Little People in a Big World: On Wendy Gag’s Version of the Brothers Grimm Tale, “The Seven Swabians”


“The Seven Swabians” is a funny Brothers Grimm tale about how a bunch of cowards pretending to be tough manage to avoid possible monsters that are really, since they are created out of fear, of their own making.  But that’s not the point.  The highlight is the fact that – despite their ridiculous encounters – their comical community still believes it is on an adventure even after it has realized that it was fooled by its own imaginings.  Their charm is to be found in the their wandering stupidity.  Two ironic moments stand out: one by the largest and first of the Swabians and one by last and smallest.    The reader gets the last twist when she realizes that she has been thinking that they were big people who were going out into the world but they are really smaller than Rabbits who they comically mistake for monsters.

Once seven Swabians were together. The first was Herr Schulz, the second Jackli, the third Marli, the fourth Jergli, the fifth Michal, the sixth Hans, and the seventh Veitli.

 All seven had decided to travel throughout the world seeking adventure and performing great deeds. In order to arm themselves and assure their safety, they thought it would be a good thing to have a single, but very strong and very long spear made for them. Together all seven of them took hold of this spear. The bravest and most manly of them was in front, and that had to be Herr Schulz. The others followed in order, with Veitli bringing up the rear.

When Master Shultz, the leader, sees something that may be dangerous, we see that he can’t manage the courage and just throws himself into destruction. And they all surrender, immediately, with him:

Now one day in the month of July, when they had walked a long way but still had a good piece to go before reaching the village where they were going to spend the night, it happened that they were in a meadow just as it was getting dark, and a large beetle or hornet flew by them from behind a bush, buzzing in a threatening manner.

Herr Schulz was so frightened that he almost let go of the spear, and a cold sweat broke out over his whole body. “Listen, listen,” he shouted to his comrades. “Good heaven, I hear a drum!”

Jackli, who was holding the spear behind him, and who had just smelled, I don’t know what, said, “Something is here for sure. I can smell the powder and the fuses.”

Hearing these words, Herr Schulz began to run away, and he quickly jumped over a fence, landing right on the teeth of a rake that had been left lying there from haymaking. The handle hit him in the face with a tremendous blow.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” screamed Master Schulz. “Take me prisoner! I surrender! I surrender!” 

The other six all jumped toward him, one over the other, screaming, “If you surrender, I surrender too. If you surrender, I surrender too.”

But no enemy was there to bind them and take them away, so they finally saw that they had been deceived. To keep the story from getting out and causing them to look foolish and to be ridiculed, they all swore to one another that they would say nothing about it until one of them should open his mouth by mistake.

But it is the smallest one who starts a chain of reaction to the next danger they encounter, which may or may not be real:

The second danger that they experienced cannot be compared to the first one. A few days later their path led them across an unplowed field where a hare was sitting asleep in the sun. Its ears were standing straight up, and its large glassy eyes were wide open.

All of them were frightened at the sight of this terrible wild beast, and they discussed with one another what would be the least dangerous thing to do. If they were to run away, they feared that the monster would pursue them and devour them all, even their skin and hair.

So they said, “We will have to fight a great and dangerous battle. Well begun is half done!”

Then all seven took hold of the spear, Herr Schulz in front and Veitli at the rear. Herr Schulz was always trying to hold the spear back, but at the rear Veitli had become quite brave, and wanted to break loose. He shouted:

Strike out, in every Swabian’s name,

 Or else I wish that you be lame.

They all follow suit with poetic articulations of their last words before they charge, but the last words go to the leader.  He must charge first.

But he falls apart and can’t do it.  At that moment, the monster wakes up, its just a Rabbit:

Then Herrr Schulz took courage, and said:

Boldly then, we go to war.

Then all will know how brave we are.

Then all together they attacked the dragon. Herr Schulz crossed himself and prayed to God for assistance, but none of this helped, so, approaching the enemy, he screamed in great fear, “Oh, oh, oh, oh!”

This awakened the hare, and the frightened animal darted swiftly away. When Herr Schulz saw it thus fleeing from the battlefield, he shouted out joyfully:

Quick, Veitli, look there,

The monster is a hare.”

It was all an illusion.  And the reader realizes that they are all really just small people who mistakenly see rabbits as monsters.

But they move on…as if the journey through the “big” world is still on.  Wanda Gag’s translation of the story* leaves out the negative ending (in which they all drown as they cross a river on the back of a frog) and finishes on a positive Quixotic note and with a secret that is shared with the reader:

And the seven warriors wandered on, well pleased with themselves. No doubt that had other exciting perilous adventures, but they never told anyone about them, no one told me – and so, of course, I can’t tell you.

This reminds me of the “Fools of Chelm” but with a significant difference: when the Seven Swabians are leaving their small town (which is, to play on the schlemiel-Chelm analogy, like a Shtetl) to go out into the world, they all holding onto a weapon, a spear, to protect themselves from anything that may come to kill them. Schlemiels, in contrast, don’t carry any weapons and usually aren’t terrified of the world.  (Although the schlemiels of the Woody Allen variety are a little neurotic,they aren’t terrified of the world.)

What I love about this tale is that it is not just the tale of these small people who go through world.  It is also a secret that is (in the most present tense) shared with the reader. The secret that the author tells us is apparently embarrassing.  But why? Is it  the case that the secret that we may be embarrassed to admit is that we are – like the Seven Swabians –  little people on a journey through a big world and that half the things we fear aren’t real?  

To tell this secret might be both awkward and embarrassing.  This fear may imply that the world we see is actually smaller and less frightening than we are willing to admit or it may imply that we are smaller than the world.  And herein lies the question in which the comedy of smallness is suspended.

*Side note: See this nice survey of Wendy Gag’s illustrations (which is in the company of a few exceptionally great illustrators of children’s stories and fairy tales).

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