Friday, September 2, 2011

The Singing Bone

A slightly chilling tale from the Brothers Grimm.

It seems there was a savage boar rampaging the country, killing hunters, destroying crops, making life generally unbearable for the populace. The king therefore issued the following challenge: Anyone who can slay the beast (and bring back its head as proof) will get ten million gold coins, their own castle and half my kingdom. Of course, issuing challenges like this is a good way to get stupid people killed and lots of ambitious idiots died trying to slay the boar.

But then a couple of brothers went into the forest to try to kill the boar. The older brother, Terry, was brave, strong, clever and the best fighter in town. His younger brother, Buddy, was sort of dumpy, fat, not too bright, but had a good heart and wanted to help his brother get the reward which he knew he himself was not fit to earn for himself.

For three days they wandered the forest, without so much as a sign of the boar. Finally they saw it devouring the remains of a rabbit. Terry asked Buddy (very quietly) to pass him the crossbow so he could shoot the boar. But poor, foolish Buddy, dropped the crossbow and it went off, the arrow hitting a tree not three feet from the boar. The sound aroused the boar’s attention and it charged at the brothers. Panicked, Terry ran away, but Buddy stayed behind.

“You lousy pig!” he hollered at the charging boar. “I’ll teach you to scare my big brother!” And with that, he began swinging his brother’s sword wildly and by sheer chance, it sliced right through the boar’s neck. Neither one could believe it. The boar was dead. And it had been Buddy, not Terry, who had slain it. “I did it!” cried Buddy. “I actually did it! Say, does this mean I get the castle and the land and everything?”

“Yes, Buddy. Yes it does.” Terry was very disappointed. He wasn’t even happy for his brother, just mad that he wasn’t going to get the reward. The fact that it was his own fault for running away like a scared cockatoo and that his brave, loyal brother really did deserve it didn’t matter. He was Buddy! He was the dopey, stupid-looking one. But I’m Terry, he thought. I’m the handsome, strong son. I look like a hero, not Buddy!

They gathered up the boar's head and put it in a sack before returning to the kingdom to claim the prize. All the way there, Buddy was talking excitedly about how their lives were going to change. “I mean, I know, technically, I killed the boar, but I couldn’t have done it without you, Terry! We’ll share the prize, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll both live in the castle and rule over the half of the kingdom. I wonder if we get to pick which half? Anyway, we’ll be rich and prosperous and we’ll probably meet some nice girls and get married. It’ll be so much fun, huh, Terry? Terry, are you okay? You don’t look so good.”

Indeed, Terry was looking pretty awful. Between that and Buddy’s throat being dry from all the talking, they stopped to rest at a small pond. Buddy went down to the water to take a drink. As he knelt by the pond, bent over the water, an awful thought entered Terry’s mind. They were alone in the woods. Nobody for miles. No one actually saw what happened. I’ve got the sword and the head…he had made his decision. He took his hunting knife…crept up behind Buddy…and stabbed him in the heart. He buried his brother’s body right there, by the pond, under an elm tree. Then Terry returned to the kingdom alone to claim his prize.

Many years passed and by now, more people had moved to the kingdom, so the forest had to be pushed back to make room for more homes. The pond and the elm tree that marked Buddy’s grave were removed and a farmer was now living on that spot, plowing his land to plant some crops. His plow uncovered a bone which he threw to his dog without thinking. But when his son came to play with the dog and saw the bone in his mouth, he took it and looked at it more closely. Too big for a rabbit or any kind of bird, the boy thought. Maybe this is the bone of some great beast that lived in the forest before all this farmland was here. In any case, he thought it was neat and decided to hollow it out, carve some holes in it and turn it into a flute. But when he sat down to play it, instead of musical notes, words came out. The bone was singing, and what it sang was:

     Oh, little farmer’s son
     Listen to my tale
     I slew a boar so long ago
     My courage did not fail
     My wicked brother killed me then
     To claim my prize for his own
     He lay me ‘neath a tall elm tree
     Now I’m nothing but this bone

Needless to say the boy was horrified by what he had heard. He played it through a few more times and the words didn’t change. The bone was singing to the boy. He played it for his father, and then it sang “Oh, Farmer of this land” and he too was shocked. They went at once to the king and played it for him. But this time, it sang “Your majesty, my sovereign king…” The king sent for his longtime ally, Duke Terry and the truth was revealed. Now everyone knew that it was Buddy, and not Terry, who had slain the boar all those years ago. For his crimes, he was stripped of his title, his land and his castle and his gold was distributed among the poor. He was not thrown in prison, but rather forced to wander the earth for the rest of his life with the Singing Bone, as a constant reminder of his crimes and of the kind, gentle brother who only wanted to share his good fortune with the man he loved more than any other.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:

  • The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) In this version, Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett (see?) are a knight and his squire who are charged by a king to rid the land of a ferocious dragon. This was probably changed to add more traditional "fairy tale" elements to the movie. Also, in this version, the bone magically reconstitutes the squire who becomes master of the knight...but that's weird, so I didn't do it.

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