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The Twelve Idle Servants
Grimm Märchen

The Twelve Idle Servants - Fairy Tale by the Brothers Grimm

Reading time for children: 9 min

Twelve servants who had done nothing all the day would not exert themselves at night either, but laid themselves on the grass and boasted of their idleness. The first said, „What is your laziness to me, I have to concern myself about mine own? The care of my body is my principal work, I eat not a little and drink still more. When I have had four meals, I fast a short time until I feel hunger again, and that suits me best. To rise betimes is not for me. When it is getting near mid-day, I already seek out a resting-place for myself. If the master call, I do exactly as if I had not heard him, and if he call for the second time, I wait awhile before I get up, and go to him very slowly. In this way life is endurable.“

The second said, „I have a horse to look after, but I leave the bit in his mouth, and if I do not want to do it, I give him no food, and I say he has had it already. I, however, lay myself in the oat-chest and sleep for four hours. After this I stretch out one foot and move it a couple of times over the horse’s body, and then he is combed and cleaned. Who is going to make a great business of that? Nevertheless service is too toilsome for me.“

The third said, „Why plague oneself with work? Nothing comes of it! I laid myself in the sun, and fell asleep. It began to rain a little, but why should I get up? I let it rain on in God’s name. At last came a splashing shower, so heavy indeed, that it pulled the hair out of my head and washed it away, and I got a hole in the skull. I put a plaster on it, and then it was all right. I have already had several injuries of that kind.“

The fourth said, „If I am to undertake a piece of work, I first loiter about for an hour that I may save up my strength. After that I begin quite slowly, and ask if no one is there who could help me. Then I let him do the chief of the work, and in reality only look on; but that also is still too much for me.“

The fifth said, „What does that matter? Just think, I am to take away the manure from the horse’s stable, and load the cart with it. I let it go on slowly, and if I have taken anything on the fork, I only half-raise it up, and then I rest just a quarter of an hour until I quite throw it in. It is enough and to spare if I take out a cartful in the day. I have no fancy for killing myself with work.“

The sixth said, „Shame on ye. I am afraid of no work, but I lie down for three weeks, and never once take my clothes off. What is the use of buckling your shoes on? For aught I care they may fall off my feet, it is no matter. If I am going up some steps, I drag one foot slowly after the other on to the first step, and then I count the rest of them that I may know where I must rest.

The seventh said, „That will not do with me; my master looks after my work, only he is not at home the whole day. But I neglect nothing, I run as fast as it is possible to do when one crawls. If I am to get on, four sturdy men must push me with all their might. I came where six men were lying sleeping on a bed beside each other. I lay down by them and slept too. There was no wakening me again, and when they wanted to have me home, they had to carry me.“ The eighth said, „I see plainly that I am the only active fellow. If a stone lie before me, I do not give myself the trouble to raise my legs and step over it. I lay myself down on the ground, and if I am wet and covered with mud and dirt, I stay lying until the sun has dried me again. At the very most, I only turn myself so that it can shine on me.“ The ninth said, „That is the right way! To-day the bread was before me, but I was too idle to take it, and nearly died of hunger! Moreover a jug stood by it, but it was so big and heavy that I did not like to lift it up, and preferred bearing thirst. Just to turn myself round was too much for me, I remained lying like a log the whole day.“ The tenth said, „Laziness has brought misfortune on me, a broken leg and swollen calf. Three of us were lying in the road, and I had my legs stretched out. Some one came with a cart, and the wheels went over me. I might indeed have drawn my legs back, but I did not hear the cart coming, for the midges were humming about my ears, and creeping in at my nose and out again at my mouth; who can take the trouble to drive the vermin away?“

The eleventh said, „I gave up my place yesterday. I had no fancy for carrying the heavy books to my master any longer or fetching them away again. There was no end of it all day long. But to tell the truth, he gave me my dismissal, and would not keep me any longer, for his clothes, which I had left lying in the dust, were all moth-eaten, and I am very glad of it.“

The twelfth said, „To-day I had to drive the cart into the country, and made myself a bed of straw on it, and had a good sleep. The reins slipped out of my hand, and when I awoke, the horse had nearly torn itself loose, the harness was gone, the strap which fastened the horse to the shafts was gone, and so were the collar, the bridle and bit. Some one had come by, who had carried all off. Besides this, the cart had got into a quagmire and stuck fast. I left it standing, and stretched myself on the straw again. At last the master came himself, and pushed the cart out, and if he had not come I should not be lying here but there, and sleeping in full tranquillity.“

Backgrounds to fairy tale „The twelve idle servants“

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, who were famous for their compilations of European folktales in the 19th century. The story is included in their anthology „Grimm’s Fairy Tales“ (also known as „Children’s and Household Tales“) and is numbered as KHM 151. This collection was first published in 1812 and went through several editions, with the final edition being released in 1857.

The story revolves around twelve lazy servants who are united by their desire to avoid work. Each servant brags about their impressive skills in finding ways to avoid doing any labor. The tale serves as a humorous critique of idleness and procrastination, as well as a reflection of the societal values of the time.

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, were not only collectors of fairy tales but also linguists, folklorists, and scholars. They aimed to preserve the rich oral traditions of Germany and other European countries, which were being lost due to the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the time. In their quest to collect and document these stories, the brothers traveled extensively, speaking with storytellers from various regions and social classes.

As with many fairy tales, „The Twelve Idle Servants“ has roots in oral tradition, with similar stories appearing in different cultures. The tale likely evolved from anecdotes and humorous stories shared among working people, who would have found amusement in the exaggerated laziness of the characters. This kind of story would have been passed down through generations, with variations emerging as it was adapted to local customs and values.

While „The Twelve Idle Servants“ is not as well-known as some of the other tales in the Grimm’s collection, it is a unique story that showcases the brothers‘ commitment to preserving the diverse range of stories that made up European folklore.

Interpretations to fairy tale „The twelve idle servants“

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ can be interpreted in several ways, depending on the reader’s perspective and cultural background. Some of the most common interpretations include:

Satire and humor: The story can be seen as a humorous and satirical take on laziness and the lengths people might go to avoid work. The twelve servants in the tale are exaggerated caricatures of idleness, and their outrageous stories are meant to entertain and amuse the audience. The tale may have been a way for people to share a laugh at the expense of those who shirked their responsibilities.

Morality and work ethic: The story can also be read as a moral lesson about the importance of hard work and the consequences of idleness. In many cultures, a strong work ethic is highly valued, and this tale may have been used to remind listeners of the importance of contributing to society through honest labor. By showing the ridiculousness of the idle servants, the tale may have been meant to discourage similar behavior in its audience.

Social critique: Another interpretation of „The Twelve Idle Servants“ is that it serves as a critique of social hierarchies and the exploitation of workers. In this reading, the lazy servants may represent a form of rebellion against a system that demands hard work from the lower classes but offers little reward. Their refusal to work and their clever ways of avoiding labor can be seen as a subversive act against the ruling class and the expectations placed upon the working people.

Cultural values and tradition: The tale can also be viewed as a reflection of the cultural values and traditions of the time when it was first told. The story may have been a way for people to connect with their past and reinforce their shared values, such as the importance of hard work and community contribution. Additionally, the act of sharing the story through oral tradition may have served as a means of social bonding and the preservation of cultural identity.

Folklore and the human experience: Lastly, „The Twelve Idle Servants“ can be seen as an example of how folklore captures universal aspects of the human experience. The story’s focus on laziness, work, and cunning speaks to themes that have resonated across different cultures and time periods. As a result, the tale can be interpreted as a reflection of the human desire to find ways to make life easier or more enjoyable, even if it comes at the expense of responsibility or societal expectations.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „The twelve idle servants“

Although „The Twelve Idle Servants“ is not as well-known as some other fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, it has inspired a few adaptations and reinterpretations over the years. Here are a few examples:

Theater and Puppet Shows: The story of „The Twelve Idle Servants“ has been adapted into plays and puppet shows for children and families. These adaptations often emphasize the humorous and exaggerated aspects of the story, providing a lighthearted and entertaining experience for the audience.

Illustrated Books: Illustrated children’s books have been created that retell the story of „The Twelve Idle Servants.“ These books often include colorful and detailed illustrations that bring the characters and their amusing antics to life.

Modern Retellings: Some authors have taken inspiration from „The Twelve Idle Servants“ and created their own stories based on the themes and ideas presented in the original tale. For example, a modern retelling might feature twelve employees at an office who try to avoid work, with each character boasting about their unique methods of evading responsibility.

Animated Films and Television: Though there are no major animated films or television series directly adapting „The Twelve Idle Servants,“ the story’s themes and characters have likely influenced other works in the genre. The concept of lazy characters trying to avoid work can be seen in various animated movies and television shows, often presented in a comedic and exaggerated manner.

Educational and Moral Applications: The story of „The Twelve Idle Servants“ has been used in educational settings as a way to teach children about the importance of hard work and the consequences of laziness. Teachers and parents may share the story as a cautionary tale, encouraging children to develop a strong work ethic and take responsibility for their actions.

While „The Twelve Idle Servants“ may not have received as many direct adaptations as some other Grimm fairy tales, its themes and characters continue to resonate with audiences today. The story’s timeless message about the importance of hard work and the consequences of idleness is still relevant, and the humorous elements make it an enjoyable tale for readers of all ages.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „The twelve idle servants“

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ has been adapted into various forms of media over the years, including:

Children’s Books: There are numerous children’s books that adapt „The Twelve Idle Servants“ into a more accessible format for young readers. These books often simplify the language and make the story more visually appealing with illustrations.

Animated Films: The story has been adapted into several animated films, such as the 1956 Soviet film „The Twelve Months“ and the 1976 Hungarian film „The Twelve Idle Servants.“ These films often add their own unique twists to the story and use animation to bring the characters and settings to life.

Stage Plays: „The Twelve Idle Servants“ has been adapted into stage plays, particularly for children’s theater productions. These adaptations often feature music and dance to make the story more engaging for young audiences.

Video Games: The story has also been adapted into video games, such as the 2008 game „The Treasures of Mystery Island 2: The Gates of Fate,“ which features a quest to find magical golden apples.

Literary Works: „The Twelve Idle Servants“ has inspired various literary works, such as the 2009 novel „The Twelve Servants“ by Fiona Kidman, which adapts the story into a modern-day New Zealand setting.

These adaptations often add their own unique interpretations and twists to the original story, while still maintaining its core themes and values.

Summary of the plot

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ is a humorous fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm that centers around twelve lazy servants who take pride in their ability to avoid work. Each servant boasts about their exceptional skills in idleness and cunning tactics to shirk their duties.

The story begins with a king who discovers that he has a servant who does nothing but laze around. The servant claims to be an expert in idleness and boasts that he knows eleven other servants who are even lazier than he is. Intrigued, the king summons these idle servants to his castle.

Upon their arrival, each servant tells the king about their unique way of avoiding work. Their stories range from comically absurd to outright outrageous. For example, one servant claims that he watched a hare run by while working in the field, but he was so lazy that he couldn’t even be bothered to chase it. Another servant boasts about how he let a bird nest in his hair and lay eggs, waiting for the chicks to hatch and fly away before getting a haircut.

The king, amused by their tales of laziness, decides to reward the idle servants with gold coins. However, as the servants are too lazy to pick up the coins, they simply watch them fall to the ground, unwilling to make the effort to collect their reward.

The tale concludes with a lighthearted and ironic twist, as the twelve idle servants miss out on the riches due to their extreme laziness. The story serves as a humorous critique of idleness and procrastination, reminding readers of the importance of hard work and the consequences of avoiding responsibility.


Backgrounds to fairy tale „The twelve idle servants“

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ is a lesser-known fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, who were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, and authors. The story is part of their collection titled „Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ (Children’s and Household Tales), which was first published in 1812. The collection, commonly known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, is a compilation of various folktales that the Brothers Grimm gathered from oral and written sources across Germany.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were prominent figures in the German Romantic movement during the early 19th century. They aimed to preserve traditional German culture and folklore, which they believed was in danger of being lost due to modernization and urbanization. By collecting and publishing these tales, they sought to document and promote the cultural heritage of their country.

The Brothers Grimm are renowned for their contributions to the study of folklore, linguistics, and comparative mythology. Their fairy tale collections have had a lasting impact on Western literature, inspiring countless adaptations, retellings, and reinterpretations over the years. The tales, including „The Twelve Idle Servants,“ often contain moral lessons and explore themes such as the consequences of one’s actions, the importance of honesty and hard work, and the triumph of good over evil.

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ is unique among the Grimm’s Fairy Tales due to its focus on laziness and idleness rather than more common themes like bravery, love, or cleverness. The story serves as a cautionary tale, teaching readers about the potential negative consequences of laziness and the importance of a strong work ethic.

Interpretations to fairy tale „The twelve idle servants“

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ can be interpreted in several ways, with the most prominent themes being the consequences of laziness, the importance of work ethic, and the dangers of taking pride in idleness.

Consequences of laziness: Each servant’s laziness leads to various misfortunes and problems, such as injuries, loss of employment, or damaged property. This serves as a cautionary tale, warning readers that a lack of effort and responsibility can lead to negative consequences.

Importance of work ethic: The tale emphasizes the value of a strong work ethic and the need to take responsibility for one’s duties. The servants‘ idleness not only affects their own well-being but also causes problems for their masters and others around them. This theme encourages readers to be diligent and conscientious in their work to avoid similar outcomes.

Dangers of taking pride in idleness: The servants in the story boast about their laziness, as if it were an achievement to be proud of. This attitude can be seen as a critique of those who take pride in avoiding work or responsibilities, highlighting the potential harm that can come from such a mindset.

Social commentary: The tale can also be interpreted as a social commentary on the various attitudes towards work and responsibility in society. By presenting extreme examples of laziness, the Brothers Grimm may have been encouraging readers to reflect on their own work ethic and the potential consequences of neglecting one’s duties.

Satire: The exaggerated and humorous nature of the servants‘ laziness can be seen as a satirical take on human idleness and the absurdity of taking pride in such behavior. The story serves to mock those who avoid work and responsibilities, suggesting that their actions are foolish and self-destructive.

In summary, „The Twelve Idle Servants“ offers multiple interpretations that center around the themes of laziness, work ethic, and the consequences of neglecting one’s responsibilities. The story serves as a cautionary tale, emphasizing the importance of diligence and responsibility while also critiquing and satirizing those who take pride in idleness.

Summary of the plot

„The Twelve Idle Servants“ is a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm that tells the story of twelve servants who take pride in their idleness and boast about their lack of effort and work.

The first servant boasts about how he overindulges in food and drink and avoids work by pretending not to hear his master’s calls. The second servant neglects his duty to care for a horse, instead sleeping in the oat-chest and doing the bare minimum to groom the animal. The third servant is so lazy that he doesn’t bother to move when it starts raining, resulting in a hole in his skull.

The fourth servant procrastinates and avoids work by enlisting others to do it for him, while the fifth servant takes an excessive amount of time to complete his tasks, such as removing manure from the stable. The sixth servant is so lazy that he doesn’t even bother to put on shoes or properly walk up steps.

The seventh servant only works when his master is present, otherwise he sleeps or relies on others to move him. The eighth servant is so inactive that he won’t even step over a stone in his path, choosing to lie down and wait to be dried by the sun instead. The ninth servant nearly dies of hunger and thirst because he is too lazy to reach for the food and drink right in front of him.

The tenth servant’s laziness results in a cart running over his legs, causing injury. The eleventh servant loses his job after neglecting his duties, resulting in his master’s clothes becoming moth-eaten. The twelfth servant falls asleep while driving a cart and loses the horse’s harness, leaving the cart stuck in a quagmire. He only gets out of the situation when his master comes to push the cart out himself.

In this tale, the Brothers Grimm showcase extreme examples of laziness and the consequences that can result from a lack of effort and responsibility. Each servant takes pride in their idleness, but their actions ultimately lead to various misfortunes and lost opportunities.

Informations for scientific analysis

Fairy tale statistics
NumberKHM 151
Aarne-Thompson-Uther-IndexATU Typ 1950
TranslationsDE, DE, EN, EN, DA, ES, FR, PT, FI, IT, JA, NL, PL, RU, TR, VI, ZH
Readability Index by Björnsson25.1
Flesch-Reading-Ease Index87.5
Flesch–Kincaid Grade-Level5.5
Gunning Fog Index8.1
Coleman–Liau Index5.4
SMOG Index6.9
Automated Readability Index4.6
Character Count5.361
Letter Count4.033
Sentence Count62
Word Count1.119
Average Words per Sentence18,05
Words with more than 6 letters79
Percentage of long words7.1%
Number of Syllables1.336
Average Syllables per Word1,19
Words with three Syllables25
Percentage Words with three Syllables2.2%
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