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Literature / Hans the Hedgehog

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Don't underestimate the mighty hedgehog...
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One of the lesser-known stories collected by The Brothers Grimm. A wealthy peasant has one grief in life: he and his wife have no child. One day, he has enough of being mocked by the other peasants for this, and declares that "I will have a child, even if it be a hedgehog." Sure enough, his wife gives birth to a child whose top half is that of a hedgehog and whose bottom half is that of a boy. The horrified parents are left to deal with the situation. Baptized "Hans the Hedgehog",note  the baby cannot be nursed by his mother because of his quills. Given a bed of straw to sleep on behind the stove, Hans pretty much lounges around there for eight years until one day, he asks his father to bring him a set of bagpipes home from the fair. Then Hans tells him to have the rooster shod at the blacksmith's, promising to leave and never come back. His father is only too happy to do so and Hans leaves riding his rooster, taking some pigs and donkeys with him as he leaves. He then spends years in the woods, tending to his growing herd and making beautiful music on his bagpipes while perched on his rooster on the branch of a tree. Time passes and two kings find their way into the woods; both of them notice Hans the Hedgehog and ask him to show them the way out of the woods and to their respective kingdoms. Before doing so, Hans extracts a promise from each of the kings that they will give him the first thing they meet when they come home in exchange. As it happens, each king is greeted by his daughter on returning to the royal palace. The first king tells his daughter about his encounter with Hans but assures her that he does not intend to uphold his empty promise. The princess tells him that this is a good thing, for she would not have gone with Hans anyway. The second king is dismayed, but his daughter tells him that if Hans comes, she will go with him for the love of her old father. In time, Hans the Hedgehog sets off to claim his reward. Some are about to learn that Hans is not one to be crossed.

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Although this at times farcical story seems to be trying to teach a moral, its resolution is so crude, violent and sexist that its original plot is essentially unusable for modern children’s books. Nonetheless, some adaptations have been written. The original can be read here.


This work contains examples of the following tropes:

  • An Aesop: Be careful what you wish for. And always keep your promises.
  • Animorphism: Inverted. Immediately after marrying, Hans changes from a hedgehog-human hybrid to a handsome young man.
  • Ash Face: When Hans marries the second princess, he makes himself human by taking off his hedgehog skin and having it burned in a fire. Though it is the cast-off skin that is consumed by the fire, Hans is now described as lying in bed "coal-black as if he had been burnt." The king sends for his physician who washes him with precious salves and anoints him and Hans becomes all white and handsome.
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  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The father wishes for a child, "even if it be a hedgehog". His wife gives birth to a child that is half-hedgehog, half-boy. Though the couple takes care of the boy, eventually the father secretly wishes that Hans would die.
  • Did Not Think This Through: The first king tricks Hans by giving him a signed promise that Hans should get nothing in return for showing him the way through the woods, whereas Hans had demanded that, in exchange for this service, he sign an affidavit to the effect that the king should give him the first thing that greets him when he comes home. The king assumed that Hans was illiterate, which may not have been the case nor particularly relevant in the end. Neither did he consider the possibility that, if he met an anthropomorphic hedgehog, it might just have special powers of which to beware.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: After evading the first king's soldiers while mounted on his rooster, Hans demands that the king give him his daughter, threatening to kill them both if he doesn’t. The king outfits her for marriage and she leaves with Hans. When they have traveled a short distance from the city, however, "…Hans the Hedgehog took her pretty clothes off, and pierced her with his hedgehog's skin until she bled all over." He then tells her: "That is the reward of your falseness, go your way, I will not have you!" He sends her home and she is disgraced for the rest of her life. It's impossible not to see this brutal and degrading physical assault as a sexual one as well. Given the circumstances, it is likely that Hans the Hedgehog also penetrated the princess with something other than his quills.
  • Don't Go Into the Woods: Applies to the two kings, who get lost there on the way home and have to ask for Hans the Hedgehog's help to get out.
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: While tending to his herd of pigs and donkeys in the woods, Hans plays beautiful music on his bagpipes, attracting the kings' attention to himself.note 
  • Hammerspace: We don't know exactly how big Hans is; while having a human bottom half and being able to play bagpipes brought home from the fair suggests that he is close in size to a person, using a rooster as a mount suggests that he may be closer in size to a normal hedgehog. If the latter is the case, then his eventually emerging from his hedgehog skin as a fully-formed human is all the more remarkable.
  • Horse of a Different Color: Before Hans the Hedgehog sets off into the woods, he has his father get the rooster shod and uses it as a mount throughout the story.note 
  • Omniscient Hero: Clearly Hans the Hedgehog is one of these, seeing how perfectly his choices and actions work out for him. He must have known in advance that each king's daughter would be the first "thing" to greet the king on coming home and that once he got married at the latest, he could shed his hedgehog skin, have it burned, and remain human afterward.
  • The Promise: The plot hinges on Hans the Hedgehog making two kings promise to give him whatever comes out to greet them when they return home in exchange for showing them the way to their respective kingdoms.
  • Misplaced Retribution: The daughter of the first king bears the brunt of Hans' revenge for her father's not keeping his promise, in which she played no direct role. Hans violently assaults her, accuses her of deceit, and sends her home disgraced for the rest of her life, but no further punishment befalls her father.
  • Spiritual Successor: To the Biblical story of Jephthah, in which a general swore to God that in exchange for defeating the Ammonites, he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house to greet him first when he came back home. The one who happened to be the first to come out and greet him was none other than his daughter, and though he was much grieved, Jephthah upheld his oath after granting his daughter's request to be given two months during which to weep for her virginity.
  • The Unfavorite: Hans the Hedgehog's father regrets having wished for him to be born and literally wishes him dead. He is all too happy when Hans leaves home of his own initiative. He doesn't even care for his son when he returns the first time with a big herd of pigs with which to feed the village. He feels differently when Hans returns for the second time changed into human form and having married a princess and inherited a kingdom.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Hans the Hedgehog's mother is quite visible at the beginning of the story but is not mentioned at all after his first departure from the village. At the end, when Hans returns transformed from a half-hedgehog into a handsome and socially ascended young man to take his father to live with him in the kingdom which he has inherited, there is no mention of his mother coming with them. For all we know she might have died by then, but it is likely, given how male-oriented a society the story depicts, that she was still alive and automatically accompanied her husband there, and that the author did not see it worthwhile to mention her coming along.
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