Despite the fact that I have a Russian book cover as the picture for this post, The Straw, the Coal and the Bean is a Grimm’s fairy tale. The Grimms were not Russian. This tale is quite short and it’s an origin story.
An origin story is a tale which describes why something is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I’m trying to remember a few origin stories off the top of my head, but it’s not working out too well. Aha! I have one, well, I have part of one anyway. Muhammad was once saved by a cat. He was so grateful that he placed an ‘M’ on the cat’s head and ever since cats have an ‘M’ on their head because they were blessed by Muhammad. Only tabby cats have an ‘M’ on their heads by the way. One of my cats had a very distinct ‘M’ on his head when he was a kitten.
Once upon a time a woman was cooking. She was making a fire. She lit up her coals with straw and was going to cook some beans. Unbeknownst to her, one of the beans fell to the ground and landed beside a straw. After this, a coal popped out of the fire and landed beside the bean and the straw. All three of them got to talking about how lucky they were. Surely the coal would have been burnt to ashes. Surely the straw would have been burned up with his kinsmen. Surely the bean would have been cooked. They three decided that they must go off on their own in order to be free and escape death.
They left the woman’s house and soon came to a stream. They didn’t know how they were going to get across. The straw had an idea. The straw decided that it would lay itself across the stream and the coal and the bean could walk across. The straw situated itself and the coal was the first to walk across.
Halfway across the stream the coal got nervous. The sound of rushing water below was too much for the coal and it was paralyzed with fear. The coal stopped moving. As you can imagine, a coal is fire and fire and straw do not mix. The coal stood still for too long and burnt the straw in half. Both the straw and coal went to their deaths in the stream. The bean found all of this funny for some reason and started to laugh. The bean laughed so hard that she split herself open. This was unfortunate and the bean almost certainly would have died had it not been for a tailor who was close by.
The tailor saw what happened and decided to do a good deed and sew the bean back up. He used black thread and too this day, beans have a black seam.
I’ve already explained to you what an origin story is. I don’t need to explain it again. I would have you notice that the Grimms brothers haven’t been too big on origin stories up until this point in the book. We’ve had quest stories and proving stories, but there haven’t been any origin stories. This definitely breaks the pattern we’ve been seeing with the Grimms tales so far. Origin stories are more often cultural in my experience, meaning I see them associated with individual cultures rather than collections of stories.
We do have the number three in this tale again. We have three companions. They’re a strange set of companions and it sounds more like a joke than anything else.
So, a straw, a coal and a bean walk into a bar…
It is strange what objects humans choose to make anthropomorphic, which is a big word meaning giving animals or objects human qualities, traits, and behaviors. The idea of a coal having human traits and being a sentient being reminds me of the movie Spirited Away, it’s a wonderful movie by the way. In Spirited Away there are bits of coal dust magicked to carry heavy pieces of coal to fuel a boiler. If the bits of coal dust don’t work, they don’t retain their ability to be aware creatures. This is also an interesting idea.
I once also read a short story about an arm-chair that came to life. I don’t have that book anymore, I may have to hunt it down again.
As I mentioned before, this is not a moral type of story. It’s an origin story. There isn’t a lot to pick out here. I can say something about the strangeness of bedfellows though.
If you were a straw, would you be friends with a coal? It doesn’t sound like a smart idea to me. Sure, it may be progressive, your straw parents might disown you for being friends with a coal, but you don’t care. Just because you’re hip with this, doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. There is an entire show on Animal Planet dedicated to people who have gotten way too close to wild animals and tried to impress human traits upon them. Almost all of these people end up getting themselves killed. There was even an episode where a guy had a bunch of pet lizards, big lizards, and he died from an infected bite and they ate him. That’s gratitude for you.
In the end, you still have to remember the nature of a creature. Fluffy may be awesome, but Fluffy is also a three-headed dog that could eat your face off. A dangerous animal is still a dangerous animal.
Another possible theme is that you shouldn’t laugh at others’ misfortune. Seriously, it’s not nice. That could be you instead of them and would you want them laughing their butts off if the same thing happened to you? You probably wouldn’t.
I think this story is kid-approved. It’s fine to tell kids, in fact, you could tell this story to your kids to get them to eat their beans.