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.”