Posts Tagged ‘how a ghastly story was brought to light by a common or garden butcher’s dog’

How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common of Garden Butcher’s Dog

December 13, 2016


Johann Peter Hebel’s How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog is an unusual addition to my daily advent calendar of stories: all other choices have generally included only a single story; on occasion (when that first story is shorter) adding another one or two. Hebel’s volume, selected from The Treasure Chest translated by John Hibberd and Nicholas Jacobs in 1994, contains twenty-six. These stories are much shorter, some less than a page – in fact, many of them would be more accurately described as anecdotes – written by Hebel for calendars at the rate of thirty a year.

Their intention was to entertain, but also to instruct – a contemporary Aesop’s Fables, though without the anthropomorphised animals – and this is frequently evident in their conclusion. The end of the first story – in which its protagonist spots someone stealing a silver spoon, and decides to pretend it’s all in fun by asking the landlord, “The spoon’s included, I take it?” – ends with:

“Remember: You must not steal silver spoons!
Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right.”

However, Hebel’s instinct to entertain rather than moralise predominates, one story ending rather lamely, “That was all very artful and cunning, but that doesn’t make it right, especially in a chapel.”

Hebel also wrote poetry in local dialect, and that parochialism (not in then pejorative sense) can be seen in many of the tales which certainly give the impression of being set in places he knows well. ‘Strange Reckoning at the Inn,’ for example, concludes with the declaration that, “This took place in 1805 on the 17th of April in the inn at Segringen.”

Cunning is a key ingredient in many if the stories (as with Aesop) from ‘The Sly Pilgrim’ to the ‘The Cunning Styrian.’ Some characters are no better than con-artists (‘The Fake Gem’; ‘The Weather Man’) though my personal favourite is the man sentenced to death who, as an act of mercy, is allowed to choose how he would like to die and (of course) chooses old age.

I found How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog as entertaining as I’m sure it was two hundred years ago. It is the kind of book destined to be described as one to dip into, but I happily read it through – it’s probably the best hour of 19th century German stand-up you’ll encounter.