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DanishLittleBigClaus

Front cover of a Danish picture book edition of "Little Claus and Big Claus".

"Little Claus and Big Claus" (Danish: "Lille Claus og store Claus"; also published in English as "Great Claus and Little Claus") is a darkly comic short story for children by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It is based on a folktale which Andersen heard as a child. It was first published on May 8, 1835, along with "The Tinderbox", "The Princess and the Pea" and "Little Ida's Flowers", in an inexpensive booklet without a cover.

The story's protagonist is a man called Claus. He is known as Little Claus to distinguish him from his richer and more powerful neighbor, who is known as Big Claus. Big Claus tries to punish Little Claus for his perceived arrogance by killing his horse. Little Claus, however, turns the death of his horse to his advantage and makes a fool of Big Claus in the process. Big Claus goes on to attempt to murder Little Claus twice. Not only does Little Claus escape with his life both times, he also becomes much wealthier and is able to get his revenge on Big Claus.

Although "Little Claus and Big Claus" was originally intended for children, it contains several elements which would nowadays be considered to be distinctly adult in nature. Three people are killed in the story, including an old woman who is murdered purely for financial gain. Five animals are also killed, a corpse is desecrated and there is the suggestion that a woman is having an extramarital affair. Consequently, many modern parents are likely to consider the story of "Little Claus and Big Claus" to be unsuitable for their children.

Plot

Little Claus and Big Claus 1

Big Claus kills Little Claus' horse/ 1895 illustration by Alfred Walter Bayes.

Two men called Claus live in the same village. In order to differentiate them, one is called Big Claus or Great Claus because he owns four horses. The other is called Little Claus because he owns only one horse. On Sundays, Big Claus loans Little Claus his four horses so that he can use them to pull his plow. One Sunday, Big Claus hears Little Claus refer to the five animals as "my five horses". This angers Big Claus, who points out that he is the rightful owner of four of the horses. He threatens to kill Little Claus' only horse if he says it again. When Little Claus absentmindedly says "my five horses" again, Big Claus keeps his word and kills Little Claus' horse by striking it on the head.

Little Claus flays his dead horse. He puts its skin in a sack and sets off to town to sell it. He gets lost on the way and asks if he can stay the night at a farmhouse. When the farmer's wife tells him that he cannot, Little Claus settles down for the night in a small barn. Little Claus can see inside the farmhouse. The farmer is not at home and the farmer's wife is entertaining the sexton, whom the farmer hates. They are having a meal of roast meat, fish, pie and wine. When the farmer's wife hears her husband returning home, she makes the sexton hide in a trunk.[1] She puts the wine away and hides the roast meat, fish and pie in the oven.

Bertall Claus2

The farmer sees the sexton in the trunk and believes that he is looking at the Devil. 19th century illustration by the French artist Bertall.

Little Claus and Big Claus 2

The tanners and shoemakers beat Big Claus. 1895 illustration by Alfred Walter Bayes.

The farmer sees Little Claus in the barn and invites him into the farmhouse for some porridge. At the table, Little Claus presses the sack which contains the horse skin with his feet and makes the skin squeak. When the farmer asks what Little Claus has in the sack, Little Claus says that it is a wizard. He goes on to say that the wizard has conjured up some wine and a feast of roast meat, fish and pie which is in the oven. The farmer's wife is obliged to fetch the wine and take the food out of the oven. After he has drunk a lot of wine, the farmer asks Little Claus if his wizard can conjure up the Devil. Little Claus says that he can. The Devil will appear in the trunk but the farmer will not like the sight of the demon because he looks like the sexton. The farmer opens the trunk, sees the sexton inside it and believes that the man is the Devil.

Convinced that Little Claus has a powerful wizard in his sack, the farmer offers to buy the sorcerer for a bushel of money. Little Claus accepts and hands over the sack containing the dead horse's skin. Since he is afraid that the Devil might reappear inside it, the farmer tells Little Claus to take the trunk away as well. Aware that the sexton is still inside it, when Little Claus gets away from the farmhouse, he begins to talk aloud about throwing the trunk into the river. The sexton begs him not to, saying that he will pay him another bushel of money if he does not.

After he returns home, Little Claus sends a message to Big Claus, asking for a bushel measure. The curious Big Claus puts some tar on the end of the measure so that some of whatever Little Claus measures will stick to it. After he sees some coins stuck to the end of the measure, Big Claus demands to know how Little Claus got the money. Little Claus says that he got it for his dead horse's skin. Big Claus kills all four of his horses and skins them. He takes their hides to town and offers them for sale. When the shoemakers and tanners find out that Big Claus wants a bushel of money for each skin, they think at first that he is joking and then get angry with him. They beat Big Claus and drive him out of town.

Bertall Claus3

The innkeeper offers a glass of mead to Little Claus' dead grandmother. 19th century illustration by the French artist Bertall.

The angry Big Claus decides to kill Little Claus. He goes into Little Claus' house at night and beats the person lying in his bed. The bed is not occupied by Little Claus but by his grandmother who was already dead. Little Claus is seated in a chair in the bedroom and sees everything. He knows that Big Claus intended to kill him and comes up with a plot to get his revenge. Having borrowed a horse from a neighbor, Little Claus sits his dead grandmother up on a cart and drives the cart to an inn. Inside the inn, Little Claus asks the innkeeper to take a glass of mead out to his grandmother on the cart. The innkeeper repeatedly offers the glass of mead to the old woman but, of course, she does not respond. The innkeeper gets angry and throws the glass at her, making her fall over. Little Claus comes out and tells the innkeeper he has murdered his grandmother. The innkeeper offers to buy Little Claus' silence by paying for the old woman's funeral and giving Little Claus a bushel of money. Little Claus accepts.

Little Claus again sends a message to Big Claus, asking for a bushel measure. Surprised that Little Claus is still alive, Big Claus comes over in person. When Big Claus asks how Little Claus got the money, Little Claus answers that he got it in exchange for his dead grandmother. Big Claus kills his own grandmother and takes her body to town. He tries to sell the body to an apothecary for a bushel of money. It is only because the apothecary thinks that Big Claus is mad that the man escapes being arrested and hanged for murder.

Vilhelm Pedersen, 0k-08 ubt

Little Claus after he has thrown the sack containing Big Claus into the river. 19th century illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen.

The furious Big Claus tries to kill Little Claus again. He ties Little Claus up in a sack and carries him off to drown him in a river. On the way, Big Claus hears singing coming from a church and stops to go inside. While Big Claus is in the church, Little Claus complains aloud that he is going to go to Heaven while he is till very young. An elderly drover is passing with his cattle. He hears Little Claus and says that it is not fair that he is very old but has not been to Heaven yet. Little Claus tells the drover that he can go to Heaven at once if he changes places with him. The drover gets Little Claus out of the sack and goes inside it himself. He tells Little Claus to look after his cattle. Little Claus goes away with the cattle. Big Claus comes out of the church and throws the sack into the river.

Shortly afterwards, Big Claus sees Little Claus alive and with a herd of cattle. Little Claus thanks Big Claus for throwing him into the river. He says that, when he reached the bottom of the river, the sea-people, who use the river as a road to the sea, greeted him and gave him a herd of sea-cattle. Big Claus decides that he wants some sea-cattle too. He begs Little Claus to put him in a sack and throw him in the river. He asks Little Claus to add some stones to the sack to make sure that he sinks to the bottom of the river. Little Claus obliges. After he has thrown the sack in the river, Little Claus comments that it is unlikely that Big Claus will get any sea-cattle.

Footnotes

  1. A woman making her lover hide in a small and uncomfortable place when her husband or another love arrives is a common theme in folktales. It features in some stories in One Thousand and One Nights and in "Christmas Eve" by Nikolai Gogol. An adult may well suppose that the farmer's wife and the sexton are lovers. This is, however, not explicitly stated in "Little Claus and Big Claus". Instead, it is simply stated that the farmer hates the sight of the sexton.

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