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