Of Mice and Meaning…

Hansel and Gretel ends conventionally when the children are reunited with their father: “then their cares were at end and they lived happily in great joy together.” But that isn’t the end of the story as recorded by the Grimm Brothers. There is a little coda, a tail of the tale, that appears after the end of the story:

“My tale is done,
A mouse has run.
And whoever catches it can make for himself from it a large, large fur cap.”

It’s a strange appendage that seems to serve no purpose other than a whimsical nod to the act of storytelling.

When a gifted teller (think of Martin Shaw) begins a powerful story, there is a kind of enchanted circle that forms, a mythic space that is often demarcated by “Unce upon a time…” and when the story ends it seems proper to de-invoke the mythic powers by some ritual words. For most stories “they lived happily ever after” serves this function, and that’s initially what I assumed the purpose of this passage was. But since the story already had its happily-ever-after moment, those last lines continued to seem strangely superfluous to me.

Nature is not profligate. A story is a living thing, and it evolves the way animals do. Like a snake or a hawk—or even a mouse—there is no wasted flesh.

I consulted the excellent annotated resource Surlalune for help:

“This ending reflects the oral sources from which the tale came. Storytellers would often end or begin their tales with short verses to set or change the tone of the audience. Verses at the end of the tale often contained a moral or a request for money as a tip for the story provided. Here the verse effectively ends the tale and makes a small attempt to lift the overall somber and scary tones of the story despite its happy ending.”

That seemed reasonable, and yet, it was still kind of ad hoc. Why would a story that has been documented from the 1300s (and according to some linguists goes back thousands of years into proto-Indo-European history), preserve such an odd bit?

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about this story as it relates to pathological psychological states like addiction. The more I’vc thought about it, line by line, the more it disclosed meaning. As I was thinking about one of the early passages, about stones and moonlight, the ending suddenly made sense.

It’s the story. The story is a living thing, running through the enchanted circle of its telling like a little mouse. Whoever can “catch” the story—that is, take away meaning—will have a valuable possession, as a fur hat would certainly have been in the Grimms’ provenance of northern Europe.

And think about those last images. How would a LARGE fur hat (the original German is explicit: “Grose”—large, grand) be made from a tiny mouse? By magic of course. The story is brief, the ending merely a few throwaway lines of poetry, and yet from this tiny story comes a multiplicity of meanings, encoded wisdom, and “deep image” to keep our metaphorical heads warm.

I was starting to feel ambivalent about working on an explication (“We murder to dissect”), but to find the tale (the tail) itself beckoning use has been endlessly encouraging.

The story wants to help us. We should let it.


3 thoughts on “Of Mice and Meaning…

  1. Nils Peterson

    You’ll remember how at the end of many a tale Robert told there would a wedding and a big party and the teller would have left it bringing to us a bottle of wine, but it would have been drunk or the bottle broken before it got to us. Again, good work with this story

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