Hans in Luck, a Picture Book by Edward Wehnert
Hans in Luck is a fairy tale from the collection of Brothers Grimm. It’s classified as KHM 83 and it was published in the first volume of the first edition in 1812 as Hans im Gluck. Like all the best classic fairy tales it can be read on different levels. Literally or figuratively.
It is also known in several variations but the main story plot always remains the same – Hans, a typical simpleton, is rewarded with a lump of gold for seven years of hard work. On the way home, he is involved in a series of unprofitable exchanges until he loses everything.
Let’s recall the fairy tale about the Hans in Luck with the help of Edward Wehnert’s illustrations. The books was published with a subtitle: Five bad bargains, with hand colored drawings by Edward Henry Wehnert (1813-1863) at Elton & Co publishing house, New York, in 1860.
Hans worked hard for his master. After seven years he wants to return home to his mother. His master pays him with a lump of gold. It’s a huge lump in the size of the head. Hans puts it in a handkerchief but gold is heavy and he becomes tired.
Hans exchanges his gold for a horse. Now he won’t be tired anymore! But the horse throws him down.
Luckily Hans gets a chance to make another exchange: a horse for a cow. Now he will always have milk. Cheese and cream and other products can be made of milk as well.
Not much later Hans realizes his cow doesn’t produce any milk. Next exchange looks like a must. The sooner the better.
The pig looks like a perfect solution for Hans. Not for long. A man with a goose came by and tells Hans a pig was stolen from a mayor in the neighborhood. It will very likely get Hans into trouble. Luckily for Hans, this guy had a good heart and was willing to exchange his goose for a pig.
Hans is happy again. Goose roast is already on the way! Not long after he meets a knife grinder. This man had two heavy stones, used to sharpen the knives. Everybody who has such stones can earn money with these tools and it looks like a great way of living. Why wouldn’t he make another exchange?
So he gets two grindstones for his goose. He feels he is born under a lucky star. If only these stones wouldn’t be so heavy. And if he wouldn’t be so tired, hungry, and thirsty.
He stops by the well to get a drink of fresh water and stones to fall down deep in the water. He suddenly feels a great relief. No need to carry any kind of burden! He can return home as a free man!
Yes, Hans is a really lucky man.
Variations of the story
There are of course several different versions of this story which hardly deserves to be named a fairy tale – nothing magical happens and there is no transformation of any of the characters. The chain of Hans’ bargains can be much longer, involving all kinds of animals, he can stop at the river, not at the well, in the last scene, in addition, he can return to his mom, etc.
One of the most well-known retellings of Hans in Luck is H. C. Andersen’s What the Old Man Does is Always Right with additional exchanges and more characters.
Hans looks and acts unbelievably gullible. His trades are real series of disasters. He needs only a few hours to lose whole fortune gained in seven years of hard working and serves as a perfect example of a simpleton who isn’t ready for any kind of responsibility. All his decisions are made without any reasoning, he is naive and can’t weight pros and cons in any of the situations he falls in.
We can look at Hans in Luck as an inversion of traditional rags to riches story. It’s an ironic tale with bitter-sweet after taste. But we can also look at it as a story about unbeatable optimism and negation of material goods. Hans is happy after every bargain (and people who trade with him are obviously happy too) and he is the happiest when he stays empty-handed.
Strong symbolic message can be seen in Hans’ first perception of gold – it’s heavy. Another powerful symbol is the structure itself – it’s a perfect circle of bad decisions starting and ending with a literal burden. He has a stone at the beginning and he has two stones at the end. He can experience real freedom only when he loses the stones.
Thus the message of the story can be: material possessions won’t make you happy. Although everybody except Hans looks to make a profit on every occasion, true satisfaction comes only when you are relieved of all belongings.