The Grimms recorded “The Death of the Hen” with the Audience/Purpose of preserving their German culture. With this in mind, the tale can be read as a morality tale (greed causes downfall) or a tale of death and dying (all die in the end). Yet neither reading explains the more bizarre story elements. If we consider that these stories were handed down orally through generations, we glimpse another Audience/Purpose.
A close study of the text provides clues to a possible original Audience/Purpose: memorializing the Black Death.
First is the brook’s centrality: Water frequently represents the passage from this life to the next, so the brook becomes a door of sorts. When it demands red silk, we might dig down to correlate the silk with the red cross that was painted on plague victims’ doors.
Likewise, we might see the wreath caught in a willow as a representation of Shakespeare’s willow: “the tree of forsaken love” and the traditional bridal wreath: symbol of memory and purity. Both may represent the hen’s promise to the cock, and her grief at violating that promise.
In the end, straw, coal, and rock all fail to save the animals. Reading with an eye to meaning: Bundles of straw were placed at the door of plague victims, so straw promulgates death. Bodies were often burned, so coal is powerless over death. And the impenetrable rock does not even have power over the Black Death.
Other versions of the tale exist, some less in line with this suggested reading. However in one telling, after all the animals board the cart, a flea assures the group that his weight will be no trouble. Yet he causes the cart’s collapse. Interestingly, fleas spread the plague.
This troubling story seems confusing when applied to the Grimms’ Audience/Purpose, but when read with other Audiences/Purposes in mind, it takes on rich new meaning.
[I read the Crane translation, and initially wrote this little blurb for a Coursera class.]