The Three Army-Surgeons: A Little-Known German Tale Despite Being Essentially, Grotesquelly Grimm

Life during the Middle Ages was harsh and children, like those that would be told the sometimes gory German folklore later compiled by the Grimm brothers, lived an R-rated existence.   Death due to infection and disease was common, especially during times of war.  And as the saying goes when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, or in the case of this story, when life hands you a horrific war in which people die of infection and horrible wounds, compose a story about three foolish surgeons who have the magic to fix such problems.

“The Three Army Surgeons” is a tale of three men roaming the countryside on their way back home from war.  The men spend a night at a tavern and participate in a very grotesque challenge.  The innkeeper dares the surgeons to detach their own body parts and reattach them the next morning.  Each of the surgeons accepts the challenge and amputates a part of his own body:  the first removes his hand, the second tears out his heart, and the third gouges out his own eyes.   The surgeons put the parts on a platter and the innkeeper locks them in a chest for safe-keeping. The innkeeper gives his serving wench the key to the chest and the charge of guarding these items for the night, but when she opens the case later and accidentally leaves it open all night, all goes awry.  The parts are missing and fearing punishment from her employer, the girl forces her lover to go out to search for them.  Unfortunately, a cat snatched the items and has mauled them beyond repair so the lover must set out to find replacements.

Illustration by Agnieszka Wrzosek of The Three Army Surgeons

The essentially dark humor and magical elements traditionally associated with many of Grimm’s tales comes into play during the second half of the tale. The lover, in his scramble to find a replacement hand, heart, and eyes, comes up with a silly solution by turning to second-hand parts.  In the end, a thief’s hand, a pig’s heart, and a cat’s eyes end up on the platter.  The following morning, the unsuspecting surgeons use a magical ointment to successfully put the used body parts back into their bodies.  Within a day, they find themselves feeling and acting strangely, due to their new animal anatomy, but I won’t spoil the humorous ending for readers.

For those looking for an authentically Grimm tale, I highly recommend “The Three Army Surgeons.”  My readers can look forward to seeing it in one of the installments of The Fairytale Keeper series.

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