Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hans-my-Hedgehog: when disabled children are hidden for shame


(A Grimms' Tale, retold from memory, from various translations)

Once, there lived a wealthy farmer, who had a fine house, and all the land and money he could want. But he had no children, and when he went into town, the other farmers were tease and mock him and ask what was wrong with him.

One day, this made him so angry that he came home and declared to his wife: "I will have a child, even if it is only a hedgehog!"

In due time, his wife did give birth. The baby was like a normal boy from the waist down, but his top half was exactly like a hedgehog. "Look what you've done!" the wife shouted. "You have cursed us with your foolish wishes!"

The father was too ashamed to take the child to the church for the christening, and the mother said they could never ask anyone to be the child's godfather "And there's nothing we can name him, anyway, but Hans-my-Hedgehog."

The pastor came to the house to christen the child. And he told them that because of its quills, it couldn't lie in a normal bed, but had to lie on a pile of straw, behind the stove. And the child couldn't be nursed, because its quills would prick its mother. So they put Hans-my-Hedgehog on the bed of straw behind the stove, and left him there.

And every day, the farmer wished his son would die. But that second wish did not come true, and Hans-my-Hedgehog continued to live and grow.

One day, when Hans-my-Hedgehog was eight years old, his father prepared to go to the market, to sell his goods, and buy supplies. First, he asked his wife what she wanted, and she said: "Some meat, and white flour buns, and these things for the household," and she gave him a list. Then, he asked his servant girl what she wanted from the market. "A pair of shoes," she answered, "and fine socks." And last of all, he looked behind the stove, and asked Hans-my-Hedgehog what he wanted. "Father," he said, "I would like a set of bagpipes."

When the father came back from the fair, he gave his wife the meat and rolls and household things. And he gave the servant girl her shoes and socks. And, last of all, he gave Hans-my-Hedgehog the bagpipes.

And then, his son said to him: "Father, I have one more favor to ask you. Please go to the farrier, and have him shoe my rooster. And if you will give me some pigs and asses, I will ride out into the world to seek my fortune, and never come back."

Well, the father was very glad to hear that, and thought that giving up a few swine and donkeys was a fair price to be rid of Hans-my-Hedgehog.

And so Hans-my-Hedgehog mounted his rooster, with his bagpipes under his arm, driving his herds of swine and donkeys before him. When he came to the middle of a great dark forest, he spurred his rooster to fly to the top bough of the highest tree, where he stayed, watching over his herds, and playing beautiful music on his bagpipes.

One day, after several years, a king and his party went hunting in that same forest, and they became lost. As they were wondering around, the king heard Hans-my-Hedgehog's bagpipes, and sent his servant to find out where it was coming from.

After a while, the servant came running back, terrified. "There's a monster in the top of the tallest tree," he said. "It is part rooster, and part hedgehog, and it is playing the bagpipes."

The king had his servant lead him to the tree, and he called up to Hans-my-Hedgehog. "What art thou doing?" the king demanded.

"I am watching over my herds," Hans-my-Hedgehog answered. "What would you have of me?"

"Do you know the way out of this forest?"

"I do."

"Then I would have thou showest me the way," the king said.

Hans-my-Hedgehog flew down from the tree, and told the king that he would show him the way if the promised to give Hans the first living thing who greeted him when he returned to his palace.

The king had parchment and pen brought to him, and he wrote out the contract. But he thought to himself: "Hans-my-Hedgehog cannot read, and so I can write down anything I want." And so he wrote down that Hans would get nothing.

Hans-my-Hedgehog took the parchment, and led the king out of the forest, all the way back to the main road into his kingdom. Then, he turned around and returned to his tree, to play his bagpipes and watch over his herds. And the king continued on to his palace.

And who should be the first to run out to greet him when he got there but his own daughter. And so the king had to confess the promise he had made. But then he added: "It is all right. Thou hast no need to worry -- I know that Hans-my-Hedgehog cannot read. So the contract I wrote up said that I would give him nothing."

And the Princess said that was good, for she would never have gone with such a monster at any rate. And they both laughed.

Many years passed, and Hans-my-Hedgehog's herds grew and prospered. And one day, another king came with his hunting party into the forest. And they, too, became hopelessly lost. He, too, heard Hans-my-Hedgehog's beautiful music, and sent his servant to find it.

After a long while, the servant came back, white-faced, and said there was a monster at the top of the highest tree, and that it was part rooster, and part hedgehog, and it was playing the bagpipes.

The king had his servant lead him to the tree. And then, he called up to him: "What art thou doing?"

"I am watching over my swine and donkeys," Hans-my-Hedgehog answered. "What would you have of me?"

"Dost thou know the way out of this forest?"

"I do."

"Then I would have thou showest me the way," the king said.

Hans-my-Hedgehog flew down from his tree, and said that he lead the king home if the king, promised, in return, to give him the first living creature that came to meet him on his return.

The king gave his word that he would. And Hans-my-Hedgehog led the way through the forest, all the way to the main highway leading to the king's palace.

And when he had done that, he returned to his tree, watching over his herds, and playing music on his bagpipes.

Meanwhile, as the second king returned to his castle, who should come out to greet him but his only daughter, who threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him. But then, she pulled back in surprise, and asked him why he was so sad.

And so the king had to tell her about the strange monster in the forest, who was half hedgehog and half human, and how he had promised this creature the first living thing to run out to greet him on his return, and how he was very sorry it was her.

The daughter sighed and said she was sorry, too, but that she would go with this monster, for his sake, for she loved him so.

Meanwhile, Hans-my-Hedgehog tended his swine and asses, and the herds prospered and grew so large, they filled the entire forest. Hans-my-Hedgehog sent word to his father that every stable in the village should be emptied, for he was bringing his herds back, and anyone who wanted to take part in the slaughter were free to do so.

His father was very sad at the news, for he had thought that Hans-my-Hedgehog had long since died. But he did as his son asked. And soon, Hans-my-Hedgehog came riding back on his rooster, driving the pigs and donkeys before him. The donkeys, he gave away. And the pig slaughter was so great, as every family in the village gathered meat for the winter, that the commotion could be heard for many miles around.

And then, Hans-my-Hedgehog decided it was time to try and collect his debt from the kings he had helped. And he rode to the country of the first king.

Now, this king had sent orders to his palace guards that if any creature matching Hans-my-Hedgehog's description should be seen approaching the castle, they should shoot him and stab him with their bayonets, and make sure he was dead.

But when Hans approached, and saw the army with all their guns and bayonets pointing at him, he merely spurred his rooster and flew over their heads. He flew until he came to the king's chamber window, and his rooster perched there on the sill. "Give me what you owe," Hans-my-Hedgehog said, "or I will kill both you and your daughter, as you have just tried to kill me."

And so the king had no choice but to go to his daughter, and tell her that she must go away with Hans-my-Hedgehog, to save both their lives.

So the daughter dressed in her finest gown, and went out to meet Hans-my-Hedgehog, and smiled at him, and praised him for his handsomeness. And the king gave them his finest coach, with six of his finest snow white steeds, and sent them off with a treasure chest of gold and jewels. And the princess climbed into the coach, and Hans-my-Hedgehog, still mounted on his rooster, rode in the seat beside her.

But when the coach was just a little of the way outside the kingdom, Hans-my-Hedgehog undressed the princess, and pricked her all over with his quills.

"That is punishment for your dishonesty," he said. "Go home. I do not want you."

And the princess went home to her father, but from that day forward, she was afflicted with bad luck.

Then Hans-my-Hedgehog rode on to the second kingdom, to try his fate there.

Now, the second king had sent orders to his palace guards that if anyone matching Hans-my-Hedgehog's description should be seen approaching that they should blow the trumpets and lead him onward with a full-honor military escort.

And as Hans-my-Hedgehog rode up, and the trumpets sounded, the king himself, with his daughter, went out to meet him, and welcome him into the palace.

The princess was horrified by Hans-my-Hedgehog's appearance, but she did not expect anything else. And at the banquet, Hans-my-Hedgehog sat between them at the table.

And after the meal, the royal chaplain married them hastily, and they prepared to retire to bed. Hans-my-Hedgehog told the princess not to worry. And then, he pulled the king aside and whispered to him that he should have four men-in-waiting stand outside the chamber door, for he would shed his hedgehog skin as he climbed into bed. He said the men should catch the skin before it hit the floor, and throw it onto the fire, and keep watch until the entire skin was burned to ashes.

The king had all this carried out according to Hans-my-Hedgehog's wishes. And in the morning they found him in the bed -- fully human, but burned as black as coal from head to foot. So the king called in his royal physician, who washed Hans with milk and healing salves, until his skin was as white as ivory, and he was as handsome to gaze upon as any man.

The princess, and all the royal family were overjoyed, and a grand royal wedding was celebrated for real, and Hans-my-Hedgehog inherited the kingdom after the old king died.

And then Hans-my-Hedgehog brought his wife back to his village, and went to his father's house. And he told him he was his son.

But his father said: "I had a son, but he died; he disappeared many years ago."

But Hans-my-Hedgehog managed to convince him that he was, in fact, his son. And his father rejoiced, and went back with him to live in the palace.

My tale is done;
To Gussie's house
Now let it run.

When I first encountered this fairy tale, almost thirty years ago, the overtones of the 'Disability Experience' struck me immediately. Especially in the detail of the pastor recommending that Hans-my-Hedgehog be kept behind the stove for the sake of the mother -- just as so many disabled children, through the generations, have been sent away to live in "Special homes," on the recommendations of doctors and other specialists.

Also, this tale reflects the bias that it is the disabled person's responsibility to resolve the conflicts they have with their family and the world by becoming cured -- it is only after he is made completely human that Hans returns to his father and is accepted (almost as if he were apologizing for being born ugly). There is a sort of parallel, here, with doctors who pressure parents to give their children drugs to control drooling, or to "encourage" their children to wear prosthetic limbs which have limited functionality, but make the child look more normal, in order to treat the "problem of teasing" -- instead of working to teach that teasing each other for our differences is wrong. It is this last detail of the "happy ending" of this story that makes it feel like a tragedy to me.

And, finally, in spite of all the gifts he'd given back to his community, in terms of both physical and artistic bounty, Hans-my-Hedgehog, like farmer's daughter in "The Girl Without Hands" had to be cured of his monstrousness before he could be truly married, or take his full place in human society.

Some other translations of this tale:

Hans-My-Hedgehog translated by D. L. Ashliman (trans. Copyright, 2000)

Hans-my-Hedgehog translated by Margaret Hunt (trans. 1884)

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