I have been ruminating lately on the absurdity of life. One of my favorite stories, which best epitomizes the absurdity of life (to me at least) is a fairy tale first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Doctor Know-It-All tells the story of how a struggling woodcutter becomes a well-respected doctor. He sells his wood cart and oxen, uses the proceeds to buy new clothes, medical supplies, and an ABC book with a picture of a rooster inside and then goes on to solve the mystery of a theft from a rich and powerful man. His reputation made, he lives the rest of his life in luxury.
I’m not sure what to think of this story. Is the story of Dr. Know-It-All is really a folk tale version of “Fake It Until You Make It?” Does it have a spiritual message? Or does the woodcutter (named Crabbe in some versions of the tale, Fish in others) succeed because he’s lucky or smart? Or both?
And I couldn’t be the only one who finds it preposterous that Doctor Know It All owed his success, at least partially, to his frustration when he couldn’t find the rooster’s picture in the ABC book as quickly as he wanted? I don’t have the answer; I just enjoy the story.
I first read the story years ago in a wonderful book called Tales From Grimm, reinterpreted and illustrated by Wanda Gág, and first published in 1936. It remains my favorite version of this tale. I am not sure how I came to own my tattered copy of Tales From Grimm. I think I borrowed it from my grade school library and never bothered to return it. No matter. They tore the school down years ago.
At any rate, Wanda Gág was a groundbreaking illustrator and author of children’s literature, as well as a printmaker and entrepreneur. You can read about her career and see examples of her work here. Gág’s career is also covered in part 25 of the YouTube Unsung Heroes of Illustration series of videos by Pete Beard that I mentioned in a prior blog post. You can go directly to that video here. You can purchase a copy of Tales From Grimm here, or borrow it from the Internet Archive Open Library, here. And if you are ever in Gág’s birthplace of New Ulm Minnesota, you can visit a museum dedicated to her life and work here.