A fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.

A certain man had a donkey, which had carried the corn-sacks to the mill indefatigably for many a long year. But his strength was going, and he was growing more and more unfit for work. Then his master began to consider how he might best save his keep. But the donkey, seeing that no good wind was blowing, ran away and set out on the road to Bremen. There, he thought, "I can surely be a town-musician." When he had walked some distance, he found a hound lying on the road, gasping like one who had run till he was tired.

"What are you gasping so for, you big fellow?" asked the donkey.
"Ah," replied the hound, "as I am old, and daily grow weaker, and no longer can hunt, my master wanted to kill me, so I took to flight, but now how am I to earn my bread."
"I tell you what," said the donkey, "I am going to Bremen, and shall be town-musician there. Go with me and engage yourself also as a musician. I shall play the lute, and you will beat the kettle-drum." The hound agreed, and on they went.

Before long they came to a cat, sitting on the path, with a face like three rainy days. "Now then, old shaver, what has gone askew with you?" asked the donkey.
"Who can be merry when his neck is in danger?" answered the cat.
"Because I am now getting old, and my teeth are worn to stumps, and I prefer to sit by the fire and spin, rather than hunt about after mice, my mistress wanted to drown me, so I ran away. But now good advice is scarce. Where am I to go?"
"Come with us to Bremen. You understand night-music, you can be a town-musician." The cat thought well of it, and went with them.

After this the three fugitives came to a farm-yard, where the cock was sitting upon the gate, crowing with all his might. "Your crow goes through and through one," said the donkey. "What is the matter?"
"I have been foretelling fine weather, because it is the day on which our lady washes the christ-child's little shirts, and wants to dry them," said the cock. "But guests are coming for Sunday, so the housewife has no pity, and has told the cook that she intends to eat me in the soup to-morrow, and this evening I am to have my head cut off. Now I am crowing at the top of my lungs while still I can."
"Ah, but red-comb," said the donkey, "you had better come away with us. We are going to Bremen. You can find something better than death everywhere. You have a good voice, and if we make music together it must have some quality." The cock agreed to this plan, and all four went on together.

They could not reach the city of Bremen in one day, however, and in the evening they came to a forest where they meant to pass the night. The donkey and the hound laid themselves down under a large tree, the cat and the cock settled themselves in the branches. But the cock flew right to the top, where he was most safe. Before he went to sleep he looked round on all four sides, and thought he saw in the distance a little spark burning. So he called out to his companions that there must be a house not far off, for he saw a light. The donkey said, "If so, we had better get up and go on, for the shelter here is bad." The hound thought too that a few bones with some meat on would do him good. So they made their way to the place where the light was, and soon saw it shine brighter and grow larger, until they came to a well-lighted robbers' house. The donkey, as the biggest, went to the window and looked in.

"What do you see, my grey-horse?" asked the cock.
"What do I see?" answered the donkey. "A table covered with good things to eat and drink, and robbers sitting at it enjoying themselves."
"That would be the sort of thing for us," said the cock.
"Yes, yes. Ah, if only we were there," said the donkey. Then the animals took counsel together how they should manage to drive away the robbers, and at last they thought of a plan. The donkey was to place himself with his fore-feet upon the window-ledge, the hound was to jump on the donkey's back, the cat was to climb upon the dog, and lastly the cock was to fly up and perch upon the head of the cat.

When this was done, at a given signal, they began to perform their music together. The donkey brayed, the hound barked, the cat mewed, and the cock crowed. Then they burst through the window into the room, shattering the glass. At this horrible din, the robbers sprang up, thinking no otherwise than that a ghost had come in, and fled in a great fright out into the forest. The four companions now sat down at the table, well content with what was left, and ate as if they were going to fast for a month. As soon as the four minstrels had done, they put out the light, and each sought for himself a sleeping-place according to his nature and what suited him. The donkey laid himself down upon some straw in the yard, the hound behind the door, the cat upon the hearth near the warm ashes, and the cock perched himself upon a beam of the roof. And being tired from their long walk, they soon went to sleep.

When it was past midnight, and the robbers saw from afar that the light was no longer burning in their house, and all appeared quiet, the captain said, "We ought not to have let ourselves be frightened out of our wits," and ordered one of them to go and examine the house. The messenger, finding all still, went into the kitchen to light a candle, and, taking the glistening fiery eyes of the cat for live coals, he held a lucifer-match to them to light it. But the cat did not understand the joke, and flew in his face, spitting and scratching. He was dreadfully frightened, and ran to the back-door, but the dog, who lay there sprang up and bit his leg. And as he ran across the yard by the dunghill, the donkey gave him a smart kick with its hind foot. The cock, too, who had been awakened by the noise, and had become lively, cried down from the beam, cock-a-doodle-doo. Then the robber ran back as fast as he could to his captain, and said, "Ah, there is a horrible witch sitting in the house, who spat on me and scratched my face with her long claws. And by the door stands a man with a knife, who stabbed me in the leg. And in the yard there lies a black monster, who beat me with a wooden club. And above, upon the roof, sits the judge, who called out, 'Bring the rogue here to me.' So I got away as well as I could."

After this the robbers never again dared enter the house. But it suited the four musicians of Bremen so well that they did not care to leave it any more. And the mouth of him who last told this story is still warm.

Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten is one of the Grimms' most popular fairy tales and was collected by them not quite in the northern German city-state of Bremen itself but in the surrounding region of western Lower Saxony. It was published in its current version in 1857 and is read and known to pretty much every child in the country--this is probably the first time that children hear about Bremen if they don't actually live there. The tale has been made into numerous plays and even a film or two.

So, do we learn something from this tale, which has remarkably little blood and gore for a Grimm tale but still meets and exceeds its quota of bad intents and mean people? Several things, perhaps--other than that Bremen was the kind of place where burnt-out beasts could still aim to make a living as entertainers (Vegas?). Actually, the city of Bremen was known to hire itinerant musicians as far back as the 14th century so it's quite plausible that one could go to Bremen to look for a job as a musician.

A less obvious dimension is the nature of the animals and what they represent. None of them were popular in heraldry so they could easily represent the common folk. They were old, weak or otherwise doomed, and they refused to submit and stood up to a band of robbers. While the robbers were rather generic bad guys, it could also be taken as a defiant stab at authority like so many English nursery rhymes. A band of decrepit farm animals escaping their masters and taking over the robbers' house sounds, if not like a successful popular revolution, at least like a story of the little people breaking free from their bonds.

Maybe there's something in it about old age or about a change in one's condition in general. When you cease to be fit for what you've been doing for most of your life, you're not finished. There's still something you can do if you can pull up your roots and leave behind those who've written you off. It has a bit of a Golden Girls ring to it. Here we have four pugnacious retirees asking for better, kicking ass (quite literally, and an ass doing the kicking too, har har), taking what they want from life, and shacking up together.

It took me long enough to notice but notice I did when I read the tale again as an adult: The Town Musicians of Bremen never became musicians (c'mon, a donkey, a cock, a cat and a dog?), nor did they ever reach Bremen. The title of the story is their aspirations, not their actual deeds. I don't think anyone really minds that they never actually became the Town Musicians of Bremen or of anywhere else. When they found something attractive they kissed their daydreams goodbye, engaged in some small-scale urban regeneration by ousting the criminal elements, and settled down to live the good life. Well, good for them. I'm sure you can read a moral of your own in the outcome.

The city of Bremen, despite the fact that they never set hoof, claw, or paw in it, has elevated the story's four animal heroes to a symbol of the city. Many public and private sites in the city use the four figures as decorative elements and, since 1953, a bronze statue depicting the animals standing on top of each other in order of size has stood beside the old city hall. Peculiarly for so young a monument there's a popular belief that making a wish while embracing the donkey's forelegs will make it come true.

Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute

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