their middle.

It’s also, they imply, why one should never decide to be “good comrades” with anyone, because their empathy towards others and willingness to help (a la the straw laying itself across the brook) will only get you as good as dead. How German!

Seriously, what I find so funny about the comedic tales in Grimm is how they all seem to have the same message: help yourself, because being nice, unless it’s to little old ladies, will get you nowhere. Trickster tales in other cultures often end similarly to “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”, summing up the story as an explanation as to how something commonplace in the world came to be, as a result of some humorous happening. But in, say, Coyote or Anansi tales, the heroes may be tricksters, but they have worldly knowledge or some endearing quality, even if it’s their joy. But the bean, well. He’s just a dick.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and read my freewrite in response to this tale here.

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane

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