I was introduced to this Grimm fairy tale by the Jim Henson TV series The Storyteller and therefore mentally fill in all the gaps with sorrowful puppetry. It begins with a wealthy farmer whose horrible friends are always laughing at his childlessness and eventually he snaps, shouting, “I will have a child and it shall be a hedgehog.” That’ll…show them?
Soon enough, his wife does indeed give birth. Their son is an ordinary boy from the waist down, but a hedgehog from the waist up, because in fairy tales wishing for something you don’t really want guarantees you’ll get it.
The farmer’s wife is, unsurprisingly, a bit freaked out. The baby’s spikes preclude his occupying an ordinary cradle, so his parents make a bed of straw behind the kitchen stove and for eight years Hans the Hedgehog sleeps there. His father hates the sight of his mistake so much he wishes his son would die – but still asks the boy what he wants from market when going on a shopping trip, and brings back the requested bagpipes, which seems a pretty kind gesture. It’s confusing. As soon as Hans has the bagpipes, he asks for a rooster, has it fitted with a bridle and rides away on its back into the forest. With him, he takes a boar and a donkey.
For many years, Hans lives alone, tending his beasts and playing his bagpipes. One day, a king lost in the forest follows the sound of his music and asks for help returning to his kingdom. Hans agrees to give directions, if the king will give whatever first greets him upon his return. He actually has the king sign a contract, so he can’t backflip on the terms. You have to admire the forethought.
Of course, it’s the king’s daughter who first greets him, and it turns out the king double-crossed Hans after all – banking on the fact that a feral half-hedgehog man would be unable to read, he wrote that Hans would not have the first thing to greet him. The king explains the whole business to his daughter, who is very pleased at his quick thinking.
Some time later another king gets lost in the forest and encounters Hans. He gets returned to his kingdom after an identical bargain, only he writes what he’s told. Like his predecessor, he’s greeted by his daughter, and is grieved but resigned to the idea he’ll have to hand her over when Hans comes calling. She is likewise composed, if unhappy about it.
Hans takes his time in following up both deals. He’s amassed such an enormous herd of pigs that he sends them to be slaughtered in his father’s village, which makes the farmer sad and not at all for the right reasons – he assumed his son dead long ago and is disappointed at being proved wrong. Hans doesn’t linger, simply has his rooster rebridled before riding off to collect his promised princesses.
The first king has prepared his guardsmen: if anyone comes riding up on a rooster, playing the bagpipes, he’s to be killed on sight. That doesn’t work out so well, as the rooster simply flies in through a window. Hans makes his terms clear: either the girl is handed over, or he kills both her and her father. Left with no choice, she joins Hans in a royal carriage, with all the dowry her miserable father can put together at short notice. They have not driven far when Hans pulls off her shawl and pricks her cruelly with his spikes. “That is your reward for falsehood! Go away! I will have nothing to do with you!”
So according to this story, menacing a young woman into marriage in return for a basic courtesy is A-OK, but trying to escape aforesaid marriage is the height of wickedness. You can probably guess how I feel about that.
Hans is not done yet; he continues straight on to the second kingdom, where he’s allowed inside without protest. Despite her fear, this princess is not fighting her fate. She marries him the same day and Hans gives some orders of his own – when he goes to bed tonight, he’ll shuck off his hedgehog skin, and the king’s men must be ready to take and burn it. All is done exactly as he says. With the skin turned to ashes, Hans becomes fully human. He marries the princess for the second time the next day, to make his transformation official, and shortly afterwards the kingdom is passed over into his care.
A few years later he returns to the farmer’s house and introduces himself as his son. The farmer insists he has no child – that once he had one covered in spikes like a hedgehog, but he disappeared long ago. Hans then tells him the whole story, they celebrate, and the farmer comes to live in his kingdom.
Promises are important in fairy tales, and those who renege on their word are courting disaster, or at least villain status. According to this fairy tale, the second king is the better man, but give me the one who tried to protect his daughter any day.
Also, I still like The Storyteller’s version better.