Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm from an 1855 painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“The Three Army Surgeons” by the Brothers Grimm

Over the last year or so, I’ve learned that fairy tales are not all sweet and light, some are downright gruesome and nasty. Today’s choice, a new one to me, certainly falls in the second category.

Three surgeons “who thought they knew their art perfectly” were traveling and stopped at an inn to stay the night. The innkeeper asks them to prove what they can do. They each state that they will cut off a body part, a hand, heart, and eye respectively, and reattach them in the morning.  The innkeeper believes that that will indeed prove that they know everything, but the surgeons actually carry a salve with them that joins body part together.

Each of the surgeons cuts off the body part. The pieces are put on a platter and given to the servant, who placed it in the cupboard. During the night, though, the servant girl’s lover, a soldier, comes and she gives him something to eat, forgetting to close the cupboard door. A cat sneaks in and takes the body pieces and when the girl realizes what has happened she is desperate. Her soldier cuts the hand of a thief who was hung, catches the cat and cuts out its eye, and takes the heart of a butchered pig to replace what was missing.

The next morning, the surgeons are able to attach the body parts, but each has trouble with them. One surgeon can’t help stealing money, another noses around in the dirt and the third can’t see. Eventually they go back to inn, where, learning the girl has run away, they threaten to burn down the place unless the innkeeper gives them a lot of money.

He gave them what he had, and whatever he could get together, and the three went away with it. It was enough for the rest of their lives, but they would rather have had their own proper organs.

Yeah – gross and bloody. Cutting off your own body parts just to show how great you are is quite simply crazy. And how did the one who cut out his heart not die over the night? I get the impression from the story that the surgeons espoused that it was their own skill that allowed them to perform this feat, not a magical cream. I don’t have much experience with body parts, but I’m thinking that any doctor worth his salt could tell the difference between his own right hand and some random dead guy’s or a cat’s eye and a human eye. I think a little less bragging on their part, a little less showing off, and a little more actual work would have served them better in the long run.

This story doesn’t really have much in common with other tales that we’ve read. And the ending is disappointing. It seems rather a let down really. They get a bunch of money but are stuck with the new parts. No one seems to really learn a lesson, there’s no happily ever after, there’s not horrible revenge, nothing. If you’d like to read it yourself, you can find the story here.

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there for her take on “The Three Army Surgeons” and to share your own thoughts. Next week we’ll be looking at modern tales.