Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hans Huckebein (The Unlucky Raven)

Today I have for you a wonderful and horrifying children's story from beloved German author and illustrator Wilhelm Busch.  Busch was the Dr. Seuss of 19th century Germany, where his stories, poems, and pictures are iconic.  They're not as well known in America, although one of his most famous works, Max und Moritz, was a tale of two mischievous boys that directly inspired the seminal newspaper comic The Katzenjammer Kids.

"Hans Huckebein (The Unlucky Raven)" is the rhyming saga of a miscreant bird who wreaks havoc in the house of a young boy and his aunt, antagonzing everyone and disrespecting their property. Hans is absolutely adorable but bad, bad, bad. The Cat in the Hat has not a little of the rowdy raven in him, although his fate is quite different.  Because this story is quintessentially German, instead of tidying up his mess and then slipping away, the little black bird gets his comeuppance (which, the narrator assures us, is richly deserved).  These are my people, all right. 

Despite a black streak to rival a crow's feathery wings, the rhymes and drawings of "Hans Huckebein" will charm your socks off.  Of course, the message that the bad guy gets it in the end seemed appropriate this week, too (the Prologue, in fact, couldn't be more fitting).  I just had to share. Enjoy.

Hans Huckebein - der Unglücksrabe 
by Wilhelm Busch


His ending moves me; only, mind,
A different one I can't envision.
He dies - for tragically designed
Was our hero's disposition.

There is a predetermined fate,
And fortune seems to be essential;
But how to act, how to relate -
That is his fault, not providential.

The moral, thus, remains unchanged
And is no empty declaration,
For if once more this world he ranged,
He'd be the same old aggravation.


Behold young Fritz, a lively lad,
And Huckebein, a raven cad.

And Fritz, like every other boy,
Would like a raven for a toy.

He's moving closer on the limb;
The bird looks on, mistrusting him.

Slap! Fritz converts his stylish cap
Into a clever raven trap.

He's almost got him! But, alack!
The brittle branch breaks with a crack.

In juicy berries wallows Fritz
While in his cap the raven sits.

The boy is speckled black, and dripping;
The bird is panicking, and skipping.

The raven, fluttering, and twining,
Is caught and tangled in the lining.

"Hans Huckebein, I've got you now!
Aunt Lotte will be glad - and how!"

The aunt emerges from her door;
"This beast, she says, "one must adore!"

Just as she speaks that fateful word,
Her finger's mangled by the bird.

"He's bad!" she cries out in alarm,
"Because he does me grievous harm!"

Who's lurking in this gloomy cave?
Hans Huckebein, the jet black knave.

The bone on which the raven sits
Is claimed as property by Spitz.

They caw and growl, they hold on tight.
One's pulling left, the other, right.

While Spitz has victory in mind,
The raven pinches from behind.

Oh dear! He lands on Spitz's neck
To pull his hair, to pick and peck.

Spitz takes offense and, full of spite,
He turns to rip, and pluck, and bite.

The cat, meanwhile, has snatched the hock,
And he escapes into the crock.

They sit and stare, and that is that -
They don't exactly trust the cat.

The Spitz cries out - the tomcat claws;
The raven utters joyful caws.

The crock is cracked, the tail sticks through;
He nabs it, and he pulls it, too.

The crock is rolling on the ground;
The tail is twisted round and round.

And Spitz and tomcat run away.
The greatest scoundrel wins the prey!

Behold Aunt Lotte's choicest snack:
Blueberry compote, sweet and black.

But Huckebein, unused to thrift,
Just squanders nature's precious gift.

The aunt descends in shock and wrath.
Hans Huckebein deserts his bath.

And tramples, on the wings of fright,
The ironed laundry, clean and white.

Oh, no! He leaps to save himself;
The plates are rolling from the shelf.

The basket falls, the eggs are lost -
A shame, considering the cost!

Splat! falls the jug, and now, oh dear!
The boots are drenched with foaming beer.

The water bucket gets upset -
The aunt's left foot is soaking wet.

The fork is clutched in Lotte's fist,
And Fritz comes running to assist.

They fall! Young Fritz emits a whine -
His ear is punctured by a tine.

This seems to seal the raven's fate.
The fork is hovering - but wait!

For - whack! - Aunt Lotte's nose he nails,
And wickedness once more prevails.

Disaster's on its way, for sure,
For this libation is liqueur.

Inquisitive Hans Huckebein
Inserts his beak - this does smell fine!

Contentedly, he takes a nip
And wets his whistle with a sip.

Not bad at all! he thinks, and then
His beak submerges once again.

He lifts the glass and slurps the rest
Because the last drop tastes the best.

Oh Oh! This feeling is amazing,
So light, and yet so oddly dazing!

Quite merrily, he caws and crows,
Assuming a most graceful pose.

The bird, a creature of the wing,
Becomes a creeping, crawling thing.

To be more rowdy than one should
Will ruin everything for good.

He tears with a malicious jerk
Aunt Lotte's artful needlework.

The table's slick - he flaps his wings -
The end is near - the villain swings!

The aunt says, "Malice was his bliss,
And that is why he hangs like this!"


The original German text, for those who can read that noble language, is here.  Many thanks to Gabriele Kahn for her site.

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