The Bremen Town Musicians

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Basic Plot Summary: A donkey, a dog, a cat and a hen meet up on the road. All are past their prime and all were discarded or threatened with death by their masters, so they decide to travel to Bremen and become musicians. On their way, they pass a cottage where robbers are celebrating their latest take. The animals climb up on top of each other and sing at the window, which scares the robbers away and the animals settle into the house for a good meal and shelter. In the middle of the night, one of the robbers returns to investigate and in the dark, he encounters the animals, who defend their new home in the darkness. He misinterprets their actions as coming from humans and the robbers agree to leave the cottage alone forever, so the animals happily live out their lives there.

The Brothers Grimm included this story in their first published book of tales, but its roots go way back to similar stories told in India in 91 B.C. There are a lot of themes in this story, including the notion of searching for a Utopia and finding someplace else that suits you fine, discovering strength in numbers and living lives of purpose. The image of the four animals in a stack (donkey on bottom, followed by dog, cat and hen) has become a symbol of this story and can be found in many different places, including a statue in the town of Bremen, Germany. It’s been adapted for film, television, symphony, theater and opera and an animated feature film was announced to be in progress for a 2017 release. I’ve always liked this story, although I had quite forgotten about it before this month.

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The Bremen Town Band – Most versions of the story depict the animals as musicians who play instruments (or a variation of them) but in this version, they are all singers who plan to sign with the Bremen Town Band. Author/illustrator Brian Wildsmith keeps the story pretty much the same but adds an interesting detail in the artwork. On nearly every page, the main animals are in the company of other animals, such as owls or deer or beautifully colored butterflies. While these animals don’t participate in the story, they seem to be watching it unfold and they certainly add some visual appeal as well. (Oxford University Pres, 1999)

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The Musicians of Bremen – This pint-sized book, from author Jane Yolen and illustrator John Segal, was originally sold as a two-book set, along with Little Mouse and Elephant, which is a story from Turkey.  Ms. Yolen follows a conversation formula as the animals meet each other along the road and somehow, even though they are making plans to be musicians, you just know they have no musical skills. This is confirmed at the end, when the story ends with the fact that the people of Bremen should be happy that the animals never made it there. Mr. Segal’s watercolor illustrations are simple, but very whimsical, giving the whole story a comic edge.  (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1996)

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The Bremen Town Musicians – Author/illustrator Janet Stevens keeps to the original tale in her version.  The mixed media artwork uses gouache, pastel and ink on handmade rice paper, which was made from rice straw and hemp. I love that the animals here look their age and they look mangy and forgotten, as well.  Both of these make it even more meaningful, in my opinion, when they find their new home and defend it. I liked this version quite a bit. (Holiday House, 1992)

And what did we learn? What I take away from The Bremen Town Musicians is that you are never too old or too useless to pursue happiness.

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