How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog – Johann Peter Hebel

An enchanting collection of little stories to tickle the giggle glands. Some light, others more profound, each German folktale, set across northern Europe in the nineteenth century, offers titbits of wisdom and admirable wit.

Stock characters such as the troublesome rogue, the discerning wise man and a naive and vulnerable public abound, as well as the charming drunk, an endearing stereotype of the French and the Englishman, and a bunch of intrepid broke students. All wound together, Hebel constructs a vivid image of a dangerous world of trickery, religion and moralising rife in society, rather reminiscent of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. 

Timeless, these simple tales offer something to all people in their simple humanness and ingenious sparks of intelligence. Each concise and masterfully crafted, they are a joy to read and the moralistic undertone and more blatant final message makes the flowing writing and eclectic tale all the more memorable and important.

Evocative of many a situation we all suffer, Hebel invents a quick-thinking character to humorously put a wrongdoer in his place, or construe a novel way of looking at a problem. His tales allow us to step out of the grey grind of normal thought and enter a fantastical place from which we spot the idiocy of the masses living life at a pace and a level of superficiality in which thought and real consideration of a situation is eschewed, lost and impossible.

Wonderfully diverse, there is something with which anyone from any generation, time and place will be able to associate interchangeably. Whilst some offer a clear-cut message, such as the tale that comes first: “Remember: You must not steal silver spoons!/Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right”, others involve a young bloke having “the impudence to assert that he just about remembered their being there six thousand years ago, and he remembered the landlady’s pretty friendly face very well indeed”, for example, leading to a denouement that more subtly comments on the arrogance of a young crowd, disparity between theorising of philosophy versus its practical application, judgement on appearance, gender and the job one holds, plus an ingenious and unexpected stab in the back.

Poignant, sad and funny, Hebel is an honest genius and Penguin has done a stellar job in their compilation and curation of his eccentric imagination for a modern audience that has scarcely changed since his own time. The stagnant human condition is central; these tales are as relevant and as touching as ever.

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