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Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Nail Soup

In the previous post, I said that The Tales of Beedle the Bard reminded me of stories I read as a child in an old reader that had been my grandfather's, printed in 1910. Many of these stories exist in slightly different versions in different countries, and belong to the inheritance of folk tales and fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm (German: Die Brüder Grimm); link to English Wikipedia article.

One of the stories I have in mind is called Nail Soup; in other countries also known as for example Stone Soup or Button Soup.

This is the storyline in short:

A tramp knocks on the door of a house. And old woman opens. The tramp asks for shelter for the night and some food. The woman says no, her husband is away, she can't take him in, and besides she has no food to offer. The tramp begs her to let him stay anyway, and suggests they help each other, and he will provide the food. The woman is sceptical, but curious and greedy, and agrees to let him in.

The tramp asks for a pot, and some water, and when the water is boiling he pulls a nail out of his pocket, turns it three times in his hand, and puts it into the pot. The woman asks what he intends to do, and he says he is making Nail Soup. The woman is astonished, she has never heard of such a thing, and she would like to know how it is done.

"Oh," says the tramp, "it ususally comes out very good, but the thing is, I've been using the same nail all week, so it wouldn't hurt to put in som extra flour."
"Well," says the woman, "I might have a pinch of flour left."
So he puts the flour into the pot, stirs and tastes the soup, and says: "Oh, this is a very good soup indeed! Why, if I just had a couple of potatoes and a bit of meat to add to it, it would even be good enough for gentlefolks!" So the woman gives him potatoes and meat, and he puts them in the pot, and stirs and tastes again. Then he adds that now, if he also had some milk and some groats, the soup would be good enough for the king himself. It turns out, of course, that the woman has milk and groats as well.

Finally, the tramp takes the nail out of the pot, and declares the soup is ready. But at the king's castle, they would of course also have bread with the soup, and a cloth on the table...

The woman puts all she has in her larder on the table - bread and butter and cheese etc, and they end up having a proper feast together; the woman still amazed at how much can be done with just a common nail!

In other versions of the story, a whole village becomes involved in the making of the soup.

A question to discuss: Was the nail necessary for the soup or not?

It was actually not just one but two stories in The Tales of Beedle the Bard that brought my mind back to this particular folk tale. One was The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, the other The Fountain of Fair Fortune. One theme that these three stories share is (in my interpretation), that sometimes the solution to a problem is both more complicated and at the same time simpler than we realize.

For those who haven't read Beedle the Bard and just want a short summary of the tales, here is a "spoiler warning" link to the Wikipedia article.

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