Hybridity Transformed: From "Hans My Hedgehog" to the Genetically Engineered in Art

by Mary Bricker

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 44] Celebrating its bicentennial in 2015, “Hans My Hedgehog” (Hans Mein Igel), a story from the Brothers Grimm, is a fairy tale about a hybrid person, Hans, who was born with normal human features below the waist but the features of a hedgehog above the waist. Hans leaves his biological family’s home at a young age and escapes to the woods, where he teaches himself music, grows a herd of pigs, and helps those lost. His monstrousness is expressed in two ways in the story: first through his bodily features and second through his behavior. In the story, Hans assaults a princess as retribution for her father (the king) breaking an agreement with him. Traditional psychoanalytic readings of the tale explain his monstrousness as a result of a lack of parental control and as resolvable through the relinquishing of sexual fears.

A renewed interest in hybridity is found in scientific as well as in artistic communities, as for example scientists experiment with animal cells to create new hybrid genetic forms for medical advancement. The potential good promised by the scientific community is beginning to shift the narrative regarding monsters, which we can see in examples such as the exhibition “Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination” at the Frist Center in Nashville, Tennessee, which showcased mutation and evolution in a sympathetic way that allow the visitor to begin to relinquish the feelings of fear associated with monsters.

Keywords: Brothers Grimm, fairy tales, genetic engineering, hedgehog, hybrid, monster, transformation

Once only found in mythology and fairy tales as an embodiment of fear, hybrid life forms are now part of an international discussion regarding medical advancement. Scientists are experimenting with animals to make them carriers of human organs and blood. Though humanity may only now be able to scientifically create hybrid creatures, they have lived within our imaginations at least as long as the written word. Celebrating its bicentennial, the Brothers Grimms’ “Hans My Hedgehog” (“Hans Mein Igel”) was included in the second volume of the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm) in 1815.1 Hans can be considered a monster based solely on his appearance, as he is born with the features of a hedgehog above the waist. On his upper body [page 45] he has the outer quills of a hedgehog but is otherwise like a human. Nevertheless, Hans is raised as a beast and mistreated by his family because of his body. He is referred to as a creature (“wunderliches Tier”) throughout the story, initially by his parents, whose bad behavior socializes him, as well as by leaders in his community, including the pastor who instructs his parents how to raise their son (Grimm and Grimm 460). The parents follow his advice and prepare a bed of hay behind the stove, as they would for the family dog, where Hans remains for eight years. The joy that the parents expected the child to bring to their family when they wished a child falls flat, and the father has a second wish that the son would die. The parents do not take responsibility for their offspring, nor do they try to help him. For Bruno Bettelheim, Hans is foremost beastly because of his strange mixture of human and animal elements: he is half hedgehog half human, which Bettelheim blames on the parents for having no control over their anger and impatience (70). Their emotions are symbolized in the hybridity of the son who has a hedgehog head and quills.

Modern Museum Monsters

Andrew Lang’s twelve-volume series Fairy Books helped to introduce the fairy tales to an English-speaking audience starting in 1889. The Green Fairy Book published in 1892 contained Lang’s version of “Hans My Hedgehog,” entitled “Jack, My Hedgehog.” Though a different name, Lang’s Jack is also a son of a farmer who experiences child abuse before moving away from his family to tend pigs and help those lost in the forest. In the preface Lang comments on future monsters: “If there are frightful monsters in fairy tales, they do not frighten you now, because that kind of monster is no longer going about the world, whatever he may have done long, long ago. He has been turned into stone, and you may see his remains in museums” (Lang x). I would like to consider Lang’s observation further by drawing on “Hans My Hedgehog,” in conjunction with artwork showcased at the 2012 art exhibition, Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. The art exhibition contained pieces that represent societal mutation as well as evolution. Devoid of the [page 46] written stories to accompany the monster display, the viewer is left to imagine the plot behind the art, making the morals of these fairy-tale snippets murky. The physical transformations take center stage.

The curator Mark Scala suggests that the exhibition offered “strange combinations of human and the animal. It’s all an expression of the imagination, a way of conveying the complexity of humanity” (“Frist” 1:36-1:43). Through their art, the artists in the exhibition mixed references to literature as well as to biogenetic science in their portrayal of the complex relationships between man and animal. Jack Zipes interprets these fairy tale fragments as evoking separation within wonder (Irresistible 137). They might be considered alongside the strange child-monsters often presented in the Grimms’ fairy tales as hybrid animal-princes. The art does not offer a clear moral for children and adults alike, despite the inclusion of fairy tale archetypes such as references to fairy tale-like characters, objects, and landscapes. For Bettelheim, fairy tales function as a natural resource to help work through fear: “without fantasies to give us hope, we do not have the strength to meet the adversities of life” (121). Though fairy tales are thought of as children’s literature, countless authors use the genre as a medium for their modern-day concerns or draw on archetypal symbols to evoke a magical mood and add a layer of complexity. Just as artists are now returning to an older literary past to address current scientific discovery, so too did the Grimms traverse their contemporary time landscape during Romanticism in search of past cultural wisdom to make sense of community development within an era of uncertainty.

Now the fairy-tale narrative has been reshaped as visual art, mirroring a larger shift to a digital world empowered by images. Parallel to this shift, we also see a greater public display of empathy for the Other or people different than the norm. Scala comments: “While monster imagery has traditionally conveyed humanity’s darkest aspects, today many artists reconfigure the notion of monstrosity to express empathy and identification with the outsider” (“Fairy” February 24). In the exhibition, hybrid parental creatures as well as genetically engineered children’s playthings are displayed as harmless. According to the Bettelheim, the value of monsters lies in being scary, as the fantasy helps the child work through the monsters he feels within himself: without monsters, the “child remains helpless [page 47] with his worst anxieties – much more so than if he had been told fairy tales which give these anxieties form and body and also show ways to overcome these monsters” (120). But if we now empathize with monsters, then they no longer embody fear to be confronted in fantasy. Hence, my article speaks to the transformation of monsters in our advanced scientific age. Given our changing views on monsters and the monstrous in modern society, and building upon Bettelheim’s reading, it could be true that fear of monsters can no longer affect the human psyche and physiological development. By contrast, the Grimms’ fairy tale “Hans My Hedgehog” shows the degree of prejudice against the Other by way of the private and public mistreatment of the hedgehog-boy.

“Hans My Hedgehog”

In “Hans My Hedgehog,” the reader learns that both the boy’s body and lifestyle cause him to be seen as a misfit or outcast within normal society. For example, one of the kings he encounters in the forest thinks he can take advantage of Hans, assuming that because of his animal-like features, he lacks human intellect (Grimm and Grimm 461-462). Hans also appears strange to both kings because of the bagpipe music that he plays and because they encounter him sitting in a tree, where he lives. In medieval thought, one’s residence was also a reason for marvel (Friedman 26-36). Hence, his life in the trees would have reinforced his monstrosity to the original audience.

The qualities that make him strange equally make him endearing. In addition to teaching himself to play the bagpipes, he also becomes a successful shepherd, growing a large herd of swine. These accomplishments demonstrate his human intellect as well as a level of cultivation. His relationship with animals shows the hybrid boy’s gentleness. He briefly returns home to slaughter the herd for his father and townsmen, emphasizing his generosity and thoughtfulness. However, his success does not change his father’s feelings toward him. In the woods, he also encounters others, namely the kings, who are willing to accept his help but reluctant to return the goodwill.

Speaking generally about monsters, Scala states: “With their horrible appearances and violent impulses, they [monsters] are [page 48] conceived as punishers of behavior that deviates from parental teachings, religious beliefs, or social norms” (“Fairy” February 24). Scala’s statement is also applicable to the Grimms’ fairy tale. We see this with Hans’s behavior toward the first king. Perhaps the most important lesson Hans learns from his troubled childhood is the importance of keeping one’s word. The tale further illuminates the strength of an individual facing adversity and contains a very modern moral concerning the value of honesty and fairness regardless of a person’s outward appearance. Hans shows two lost kings on separate occasions their way out of the forest, and each promises to give Hans the first thing that greets him when returning home. In both cases, the king’s daughter rushes out to greet her father. Later Hans visits both kings to gather his rewards. When the first king’s daughter is forced to marry such a strange creature, Hans takes revenge by enacting a monstrous fantasy that both demonstrates his sexual male prowess and performs power over the first king via his daughter’s body. In Lang’s version, as in the Grimms’ tale, Jack/Hans inflicts physical aggression against the princess. This act of violence against the girl and implicitly against her father demonstrates a unique monstrous side of Hans that goes otherwise unknown:

Hans My Hedgehog took off her beautiful clothes and stuck her with his quills until she was covered with blood. “This is what you get for being so deceitful!” he said. “Go back home. I don’t want you.” Then he sent her away, and she lived in disgrace for the rest of her life. (Zipes Complete, 363).

(Da zog ihr Hans mein Igel die schönen Kleider aus, und stach sie mit seiner Igelhaut bis sie ganz blutig war, sagte “das ist der Lohn für eure Falschheit, geh hin, ich will dich nicht,” und jagte sie damit nach Haus, und war siebeschimpft ihr Lebtag.) (Grimm and Grimm, “Hans” 464)

Ashliman states that the Grimms intensified the act of aggression against the princess between the first and the final seventh edition, as Hans initially “undressed her,” and in later editions “he pulled off her clothes.” This change emphasizes the beastly side of Hans. No longer confined to a small corner of the kitchen, the unleashed monster marks fear and then shame in the royal family before moving on to the next kingdom. This situation demonstrates the [page 49] dichotomy of his monstrous side and his earlier kindness shown to humans and animals alike.

“Hans My Hedgehog” Variants

“Hans My Hedgehog” is considered a Hog Bridegrooms fairy tale type ATU 441 according to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system for folk tales, which is determined by reoccurring motifs (Uther 263). In each version, a young woman is promised to a hybrid man-animal creature, and the happy end includes a ridding of the animal skin or body. Sometimes the bodies are completely animal, but the characters act entirely human. Just as specific medical knowledge is needed to protect oneself from werewolves and vampires in legends (Higley 342), so too, I argue, is expertise needed to transform from a partial or full animal into a prince in fairy tales. In these tales, the bridegroom often appears as an animal that acts in a human way. For Bettelheim, positive feelings ultimately correct the child’s misdevelopment through his marriage to the second princess as she helps him to break the spell (70). She is kind to Hans because she realizes the importance of her father’s ability to live up to his word. As a cautionary tale, “Hans My Hedgehog” warns about the trouble caused by adult negative behavior, such as impatience as well as false promises, but suggests that the consequences are resolvable through parental acceptance of the child. Another solution lies within the power of the daughter, whose sexual anxieties are comforted by her animal husband and his promise to transform from a monster into a prince (Bettelheim 284). Whereas Bettelheim speaks of the girl’s fear because of sex, I see that she is merely a representative of society’s fear of the Other.

In this tale, deviants from the norm appear within one’s own family, as a survey of the Hog Bridegrooms tales demonstrates. In “The Enchanted Brahman’s Son,” the oldest known version of animal-hybrid husbands published in the first book of the ancient Indian Pañcatantra from circa AD 300, the father seeks a wife for his son, the snake, and then helps the bride rid the son’s snakeskin by throwing it in the fire after the wedding (Scherf 567). In Friedrich Krauss’s “Prinz Igel” (“Prince Hedgehog”) (1883), the hedgehog is the Kasier’s son, and a priest instructs the fiancée the way in which to [page 50] transform the hedgehog into a prince with the help of holy water at the altar on their wedding day. In this sense, the priest functions as a father figure, evoking his larger paternal role within the community. In Jeremiah Curtin’s “The Hedgehog, the Merchant, the King, and the Poor Man” (1903), a hedgehog transforms back into a prince through his wife’s love for him but is then separated from their children by the merchant’s jealous wife, whose daughter previously refused to marry the prince when he was a hedgehog.

In other variants, pigs replace the hedgehogs as bridegrooms but face similar family conflict (see Scherf 566-568 for a general overview and additional examples). Giovanni Francesco Straparola’s “King Pig” (1550) influenced Baroness d’Aulnoy’s widely popular “Le prince Marcassin,” which is a tale of a royal family with a wild-boar boy who has a difficult time finding a wife. Ultimately, he marries, and his wife’s love helps to rid him of the boar skin and become human. In Johann Wilhelm Wolf’s “The Wild Pig” (“Das wilde Schwein”) (1845), an evil witch curses the royal family’s son and the youngest sister enables him to transform back into a prince. Influenced by the Grimms, Josef Haltrich published “Das Borstenkind” (“The Bristle Child”) (1856), in which the boy is turned into a wild boar through his mother’s curse. Later his wife’s devotion helps him to change back into a human. In the Romanian tale “The Enchanted Pig,” the father gives the keys to his daughters, who enter the mysterious and forbidden room to find a book that reveals their future spouses. The youngest is to marry a pig that is accepted by the family once he has regained human shape. In these examples, the narrative is structured by the family.

Hybridity in Art and Science

Now, in our postmodern world, Patricia Piccinini’s art adds a new twist to classic narratives concerning hybridity. Big Mother (2005) is a sculpture of silicone, fiberglass, and human hair that depicts an ape-like mother breastfeeding a human child (Scala 113). Piccinini’s artistic creation could be seen as a role reversal of the familial situation that Hans faces in the fairy tale “Hans My Hedgehog.” His mother neither nurses him nor treats him humanely. Conversely, Piccinini’s Big Mother’s baby looks cared for and healthy, which [page 51] implies that genetically engineered parental figures would be effective alternatives to humans. Piccinini’s art blurs the lines between the animal and human. In Piccinini’s sculpture The Long Awaited (2008), the child rests his head on a grandparent-looking manatee creature with winged feet. This manatee resembles a harmless senior citizen cuddling with her grandchild. Another sculpture, Still Life With Stem Cells (2006), suggests that happiness will result from new scientific advancement, as it simulates the joy of a child who is surrounded by and plays with genetically modified pet-looking creatures. These actual life-size sculptures make the likelihood of these possibilities seem real.

The artist Suzanne Anker comments that Piccinini’s Big Mother raises bioethical and philosophical questions concerning evolution: “Piccinini’s Big Mother prompts moral questions in terms of animal-human hybrids and the role these in-betweens play in a techno-scientific democratic society” (39). Given the capabilities of genetic engineering, we should consider the general question of what constitutes being human. Does one only need human blood or organs? Considering Piccinini’s art, questions concerning mothers arise. Should a hybrid creature be treated as a human depending on its function within and service to a family? As a society, we are ill-equipped to answer the questions that arise from a lack of information about new life forms. According to Nancy Hightower, we do not have a sufficient language to hold a discussion about the consequences of genetic engineering. Our language has not developed yet because of the newness of these scientific advancements. Piccinini’s sculptures invite us to “start reinventing language to hold the ambiguous, ambivalent tensions that are birthed through our technological innovations” (Hightower). In this sense, the visual art complements the written text where it falls silent.

At the same time, the promise of medical breakthroughs is replacing fear. DNAs are being spliced in animals to experiment with new hybrid life forms, such as geeps (sheep-goat hybrids). Since 1980, scientists have also been implanting human genes into mice. A group of Israeli scientists has even been successful in creating a tiny human kidney in a mouse. Besides mice, larger animals are also used in experimentations. According to Professor Lee Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, experiments on cows involve [page 52] replacing the genes in cows with human ones. Regenerative medicine can benefit from these scientific advancements, as cows could then be used as living storage vessels for human blood for medical transfusions. Silver states that the idea would be more likely acceptable if the animals are able to keep their outer physical appearance.

Perhaps younger generations who fantasize about new scientific hybrid forms will help in the development of this new language needed to talk about these possibilities. Children visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York play-built their own creatures, such as animals with seven and a half heads and tails with fire (Kendall). Will these children’s ideas become reality in successive years? Going back to Lang’s observation of the way in which monsters have been mummified in museums (as Lang states in his preface of The Green Fairy Book), this article shows that the monsters have not disappeared, but instead, we have changed our perception of them. The fear associated with Hans the Hedgehog has evolved into excitement.

In centuries past, we were less likely to accept divergence from the typical, as evidenced by “Hans My Hedgehog,” in which Hans is treated as an outcast within his own home. Local religious authority in the story believes that Hans is poised between man and monster, as he is human enough for baptism and monster enough to necessitate restricted human physical contact. His mother fails to breastfeed the hybrid boy, and the princess fears touching his spiny body on their wedding night. The fairy tale implies that there is also real reason for this fear, as confirmed by his violence against the first princess. She is disgraced for life due to the assault (Bettelheim 283).

In “Hans My Hedgehog,” the parents successfully avoid being associated with Hans. He rebels, leaves his parents to seek out a different more equitable world, and finds solace in the woods beyond civilization. He punishes the first king for not living up to his word and, one could argue, also for failing to be accepting of those unlike himself. Hans marries the second princess, which allows his transformation. After Hans’s quills are gone, the king’s doctor heals his body with ointments. This shows that the happy end includes a healing from his past. Despite the ill treatment of Hans, he does not hold a grudge against either his family or society. His transformation [page 53] allows him to make peace with his own father, who earlier was glad to see him leave home. He also marries the princess a second time – this time as a human – thus underscoring the importance of his transformed body. The court accepts him into the family as man to continue a line of human rulers instead of hybrid ones.

Applying ointments as a medical treatment on hybrid beings is not going to reverse the creations of a genetically engineered evolution. Isolation of new breeds similar to those showcased in the imaginations of artists at the Frist Center would be the only way to stop the continuation of new species (Silver). Artists Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz’s The Mail Boat (2007) posit that scenario, as men in white uniforms greet mail carriers in their snow-covered iceberg colony where hybrid humans are portrayed in conversation on the island (Martin and Muñoz 64). This alternative life-space was perhaps the intention of Hans when he left for the woods. The antiquated message of the fairy tale was that genetically mixed creatures are not a sign of advancement but rather indicate a domestic problem that has negative repercussions for the community. Though Scala suggests that the art installation warns of society’s ethical unpreparedness to handle the outcome of current genetic research, a new attitude is emerging, spurred on by the imagination of the young and the old who through their work and play acknowledge the dangers and the promises of the genetic evolution (Scala Fairy 11).


This article appeared in Monsters and the Monstrous, vol. 5, no. 1, 2015.

It is reprinted here with permission and has been lightly edited to conform to house style in grammar and documentation.

1. Beloved in literature, both Pliny and Aristotle wrote of hedge-hogs, as did Shakespeare. Their portrayal of hedgehogs as nasty creatures may stem from the word’s colloquial meaning as “a term used for people who showed no regards for the feelings of others.” Though Beatrix Potter’s twentieth-century hedgehog in The Tales of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is endearing, hedgehogs are generally represented in a less than favorable light, as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For more information regarding hedgehogs’ portrayal in literature, see Hedgehogs (Reeve 253).

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MLA citation (print):

Bricker, Mary. "Hybridity Transformed: From 'Hans My Hedgehog' to the Genetically Engineered in Art." Supernatural Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2019, pp. 44-55.