Hans my Hedgehog

Illustration by Jessica Boehman

I’ve been reading fairy tales regularly for over two years now, but I’m still surprised by just how odd some of them are, like “Hans the Hedgehog” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

The story starts off in a usual fairy tale way, with a man who desperately wants a child, so much so that he calls out one day, “I will have a child, even if it be a hedgehog.” Of course, the next spring his wife has a son, but the upper part of him is a hedgehog, while the lower part is that of a boy. His parents name him Hans the Hedgehog, but they are horrible to him and make him stay behind the stove on a pile of straw. The father is thankful, when after he gives Hans a set of bagpipes he requested, that Hans states he will ride away on the cock and never come back.

Hans however, just retreats to the woods, taking pigs and donkeys with him, which he looks after until he has quite a large herd. He watched his animals from up in a tree, where he liked to play his bagpipes. Drawn by the music, King #1 tells Hans he is lost in the woods. Hans agrees to show him the way home in exchange for whatever the King first meets in the courtyard. The king is lying when he says he agrees and will write something to that effect. Hans, however, after showing him the way, returns to the forest without collecting his reward. King #2 shows up and makes the same promise, but he is earnest. Hans shows him to his home to, then goes back to the woods again. Both Kings are greeted on their return by their daughters, of course. Princess are standard fairy tale characters after all.

Here there’s a brief interlude where Hans takes all the pigs back to the village for a grand slaughter, I’m not sure why, but then he takes the rooster again and heads to the palace of King #1. The princess agrees to marry Hans, but only to save her life.

She seated herself in the carriage, and placed Hans the Hedgehog beside her with the cock and the bagpipes, and then they took leave and drove away, and the King thought he should never see her again. He was however, deceived in his expectation, for when they were at a short distance from the town, Hans the Hedgehog took her pretty clothes off, and pierced her with his hedgehog’s skin until she bled all over. “That is the reward of your falseness,” said he. “go your way, I will not have you!” and on that he chased her home again, and she was disgraced for the rest of her life.

Tell me there’s not some sexual innuendo there. Seems to me he rapes her and then tosses her aside.

And off Hans heads to kingdom #2, where the princess welcomes him and marries him without complaint, because of her father’s promises. The night of their wedding, as they are retiring to bed, the Princess states she is afraid of Hans quills, so he strips off his hedgehog skin and tells the servants to throw it in the fire. After it had burnt, Hans was a handsome young man, except his skin was charred, but the King’s physician applied salve and he was healed. The princess is delighted with her new husband.

When the King’s daughter saw that she was glad, and the next morning they arose joyfully, ate and drank, and then the marriage was properly solemnized, and Hans the Hedgehog received the kingdom from the aged King.

In the end, after several years, Hans goes back to his father and introduces himself. I wouldn’t have if I were him, but what do I know. The father’s happy, of course, and goes off to the palace with Hans.

I’m going to ignore the awful father who made the mistake of wishing for a son even if he’s a hedgehog and then seeing the child as a more or less a monster, glad to be rid of him when the opportunity comes. I’ll also ignore the fact that the good princess who conforms to her dad’s wishes is the one that gets her happily ever after. This is a Grimm tale, after all. And while we’re at it, ignore that the parents don’t get punished for being cruel.

Instead, I want to think for a moment about what happens when someone actually meets Hans the Hedgehog with an open mind. The second princess doesn’t condemn him upon seeing him. She’s scared, but she doesn’t make excuses, she just tells him how she feels. And Hans knows what to do, he knows that he can shed his hedgehog skin, he just needed someone to care enough about him to give him the chance, which she did. And they lived happily ever after. Love can help us become better than we are, shed our rough edges.

I read Hans the Hedgehog on-line at Sur la Lune. It is from Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Margaret Hunt, 1884.

The illustration at the top of this post was done by Jessica Boehman. She has an Etsy store with nicely done prints and notecards. You can find her store, Hans My Hedgehog, here.

Hans my hedgehog I also read a retelling by Kate Coombs, Hans My Hegehog. It’s definitely a nicer story, suitable for pre-school and early elementary kids. Hans’ parents love him, but he’s still sad and lonely. In this version, he plays the fiddle, but even though he plays at village dances, none of the other kids want to be his friend. There are still the king’s and princess, although the pigs run amok in King #1’s castle instead of the awful scene in the original. Princess #2 does marry him, but it is through his magical fiddle-playing that he is transformed into a handsome young man. Even with the changes in the story, though and the colorful, playful, music-filled illustrations by John Nickle, it’s still an odd story. Yes, Hans was brave and took control of his life, but it’s no wonder this is not one of the most-often told fairy tales. In either form, it’s not on my must-share list.

2½ out of 5 stars

Category: Fairy tales & Folktales

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Published January 24, 2012 by Atheneum
40 pages

Book source: Library

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.