Thoughts On: Hans In Luck - Too Stupid To Be Wise?


Hans In Luck - Too Stupid To Be Wise?

Thoughts On: Hans In Luck

A look at a Brothers Grimm folktale.

Hans In Luck is a brilliant short story, a German folktale, recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It follows a boy, Hans, who has been working for 7 years (possibly as a serf), and wants to go home to his mother. His master pays him with a large lump of silver bigger than his head and sends him on his way. As he trudges home with the heavy piece of metal, he sees a man riding a horse. Wishing to have the speed and comfort that the horseman possess, he trades his silver for the steed. He rides it too fast, however, and is thrown off. A farmer passes by with a cow to find the dazed Hans. Envying the farmer's ease in leading the cow, Hans trades the horse, happy to have an animal that can give him milk. As he comes closer to his home village, Hans grows hungry. He spends the last of his money on food and beer before moving on. On the move, he remains thirsty, so he attempts to milk his cow, but nothing will come of it. The cow kicks Hans in the head, knocking him out. He comes to, woken by a butcher, who, after an exchange of dialogue, trades the cow for a pig. Soon after he ends up trading the pig for a goose, convinced by a passerby that the pig was stolen and he may get in trouble. Almost home, he runs into a scissor-grinder with a stone wheel and tells him of his luck in getting the goose. The grinder trades the stone for the goose, convincing Hans that he can make money as a grinder himself. Hans, right near his home, sees a lake and takes a drink, hauling the large stone with him. As he quenches his thirst, the stone slides into the water and sinks. Free of the heavy stone, Hans is overjoyed. He returns home to his mother.

This is a fascinating short story because it is one likely told to children. The brilliance of the story would emerge from trying to explain its moral. And so I ask you to ponder a moment: What is the message given?

Any assertion given here would be hinged upon a judgement of value. And this may be why it is hard to conceive of the moral of this story. Hans is initially given a lump of silver for 7 years work. Is the value of the silver equal to the value of the 7 years work? This is not a question I can answer. Alas, we are told that the silver is bigger than Hans' head, and so it seems it is implied that he is given something of great value. Or is the silver merely symbolic of Han's own ignorance? Is it not that the silver is bigger than Hans' head, but that the silver is too large for Hans to understand (with his head)? I think this is certainly the case with me.

With this lump of ambiguous value, Hans leaves his toil to return home. He swaps this for a variety of animals, eventually a rock, out of ease and necessity. The value judgements we have to make remain somewhat ambiguous. Is a goose better than a horse? Is a goose better than a horse in Hans' hands? For one, Hans doesn't seem very able to ride it, two, he may not have the space to keep it, three, he may not have the monetary capacity to feed it. Maybe the horse is too much hassle. Or maybe Hans is just lazy. This question can be asked with a comparison between each animal/object with the same interrogative outcome.

We cannot make a true distinction here between laziness and wisdom for it is much too difficult to step into Hans' shoes, into his world, and judge the true value of trade. Are we then to assume that Hans knows better than us or not?

If anything, I believe that the only real indicator of value comes from Hans' journey. He leaves his work to return home to his mother. Why? Is it because he wants to visit her, to take care of her? Is it because he can't bear being a serf? Is it because he can't be bothered to work anymore, because he wants someone to take care of him? Hans' ambiguous motivation is key. If the return to his mother is valiant, then the story has an entirely different meaning than if the return to the mother is symbolically Oedipal. If this is a story of a man-child who cares not to burden himself with anything anymore and only wants to return to a mother who will care for him, then this seems to be a story about the false-wisdom of the weak and lazy. Hans, if he is such a character, sees not the value in silver, horses, cows, etc, because the only value he holds is of numbness; of not bearing the responsibility of a job, of carry a heavy load, learning how to ride a horse, set up a business, etc. Alas, we can take the same conclusion and perceive it in a positive light.

If Hans refuses to judge value with anything apart from his senses and non-logistic, alien intuition, he may be flowing with the tides of life and fate. With an optimistic kind of nihilism, Hans assumes not that he can know the future or the potential in anything but opportunity itself and is always happy with what he is given. Opportunity to Hans is a door life opens for you. Why not walk through it? With this ethic, Hans does what the universe commands in the most rudimentary sense, and so blindly follows fate, refusing to be wise, only fate's fool (which is an oxymoronic kind of wisdom in and of itself). His return to his mother may then be a symbolic return to the epicentre of his being in the universe.

Here we have two conflicting morals of this story, both of which suggest that Hans is simply too stupid to be wise. In one sense, Hans is too stupid to know the value and gravity of his mistakes and laziness. In another sense, Hans accepts that he is stupid in the larger scope of life and so relinquishes all ability to be wise, but nonetheless acts with profundity and meaning. The correct conclusion is the question and game proposed by this narrative. I, personally, think Hans is lazy - yet, maybe this says far more about me than it does this story. So, I leave things open to you. What is the nature of Hans' stupidity in your opinion?

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