Tales of the Dummling

Many of Grimm’s fairytales begin with three sisters or three brothers who have a critical task to perform.  Invariably, the youngest succeeds.    In her introduction to a story called “The Golden Bird,” Maria Tatar, editor of the recently published bicentennial collection says: “If the female protagonists of fairy tales are often as good as they are beautiful, their male counterparts often appear to be as young and naive as they are stupid.”

“The Golden Bird” illustrates the point.  The youngest son is so hopeless that even his animal guide, a fox, grows frustrated, yet in the end, the boy wins “complete happiness.”

Not all youngest sons are so dense, and sometimes the stories have great depth, like “The Water of Life,” which I discussed here last March (http://wp.me/pYql4-1OC and http://wp.me/pYql4-1Pm).

According to Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung’s closest colleague and author of five books on fairytales, the Brothers Grimm published  50-60 stories of dumb youngest sons.  Von Franz thought these stories were so important, individually and culturally, that she started her first book on folklore, The Interpretation of Fairytales 1970, with a detailed study of one Dummling tale, “The Three Feathers.”  The story is one of the better known Grimm stories, present in the new annotated edition as well.  What follows is a brief synopsis.  The tale isn’t long and those who wish can read it on Project Gutenberg: http://www.reelreality.com/fairy_tales/grimms_fairy_stories/index.html#dummling

“The Three Feathers” from the Project Gutenberg ebook edition of Grimm’s fairytales.

*** Synopsis of The Three Feathers ***

Once an aging king had three sons. Two were clever, but the third didn’t say much and was considered dim-witted.  People called him Dummling [or “Dummy” depending on the translation].  The king decided to test the boys to determine who should rule his kingdom when he was gone.   He told them whoever returned with the most beautiful carpet would inherit the kingdom.  Then he took them outside, blew three feathers into the air and told his sons the feathers would determine which way they should go.

One son’s feather flew east and another’s west, but Dummling’s feather flew straight ahead a few paces and fell to the ground.  The other brothers laughed and set out, but Dummling just sat down by the feather and waited.  Eventually he noticed a trapdoor nearby.  It opened onto a staircase descending into the earth.  The boy followed the stairs down to another door on which he knocked.  From inside a voice called:

“Maiden, fairest, come to me,
Make haste to ope the door,
A mortal surely you will see,
From the world above is he,
We’ll help him from our store.”

Inside was a fat toad, surrounded by many smaller toads.  The boy said he needed the world’s most beautiful carpet.  The toad called out to the younger ones to “bring the box for the boy at the door.”  Inside was a beautiful carpet.  Dummling carried it home, his father was astonished, and declared that he should be the next king.

“The Three Feathers” from the Project Gutenberg ebook edition of Grimm’s fairytales.

The two other brothers, who had simply bought pieces of linen from the first peasant women they met on the road, protested so loudly that the king decreed another test.  He sent his sons out to find the most beautiful ring.  Again one feather blew east, another west, and Dummling’s by the trapdoor.  The fat frog called for a box in which the boy found a beautiful gold ring.  The brothers brought rings they had made from  nails they had taken from cart wheels.

Again the king declared Dummling the winner, and again the older brothers protested.  The king’s third test was to bring home the most beautiful wife.  Dummling won a toad bride who became a beautiful human woman after he took her home.  The brothers, who had married the first peasant women they met, complained again so the king ordered a fourth test.  The brides were ordered to jump through a hoop suspended in air.  Naturally, Dummling’s wife, who had been a toad, easily won.  Dummling received the crown and he ruled “with great wisdom” for many years.

Jumping through the hoop by Arthur Rackham

Jumping through the hoop by Arthur Rackham


In The Interpretation of Fairytales, Marie-Louise von Franz devoted three chapters to an in depth analysis of this tale.  She believed Dummling stories reflect the situation of individuals, cultures, and institutions that get stuck when certain rigid patterns and ideas cut them off from sources of renewal.

The first thing she notes is that all the Dummling tales begin with a father and three sons but no wife or sisters.  The feminine element is missing and regardless of what he sets out to do, the most important achievement of the younger son will be to bring home a bride.  In abstract terms, that is bringing Eros into a situation overweighted with Logos.  Von Franz cites cultural examples like the importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the medieval Catholic church.  She also says that third-son stories:

“compensate the conscious attitude of a society in which patriarchal schemes and oughts and shoulds dominate.  It is ruled by rigid principles because of which the irrational, spontaneous adaptation to events is lost.  It is typical that Dummling stories are statistically more frequent in the white man’s society than in others, and it is obvious why that is so.”

Once you start thinking along these lines, many characters spring to mind from history as well as the arts.  Saint Francis, who called himself “God’s Fool,” brought flexibility and Eros to the medieval church.  A classic movie example from recent times is  Forest Gump 1994.  Tom Hanks’ Dummling character succeeded where the smart people failed.  Gump, who lived in the moment and was close to his emotions, reacted to things as they happened rather than to his own fixed ideas.  Remember the movie’s opening shot of a feather?  If nothing else, that convinces me that Forest Gump’s creators knew the Dummling stories in detail.

Tom Hanks as a modern Dummling

Tom Hanks as a modern Dummling

Von Franz amplifies the detail of the feather, saying it was a common medieval practice in many countries.  “If someone did not know where to go, if they were lost at a crossroads or had no special plan, he would take a feather, blow on it and walk in which ever direction the wind took it.  That was a very common kind of oracle by which you could be guided.”

It isn’t as apparent in this Dummling tale as it is many others that the older brothers are modern A-types.  They don’t have time to fuss with insignificant creatures like frogs, or dwarves, or old ladies, or any of those helpful beings who guide the youngest brothers on their way.  Youngest brothers have time to listen because their calendars are clear.  They sit by their feathers or walk through the forest, paying attention and waiting for new ideas to arrive.

Von Franz used the feather analogy in discussing her method of therapy.  She said when her patients were stuck, she would listen to their dreams to see which way the winds of the psyche were blowing.  When I studied psychology, one of my teachers spoke in the same vein, of the importance of listening to the little impulse, the small thoughts that are easy to ignore, like “Oh, that looks interesting,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice to take a few hours off for a walk beside the river?”  Smart older brothers, working on their MBA’s, don’t have time for things like that, which is how they get into therapy in the first place.

I’ve heard that when he was president, Harry Truman once said, “We’re going to try X, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”  Our government might not be so stuck if politicians dared to admit that sometimes they don’t know the answers and need to see which way their feathers blow.

Sometimes being “smart” is a greater hindrance than being “dumb,” for the key thing is to be teachable.

I came upon the Dummling stories years ago, and they often come to mind when things are stuck in my own life or in what I observe around me.  “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing,” is a common and useful bit of advice.  I sometimes restate it and say, “When you don’t know what to do, sit by your feather and pay attention.”

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77 Responses to Tales of the Dummling

  1. easyondeyes says:

    🙂 I like this! I was just noticing a similar phenomenon in the Louisa May Alcott short story I was reading. We’ve always loved an apparent underdog.


  2. ngwicked says:

    Reblogged this on ngwicked and commented:
    Bulls eye… 🙂


  3. Pretty interesting, how living in the moment and not having fixed ideas can lead a guy to become a king. Perhaps it’s saying we should be more Zen and focus on the now so that we may find the happiness we need.


    • For quite a while, I was an active member of a local storyteller’s guild, and during that time I went to storytelling festivals, some of which featured storytellers of national or even international renown. One and only one time, did I hear a teller, after the story, tell the audience what she thought it meant. It became clear to me then everyone needs to be free to come to their own conclusions, or chew it over with friends as one does after a good movie. The conclusion you draw is very compelling and a slightly different view than any I had come up with before. Thank you!


  4. mehakzaidi says:

    i will love reading this.


  5. L. Palmer says:

    It seems the ‘Dummling’ method is to stop, look, and to listen. Instead of rushing off to the first thing that comes along, the youngest son takes the time to sit and look and observe what’s going on. It could be seen as a different version of the tortoise and the hare, from this perspective – slow down and keep steady, and you’ll end up ahead – which apparently includes a kingdom, a hot wife, a ring, and a nice rug.
    I’m glad I read this. I never looked at these ‘youngest son’ stories this way before.


    • The other thing that youngest sons (and youngest daughters) sometimes do is stay open to advice. In the other story I referenced in the post, “The Water of Life,” the two older brothers head through the forest on their chargers. A little dwarf by the side of the road asks, “Where are you going?” The oldest two say, “None of your business – I have important things to do.” The dwarf mutters some magic words and they each become stuck – literally – between rock walls so that they and their horses can neither go forward or backwards.

      When the dwarf asks the youngest son he says, “I need to find the Water of Life to save my father but I don’t know where to find it.” The dwarf shows him the way and gives him the magical implements he will need.

      So I guess what the youngest ones have is the knack of doing the exact right thing at the right time. (Simple, huh?)


  6. Carie Fox says:

    I love the theme of reclaiming the missing feminine. This also makes me think of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the only one to speak the obvious was a young boy. The problem is that in the Emp’s New Clothes, the boy is rewarded, which is hardly consonant with real life experience. Likewise, in these Dummling stories there is a reward. Are there stories in which the boy/fool is punished when he sees and speaks to that which is repressed?


    • I really don’t know if the youngest son is ever punished. The one resource that might have an answer is the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, which is a multi-volume compilation of story motifs, and assigns each one a number. There’s a set in the local state college library and turns up some interesting things. This one would be classified under Dummling and “animal bride” and probably several others. I’d be able to answer your question from that if I was a “professional” folklorist, but I’m just an amateur/youngest son type folklorist. Thanks for stopping by!


  7. Perhaps the most interesting part of this particular dummling tale is that the older brothers took whatever they found first and did not make the effort to discern what was really best. They took nails from wagon wheels and made them into rings, they married the first peasant woman they met. Did they ask questions of anyone or find a guide to help? Did they make an effort to search for what might have been the best? The dummling does ask the questions and makes a more thorough search (with a lot of help) and perhaps that is why he always seems to win. I think it is also about the type of effort put into the task.


    • “Did they ask questions of anyone or find a guide to help?” This is really a key question! Finding a guide is crucial in so many different kinds of stories.

      The professor I mentioned in the post had studied a large number of tales and concluded that the single guarantee of success in fairytales, bar none, is finding an animal guide (and taking its advice). It’s easy to psychologize that as “reconnecting with the instincts,” or “de-throning the ego” but I’m sure it had a far wider meaning to the more rural populations who kept these stories alive for hundreds of years. Even now, without even thinking, I look at how thick the dogs’ coats are as winter approaches…


      • Taking the advice is key. There is one tale in which the sweet stepsister is told by the habitants of the house to sweep away the snow and she will find the strawberries she has been sent to find. She does so and is blessed. But when her evil step sister comes (out of jealousy) she is told the same thing but refuses to follow their advice. Once she leaves, the inhabitants curse her.
        In the end it appears that courtesy and good manners win more for the person as well as listening to the guide.


      • That’s an excellent point. The story of the strawberries in the snow is included in the annotated collection as, “The Three Little Men in the Woods.” I think some have argued that tales like that serve to teach girls that niceness, is the highest virtue, but several stories come right to mind where compassion and kindness are key to finding a wise ally for male protagonists too. I can think of a few stories where the clueless blunder through, but none where someone who is cruel or mean succeeds. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  8. Opinionated Man says:

    Well that was better than cliff notes, nice post and a good read!


  9. Alongside Forrest Gump, I would also add the character Chance the Gardener from Being There, the 1970 novella written by Jerzy Kosinski (also beautifully adapted in film, starring Peter Sellers as Chance – his last film) as another contemporary embodiment of the Dummling figure.

    Fantastic article by the way!


    Regards, Paul


  10. Interesting thought process that I should have seen but thought of. Thanks for posting


  11. Animockery says:

    I am the youngest of four and I am considered in my family as a whimsical daydreamer, not sure about the dumb part but I have been known to be short sighted and make mistakes beyond the normal amount. In the end my life is pretty good and I have a ton of great stories from it.


    • I’m wary of taking family roles too literally, but I don’t think I’d be writing about fairytales if my inner whimsical-daydreamer wasn’t doing well. I also suspect that it’s normal to think you’ve made more mistakes than normal. I had not thought about it that way, but I guess I bunch of good stories to tell is a decent return on mistakes. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment!


  12. indytony says:

    It’s been a while since I read the book and saw the movie, but “Being There” (which starred Peter Sellers as Chance, the Gardener) might be another example of a “Dummling” character. I think academic intelligence often gets in the way common sense. I’ve known plenty of everyday heroes in my life who weren’t considered bright by almost any measure.

    Thanks for the post.


    • I agree with you. You’re the second reader who reminded me of “Being There.” I was going to include the movie as another reference, but the post was getting rather long. Also, I’d already written of “Being There” in a review of “Life: the Movie” by Neal Gabler in March, 2012.

      Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment!


  13. Xraypics says:

    I’ve been reading the Grimm’s Tales since I was about six – nearly 60 years ago. Glad you are looking at them with a new eye.


  14. Corinna says:

    Thinking about your article the following thoughts came to my mind: The Dummling doesn’t expect anything. While the brothers desperately want to reach their goal becoming king, the Dummling more or less continues his normal life. Meanwhile he is open for everything and, in the end, gets more than he ever wanted. Somehow a comforting idea. 😉


    • As I read your comment, the biblical phrase, “Take no thought for the morrow…” came to mind. Similar, I think. Discussions like this bring to mind so many new things to look for in the old stories. What are the keys to success in these tales? Letting go and finding a wise helper seem like the big ones.

      Von Franz looked at fairytales as the root expressions of the psyche, more fundamental than myths or scripture because there are fewer cultural overlays or elaborations by creative individuals. So instead of advice from Jesus or Buddha, you have talking animals, but from a certain point of view, I think the truths run parallel.


      • Corinna says:

        Yeah, right. Couldn’t we all use a wise helper sometimes? Somehow for me it’s even easier to believe that an animal could talk to me than a God. 😉

        Anyway, their is a huge variety of ways to success in fairytales. For one character it’s letting go and finding a helper. For another on it can be to actively search for a place in the world – like all that king’s daughters that have to leave their homes to find a new one.

        In general, I aggree with the scientists that are seeing fairytales as a mirror of human life with all its struggles, fightings and different phases. I always liked and still like to read fairytales from all over the world, because, no matter of the country or the continent, they make me aware that innermost wishes and thoughts of people are not so different.


      • It is my understanding that the earliest spiritual traditions were shamanic, and the oldest altars anthropologists have found were adorned with cave bear skulls. So the importance of totem animals is tens of thousands of years old. Think of all the animals in the cave paintings. It makes sense that in stories with really old roots, special wisdom should come through an animal.

        Also in her study of fairytales, one of Marie-Louise von Franz fundamental beliefs was that these stories all tell a bit of the “great” story of the discovery of the SELF. For Jung and his close associates, the Self was a clinical term for “Higher Power within,” or “Divine Wisdom within.” Jung shied away from overt spiritual terms, since the scientific community of the day would have dismissed his theories, but the implication is everywhere in his work. And, animals to him, were one of the key “symbols of the self.” So he would not have blinked at the idea that God could talk through an animal in a dream or folktale.

        Thanks again for your extremely thoughtful comments!


  15. samohankakkar says:

    Reblogged this on KaXtone.com and commented:


  16. cftc10 says:

    Reblogged this on cftc10.


  17. GalOnTrip says:

    great observation about cultural background behind the repetitive “habits” of old fairy tales. a feather? a good point to mention. sometimes you need to follow where the wind blows (and a feather is the lightest object to blow) if you don’t know which way to choose and logical sense don’t make sense any longer. something pleasurable to read, great post!


  18. I found this article interesting and thought provoking. I may read it several times to really “absorb” it all.


  19. ”When you don’t know what to do, do nothing.”

    What a great admonition for standing still, instead of our obsession with constant motion.


  20. Jaggi says:

    Reblogged this on Jaggi.


  21. Chas Spain says:

    Morgan – really fascinated by your post. I was teased mercilessly by my brothers for drawing ‘princesses’ and reluctantly left this for more ‘grown up’ subjects as I got older. But after reading Possession by AS Byatt I was intrigued by the use of mythology and legend – particularly around the symbol of feminine power which represented a Victorian (male) fear of sexuality. I reinterpreted one richly told story in the book with a set of illustrations – which is a close version of the water of life quest. It would intrigue me to know your take on this work and how the three female version has evolved http://chasspain.wordpress.com/fantasy/ .


    • I really enjoy your artwork. I’ve never read Possession, so I can’t comment on how well the four drawings fit, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t connect. You seem to have approached this in a very thoughtful way. AS Byatt contributed a great essay to the annotated Grimm’s volume. I don’t have it in front of me at the moment, but she included some basic characteristics of fairytales. For instance, as Tolkien observed, they hardly ever involve fairies (for that reason most “official” folklorists call them “wonder tales). Also, there is really no character development, i.e., fairytale princes and princesses are largely interchangeable. And finally, they were not aimed at children – in fact, there was a certain amount of bawdy material in the first edition that Jacob Grimm removed for the second, in hopes of boosting circulation by positioning the stories as something parents could read to kids. Interestingly, though he didn’t make it so obvious that Rapunzel got pregnant, he did ramp up the violence (the more things change…).

      Thanks for your comments.


  22. Sparkling!
    Believing in fairy tails generates fairy dust.


    • Fairies have tails? Fairy dust seems to work in tales of the younglings, but looses its juice in stories about their olders. Then the olders need to get tricksy, which makes for some really interesting tails, but that is another topic.


      • What if fairies and their tales and tails get re-juiced up for us grown ups?
        This is my world. : ) Fairies abound. some have tails. All have fairy dust for you.


      • Depends on what you mean by “re-juiced up.” The most recent attempts seem to be two movies with trailers that show nothing more than an overload of digital special effects. I’ll take a pass on those. Otherwise, there is always room for every generation to re-vision the great old stories. And speaking of movies, did you see this?http://wp.me/sYql4-11824 Put’s Hollywood 2013 (so called) fairtales to shame!


      • I’ll have to check that out.
        Mostly the real fairies are the best. : )


  23. kbennitt says:

    Reblogged this on Reviewers Corner and commented:
    something I never thought to ponder on…Why do some authors start the majority of their books the same way? The characters change, but they are either doing the same thing or there is some other pattern that repeats…


  24. Sue Ghosh says:

    Reblogged this on Sue's Space and commented:
    Interesting take


  25. Rosi says:

    Your posts are always such a pleasant break in my life. I didn’t know this story, but I think it’s great. And I love all the connections you make. There is a lot to ponder here. Thanks for another wonderful post.


  26. Peter Rudd says:

    Another example of this is Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers) in the movie Being There.


    • You’re absolutely right. Another reader pointed that out. I didn’t mention Chance because I had done so in a previous post, plus the text was running long. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  27. Christine Irving says:

    The wisdom of the fool is such an interesting subject. Naivete is so elusive because it takes only the tiniest loss of innocence to turn it from genuine to fake – kind of like milk curdling. Fairytales pin it down and allow us a longer look, time to think about it, which we want to do because we all have such a stong connection with the state of being naive. The problem is as soon as we beocome conscious and start observing ourselves its gone, leaving the world not quite as paintbox fresh and vibrant as it was a moment ago. We all yearn to be back inthe Garden at some level.

    I liked very much the way you pinpointed the feather symbol and made it relevant. Thanks so much, I love fairy tales mysel and von Franz is an long-time favorite of mine. I thnk you did her proud. Thanks


    • Thank you very much for you kind comments. Somehow, the fool is free enough of collective biases to see the right thing to do at the right time – a state it’s not easy to return to once sophistication sets in. Kind of like the Zen parable – in the beginning, rivers are rivers mountains are mountains; later rivers are more than rivers and mountains are more than mountains; at the end, when true wisdom has been achieved, rivers are again rivers and mountains are again mountains. (or something like that…)


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