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That’s Not a Fairy Tale!

Part 2 – Max and Moritz - Villains or Victims?


License to Kill.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

What do all these movies have in common? They all feature people being fed into some form of mincing machine or chipper.

What do they also have in common? They’ve never been wildly popular children’s classics.

Unlike the subject of today’s post, Max and Moritz.

Max and Moritz, by Wilhelm Busch, is the tale of two boys who play a series of pranks on the people in their town and, in return, are tied up in a sack and fed into a grinder.

Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

And also to millions of Victorian parents.

The irony is that Busch never intended Max and Moritz to be a children’s story - it was a satire about the social situation in Germany in the 1860s. But, like a social media user getting irate about an article in The Onion…

…this subtlety was lost on parents, who instead saw a great way to entertain/educate/scare the bejeezus out of their children. During Busch's lifetime, the book sold 430,000 copies in 10 languages; it's now sold millions of copies in 300 languages and dialects.

Even if they missed the irony, it seems odd that Victorian parents saw such a great moral lesson in this book. But maybe forcing two live children into a corn grinder and feeding them to the poultry (yes, really!) was actually a measured and appropriate response. Maybe Max and Moritz were notorious arsonists, murderers or didn’t put the toilet seat up when having a wee. Let’s look at the case for the prosecution.

Prank/crime 1 - chicken murder.

The pair’s first laugh-a-minute jape was to tie cotton to pieces of bread and then feed them to an old lady’s chickens. The chickens managed to strangle themselves, depriving the widow of the only animals she has to live on. Now, that’s quite brutal for a children’s book, especially the bit where they lay eggs at the moment of death.

But, before you pass sentence on the youngsters, we should consider prank number two.

Prank/crime 2 - roast chicken theft

Widow Bolte, the newly chicken-less old lady, decides the best thing she can do is to cook and eat the chickens, but Max and Moritz have other ideas. As she goes off to find some Sauerkraut to go with a meal, they steal the chickens and eat them. Meanwhile, Widow Bolte’s dog gets the blame and gets beaten with a ladle.

This alone, I think you’ll agree, justifies their death sentence. I mean, there’s no proof that they did it, but better safe than sorry. However, before you rush off to power up the industrial blender, there’s more.

Prank/crime 3 – attempted drowning

We’ve got a witness for this one. The local tailor, Master Buck, is lured from his house by the boys. Little does he know, but they have sawn through the bridge outside his house, causing him to fall into the freezing, fast flowing river. He is only saved when he grabs onto the legs of two geese and they pull him free. Even then, he is hypothermic and has to be ironed by his wife to warm him up.

I think you’ll agree that, after hearing this evidence, they got off fairly lightly being minced alive. That’s even before we consider:

Prank/crime 4 – attempted murder

If you fill someone’s pipe with gunpowder, what do you think will happen? In this case, the damage was limited to blowing up the pipe, singeing off all Herr Lampel’s hair and turning his skin black.

Ok, perhaps it’s time we heard the case for the defence, especially considering the next prank:

Prank (definitely a prank) 5 - bugs in the bed

Come on, this is fairly harmless bit of fun. Gather up some May bugs and tip them into an old man’s bed. The bugs come off the worst, as they end up being squashed to bits by Uncle Fritz.

And most people would say Max and Moritz were the victims in the next one.

Prank/possible attempted child murder 6 – being baked

No, I don’t mean they will offer heads on dope. The two young lads were feeling hungry and decided to do some light breaking and entering at the baker’s. They end up falling into the trough of dough and, when the baker sees them, he rolls up into loaves of bread and sticks them into a red-hot oven. That’s got to be attempted murder in anyone’s book. Fortunately, the boys survived this ordeal and ate their way to freedom.

Sadly, the vicious townsfolk weren’t finished yet.

Prank/definite child murder 7 – the corn grinder

Max and Moritz decide it would be funny to cut open the bags of corn being carried by a farmer. As he carries some, all the corn falls out. A bit naughty, definitely, but no more than that. In response, the psychotic grain grower grabs for boys and shops in the sack, before carrying them off to the mill. The Miller, in full knowledge of what he’s doing, tips the boys into the grain hopper.

Just to add insult to injury, the Miller’s ducks/geese then eat the boy’s remains.

So, there you have it. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is light-hearted japery being over analysed by modern woke sensibilities, or the extreme end of vigilante justice more suited to a horror film than a children’s book.

I think what we can all agree on, however, is it’s a cracking read and, who knows, maybe more modern stories should follow this approach. For example, Julia Donaldson’s ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ would now read:

“Wise old man, won’t you help me, please?

My house is a Squash and a squeeze.”

“Blend them all up,” said the wise old man,

“Then stuff their remains in a baked bean can.”

Or how about ‘Room on the Broom?’

“I am a frog, as clean as can be.

Is there room on the broom for a frog like me?”

“Yes,” said the witch, “if we mince you up first,

and use dog’s intestines to make froggy wurst.”

The witch waved her wand and the blender switched on,

She dropped in the froggy and…Whoosh! he was gone.

See? Much better.

Right, I’m off to watch Nightmare on Elm Street for inspiration for my next book. I’ll see you next time for our first visit to the equally violent but far more surreal world of fairy tales.

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