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Nothing like a folk tale to engage imaginations and enlarge the world around us—Such is the Brothers Grimm’s Town Musicians of Bremen (1819), still enjoyed by young hearts, six years old or ninety.

The story begins with an aging donkey, decrying his master’s displeasure over his slowness in pulling the cart to market. Rather than face probable death, the donkey flees to Bremen where he will become a musician.

On the road he meets a weary dog, fire thinning his bones. No longer able to hunt, he fears being put down by his master. But the donkey’s invitation to make music sparks his interest and he climbs onto his back.

Next they meet a cat with a face “like three rainy days.” She fears her mistress’s drowning, because blunted teeth prevent her from catching mice in their cottage. She, too, joins them.

Then a rooster crowing with all its might causes them to pause along the road. They learn that cook will cut off his head and prepare him for tomorrow’s dinner. He, too, welcomes the invitation and they continue on toward Bremen.

Although the story contains other adventures, I want to focus upon the four friends, so human in their fears of aging and the specter of death. Happily, the donkey sees beyond his fate and chooses an alternative: making music for others. So inspired he is that others choose similarly and climb onto his back and head for Bremen where everyone loves music.

It’s about discovering and developing meaning in life that keeps us fresh—even living with a terminal illness. I have found it so.

 

Who does not get chills within the bowels of malice in stories of shape-shifting?

One of these is The Soldier’s Tale (1919), the collaborative effort of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the Swiss librettist C. F. Ramuz. Because funds were scarce in the aftermath of the First World War for the composition of large works, Stravinsky scored this old Russian folk tale with seven musicians and four actors/dancers, all sharing the same bare stage. (Check out YouTube.)

We grow to love this war-weary soldier, his knapsack on his back as he cavorts toward his village, all the while anticipating his ten-day leave with his mother and girlfriend. Suddenly, into his path steps the devil, disguised as a maiden who persuades him to exchange the old fiddle (his soul) in his knapsack for a red book filled with secrets for obtaining immense wealth. After three days of luxurious initiation by the devil, the soldier is hooked.

Years of prosperous but increasingly empty living begin to glut the soldier’s passion for fame, and he longs for his old life.

This story line is painfully familiar throughout oral and literary traditions all over the world: All is ours if we but surrender our souls to the devil. A period of unprecedented prosperity ensues until eviscerated by the maggots of worldly success. A longing for the way things used to be glimmers; within its light, some move toward conversion and return to ordinary life.

Others do not, including our soldier of this Russian tale.

 

 

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