“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett
“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.
Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.
Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down? Maybe…
These stories have elements in common:
- The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
- They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
- They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.
I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.
In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life. If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell.
For seven years, he must not bathe, or wash, comb, or cut his hair. He isn’t allowed to trim his nails or wipe any water from his eyes. He must stoke the fires under a number of pots of hell-broth, but not lift the lids to peek inside. He is to clean the kitchens of hell, and sweep the dirt behind the door.
Hans looks into the pots of course, and finds his former officers stewing inside. He adds extra wood to those fires, and the seven years pass quickly. The Devil, of course, knows he looked, but Hans didn’t let the fires go out, so the Devil gives him a knapsack of sweepings which turn to gold when he returns to the world above.
Hans, however, has not learned to be tricky enough. He makes the rookie mistake of telling an innkeeper about his gold, and of course, it is stolen. He returns to hell where the Devil gives him another bag and authorizes Hans to tell the innkeeper he’ll go straight to hell if he doesn’t return the first bag.
After the innkeeper makes good, Hans returns for a visit to his father, echoing a key element of Campbell’s hero cycle. He then goes about playing music, which he learned to do in hell. He plays so well that he attracts the attention of a king, who gives Hans his daughter in marriage, and when the old king dies, Hans ascends the throne.
In the most complex of the stories, Brother Lustig, (Grimm tale #81), Saint Peter is the trickster, the tester, and benefactor after Lustig is mustered out of the service. Peter appears three times as a man in need, and each time, Lustig gives him a portion of the bread and one of the four coins he received with his discharge. Fairytale heroes need benefactors, and compassion for a (seeming) outcast – a beggar, an old man or woman, a dwarf, an animal, a snake, or a frog – is the classic way of winning the help of a wise mentor.
When the bread and coins are gone, Peter leads Lustig about, healing the sick, but accepting no reward for his services. Lustig, who is inordinately fond of food, wine, and gold, contrives to get the rewards for himself.
On several occasions, Peter leaves Lustig with enough gold to last him for years, but it’s rapidly squandered. Peter, who by then we guess, is a bit sick of his company, gives Lustig a special knapsack and departs. Anything Lustig summons will enter the bag, so we what will happen to nearby roasts, or wineskins, or piles of coin.
During his dark night of trial, Lustig goes alone to a castle haunted by nine demons. When they attack, he summons them into the knapsack and carries it too a blacksmith who hammers the bag on an anvil until eight of the demons are dead – compassion for demons is not required. The surviving imp dashes back to hell.
When Lustig is old, he sets out for heaven, but finds the wide road to hell more pleasant. At the black gate, the surviving demon recognizes Lustig and won’t allow him inside. Lustig treks up to the Pearly Gates, but Peter refuses him too. “At least allow me to return your knapsack,” Lustig says, and passes it through the gate. When Peter takes it, Lustig wishes himself into the bag, and having once gained entrance to Heaven, Peter must let him stay.
Of all the characteristics of tricksters, the critical one for this discussion, is learning to see the world differently, and learning to trust our guts. It can save our lives. A 2005 article in Time Magazine documents studies of 9/11 and other disasters that show how often people react in slow motion incredulity to situations where they should be in overdrive.
At 8:45am on Sept. 11, an airplane struck the World Trade Center North Tower. Those on the top floors of the South Tower had 16 minutes to evacuate. Many started for the exits, but at several points, security people on intercoms or with megaphones said, “The building is secure. Return to your desks.” Those who did so died.
Even when there is plenty of time, we cling to the idea of normalcy. Think of the movie, The Big Short, where only a handful of people saw danger of the economic collapsed in 2007-8.
Though the movie told a dramatic, high-stakes story, in actual fact, dozens of others saw it too, and tried to sound the alert. My father was ill during those years, and in managing his assets, I spent a lot of time on financial websites. As early as 2004, contributors to the Motley Fool bulletin boards warned of a housing bubble, and by 2006, they debated tactics like shorting REIT’s (real estate investment trusts), and other related equities.
In Roman times, “genius” was not a special quality reserved for only a few. It referred to the indwelling wisdom in everyone, which then, as now, too often gets buried in the details of living.
Mike Brown, of Saratoga Springs, NY, is one who listened to his genius, as well as his passion for really strong coffee. A recent PBS Newshour clip (which I cannot find) documented how Brown quit a boring data entry job, and lived with his mother, before opening a coffee shop in Saratoga Springs. Both his own taste and the request of early morning customers for the strongest possible coffee fueled his research, which led him to a little known Indian coffee bean, and a unique roasting process. His brew has twice the caffeine of Starbucks.
The business Brown started, “Death Wish Coffee,” hit the big time in February after winning Intuit’s annual “Small business, big game” contest, the prize for which is 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl:
Even if most of us never live through a disaster or need to start a business, we all go through stuck times in our lives, and they can go on and on. Be it seven years in the Devil’s kitchen or a single night in a demon-infested castle, all we can do is hang on, for our resources have failed us. Our known resources that is. It’s the time to listen for whispers and hints from our genius.
In fairytales, it’s the ant, or the snake, or the fox, or the small voice by the side of the road. It’s the old man or woman, the hunchback, the talking horse, or even the dark man with a cloven hoof. In our world, it’s the tiny impulse, the back-of-the-mind thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice to…”
The ignored or despised characters in folklore, just like the ignore or despised characters in our psyche, are the one’s who bring possibilities and fresh inspiration. New life doesn’t come from ministers, or pundits and teachers, or government officials or the respectable gentry. Tricksters know this, and so should we.