One of the most odd and disturbing fairy tales I’ve read in my studies was Hans, my Hedgehog. You can find the fairy tale here or continue reading for a summary of the story.
It starts with a farmer who wants a child, and has the nerve to say, “I don’t even care what it is — I just want a child.” Well, that’s a mistake, because what he gets is a mutant half-hedgehog, half-boy with long spiked quills along his head and torso. The farmer and his wife decide there’s nothing for it but to stick him behind the fireplace on a bed of hay. They’re probably hoping that he catches fire and burns to a crisp. They’re certainly hoping that he dies, clearly unworried about manslaughter, but he doesn’t. He lies there for eight years. Alive.
One day, the farmer asks the boyhog if he wants something at the local festival.
The boy answers: Bagpipes! Of course. Because a half-hedgehog half-boy who has spent his life behind a fireplace knows about bagpipes. When his father returns Hans tells him to shoe the rooster and give him some donkeys and pigs. Hans sweetens the deal by telling him that he’ll leave forever if he agrees.
His father agrees, dancing a little jig, and Hans rides off on his rooster into the forest and hops up into a tree, where he plays his bagpipes day and night and watches over his quickly multiplying swine herd.
One day a king gets lost in the forest. He hears bagpipes coming from a tree and looks up. It’s HANS! Instead of running away as he should, he asks for directions. Hans puts down his bagpipes. He answers, “Sure, your kingdom is right over there.”
Oh, wait, but this is a fairy tale. So, instead, he answers, “Sure, but you’ll have to give me the first thing that greets you when you arrive at your palace.” The king agrees, but writes a false contract. When he returns home, guess what greets him first? Not a dog. Not his cavalry. Not a guard at the gate. Nope, his daughter. And he’s like, “I’m so happy to see you. If I weren’t so clever you would have to marry a half-hedgehog half-boy.” And his daughter was like, “Papa, have you been drinking again?” Kidding. She said, “Good, because I wouldn’t have gone with him anyway.”
Hans returns to his place high on a branch and a second king gets lost. Hans tells King #2 the same as King #1. This king, however, truthfully agrees to Hans plan. Hans leads him home, where his daughter greets him first.
Hans returns to his home for some shenanigans and pig slaughtering, then goes to the kingdom of King #1. A homicidal crowd greets him (is that any way to treat a guest?), and the cowardly king begs his daughter to go with the hedgeboy to save them both. The daughter agrees, and this is when things turn dark.
She seated herself in the carriage, and placed Hans the Hedgehog beside her with the cock and the bagpipes, and then they took leave and drove away, and the King thought he should never see her again. He was however, deceived in his expectation, for when they were at a short distance from the town, Hans the Hedgehog took her pretty clothes off, and pierced her with his hedgehog’s skin until she bled all over. “That is the reward of your falseness,” said he. “go your way, I will not have you!” and on that he chased her home again, and she was disgraced for the rest of her life.
If that isn’t the most blatant sexual innuendo (No, RAPE INNUENDO!) ever, I don’t know what is. I’d like to say it gets better, but from here on out, it gets more bizarre. The hedgehogboy then heads off for kingdom #2 to retrieve his second prize, since the first wasn’t perfect enough. The girl is rightly scared, but goes off with Hans anyway. They marry and that night Hans strips off his skin (HE CAN DO THAT?) and a bunch of burly men burn his skin in the fire. He is now a man, but burned black, until a physician comes in and cleans and anoints him til he is white…and all is well.
Jim Henson’s Retelling
Jim Henson twists this story around to make it somewhat more palatable, although it’s still bizarre. First, Hans’s quills are actually soft (no danger here). More importantly, there is no King #1 and no “poking” or “piercing” of the daughter. Instead the emphasis is on the relationship between the princess and the hedgehog. She burns his skin due to some machinations of her mother and Hans rides off on his rooster. She has to walk the earth, wearing through three pairs of iron shoes until she proves her worth to him. This retelling is actually a combination of Hans the Hedgehog and a Romanian fairy tale called “The Enchanted Pig.”
Still, in this version women are even more foolish than in the first, if that’s possible. But I was too amazed with the transformation from hedgehog to hottie, obviously, to notice their foolishness.
This fairy tale really stuck with me, and I wonder if it’s just my fragile modern sensibilities or if the original listeners of the tale found it striking as well.
The message here is obvious: if you’re a king and you don’t keep your promise, don’t worry, your daughter will take the punishment for you.
Oh, wait? Is that not it? Let’s try again. It’s clearly — don’t ask for directions. Or don’t try to save your scheming father’s life. Or, don’t pray for a child even if it’s a hedgehog.
Do these lessons translate to our world?
How about we do an experiment? The next time someone asks you for directions, tell them you’ll agree if they leave their pretty young daughter with you*. See how fast their fingers hit 911.
Oh, the snark overwhelms me this morning. The real lesson, once you strip away the problematic parts of the story, goes something like this: If you approach people with an open mind, they will find the freedom to strip away their monstrous parts. Maybe. What do you think?
*I take no responsibility for arrests stemming from this experiment. 😉
p.s. If you want to read a really funny summary of this tale, check out J.C. Nelson’s blog.