“Nutcracker and Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann & “The Tale of the Nutcracker” by Alexandre Dumas

“Nutcracker and Mouse King”
E.T.A. Hoffmann
1816, Prussia
&
“The Tale of the Nutcracker”
Alexandre Dumas, père
1845, France

Translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Introduction by Jack Zipes (Penguin Classics)

For the entire twenty-fourth of December, the children of Medical Officer Stahlbaum were not permitted to step inside the intermediary room, much less the magnificent showcase next door. Fritz and Marie sat huddled together in a corner of the back room. The deep evening dusk had set in, and the children felt quite eerie because, as was usual on this day, no light had been brought in. Fritz quite secretly whispered to his younger sister (she had just turned seven) that he had heard a rustling and murmuring and soft throbbing in the locked rooms since early that morning. Also, not so long ago (Fritz went on), a short, dark man with a large casket under his arm had stolen across the vestibule. However, said Fritz, he knew quite well that it was none other than Godfather Drosselmeier.

Opening, “Nutcracker and Mouse King”

The Nutcracker is a story so familiar as to seem universally known. Or at least, the ballet is. For on opening the pages of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original short story, one soon discovers–unsurprisingly, perhaps–that the ballet diverges greatly from the source material. Although the core begins the same–on Christmas Eve, young Marie (often Clara in the ballet) takes a nutcracker doll, whose jaw was cold-heartedly broken by the enthusiasm of her brother Fritz, into her care; she observes, and eventually participates in, Nutcracker’s battle with the Mouse King; and she is eventually transported to a magical sugar candy land–the stories differ greatly in the particulars. The ballet is set on only a single night, rather than the week (or more) of the story, it spends far more time in the imaginary land of sweets than the few pages of the original, and it completely omits the fairy-tale-within-a-fairy-tale of Princess Pirlipat and the Hard Nut. In short, it centers on the more saccharine (literally!) elements of Hoffman’s tale rather than the more bizarre, and sometimes even grotesque imaginations he included, limiting such elements to the first act, in the form of Godfather Drosselmeier and the battle with the mice.

These elements, though, by no means make “Nutcracker and Mouse King” a horror story. Instead, it is a fantastical tale of dream-world and imagination, where not only toy soldiers, but gingerbread figures and dolls do battle with swarming mice hordes, where a beautiful princess is transformed into a malformed creature with the face of a nutcracker by the curse of a mouse, where mice and girls may make bargains in sweets and for a favorite toy’s safety. It is in short, a delight, if an oddity.

I’ve never read any of Hoffman’s other stories, so I do not know if this is characteristic of his writing–or honestly, if it was a misstep of the translation–but at times it seemed disjointed, as if the subject had changed midsentence, or the verb didn’t quite align. For example: “…she wrapped [the ribbon] around his injured shoulders and covered him all the way up to her nose” (14). Or this one is perhaps more baffling:

Clärchen bent down so deep that she was able to clutch Nutcracker’s skinny arm, and she gently pulled him up. Then she quickly detached herself with her multispangled girdle and she was about to hang it around Fritz’s neck. But Fritz stepped back two paces, put his hand on his chest, and spoke very solemnly:

“Do not, oh my lady, wish to waste your grace on me.” He faltered, took a deep breath, and then he tore the ribbon from Marie’s shoulders–he pressed the ribbon against his lips. Fritz now hung the ribbon around his waist like an officer’s sash.”

17-18

This is the only place where Nutcracker is referred to as Fritz (I assume this is who Fritz is here)–and seemingly out of nowhere. Is this evidence that the story is only entirely in Marie’s imagination and she has yet to settle on Nutcracker’s appropriate name (later “Herr Drosselmeier”) or is it a lapse on the part of the author? I’m not entirely happy with the former idea (though the latter seems unlikely), as I am perfectly content to read this fairy story as something that actually happened rather than confined to the realm of Marie’s imagination. (In fact, I was a bit miffed, reading Jack Zipes’s introduction in which he suggested that everything happens in Marie’s imagination. Has he no imagination of his own?! I may still be a child at heart…)

In contrast with Hoffmann’s original, the rewriting by Alexandre Dumas, père, is far more fluid–and florid–a story telling. I don’t know the purpose of his writing it, as–save for a framing story in which the narrator (Dumas) falls asleep at a children’s Christmas party, is discovered, tied up, and will only be loosened by his child-captors in exchange for a story–there isn’t much original added, and the changes made seem inconsequential to the plot (while softening its edges). To me it seems more a translation. And perhaps that was the real intent, to create something readable for French children (that Dumas could also profit from). Zipes says that Dumas may have been working from a translation himself, but that wouldn’t preclude a “French translation” as motivation. Regardless, it seems more a curiosity than a necessity.

Although in the future I would probably stick with the original, it was fun to have read both versions, especially timed during the holiday season (and accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s music). A true Christmas classic.

4 thoughts on ““Nutcracker and Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann & “The Tale of the Nutcracker” by Alexandre Dumas”

  1. I will be reading The Nutcracker next year – this will be my first read (and I have never seen the ballet either), so I’m pretty excited! I might accompany it with Dumas’ version too. I love him, he’s a talented storyteller.

    1. Fanda, I hope you enjoy it! It’s such an imaginative story.

      I’ve only ever seen a local production of the ballet (mostly children in the cast). The first half pretty much comes from Hoffmann’s story, but the last half is more “inspired by,” so it’s definitely different. I found it interesting to compare the Hoffmann and Dumas versions, but they’re so similar in plot, that generally it doesn’t feel like both are really necessary.

  2. I’ve read a bit of Hoffmann, Nutcracker included, and I have encountered some of those awkward moments in his other stories too. I put it up to translation, but I’d also say that he isn’t as good a writer as Dumas. Lots of ideas, but not as good at execution.

    1. Katherine, part of what makes me think that the translation plays a role here is that there were a couple odd word choices in the Dumas translation as well (it was the same translator for both versions). But thanks for the insight into Hoffmann, more generally. I suppose it could be a stylistic choice as well, but it doesn’t make for as fluid a reading as Dumas!

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