“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.

Week’s End Notes (21) – Of Christmasy Things

  • I’m afraid my December has been pretty much of a slump, reading wise. And blogging wise, for that matter–I let myself get pretty behind on reading and commenting on others’ blogs. I suppose it’s a general combination of busyness–aka letting my procrastination get the better of me–and trying to force myself into reading plans I’d made previously that didn’t really work just now. The first has been solved quite naturally: Christmas is past, so what is not done is not done and that is that. And the second has been dealt with by returning library books unread and reshelving (okay, okay, setting aside to reshelve) books I own.
  • But despite solving these two little problems, I still wouldn’t have had a single book read in December were it not for the delightful solution of illustrated children’s Christmas books. (Hey! I didn’t intend it, but this actually makes a nice transition into January…) I don’t have a good feel for how well-known Tasha Tudor is (although I’ve heard her books/illustrations are quite popular in Japan), but my mom has long been a fan, so I grew up reading copies of books illustrated with her gentle hand. Her editions of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess will always be my favorites, but in addition to illustration stories written by others, Tudor also wrote and illustrated her own tales. I read three over December: Corgiville Christmas, The Dolls’ Christmas, and Becky’s Christmas. They are gentle tales, harkening back to a time when Christmas gifts were mostly handmade and Christmas was a simple, thoughtful time for family and close friends, without the stresses and materialism of our modern holiday.
  • Reading these three close together was interesting to see how Tudor both kept to the same themes and ideas but also how her artwork changed over time. Corgiville Christmas is the most recent, published when she was in her eighties, and the painting is less crisp and sharp-edged than in her earlier books, but it is nonetheless a charming tale.
    Cover - Corgiville Christmas by Tasha Tudor
    Illustration from Corgiville Christmas by Tasha Tudor
    Covers - Becky's Christmas and The Doll's Christmas by Tasha Tudor
    Illustration from Becky's Christmas by Tasha Tudor
    Illustration from The Doll's Christmas by Tasha Tudor
  • Reading these little tales seems to have been the boost I needed to get back to longer books. I’ve started a reread of a childhood favorite series, The Dark is Rising Sequence. I’m currently on the first, Over Sea, Under Stone, and they’re all perhaps a bit too new to qualify for “classic” status just yet, but I’ve been wanting to reread them ever since I read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys a bit over a year ago. (As I posted at the time Raven Boys reminds me of Dark is Rising.) I’ve also begun Pinocchio. I’ll be reading an English translation for January, but I wanted to try my hand at how much of the Italian I could understand first. I may or may not read the whole thing.
  • And then of course, there’s the new temptations. What would be a Christmas without at least one new book?
    New books - Beowulf (Tolkien trans.) and Northanger Abbey (Annotated)Or two, as the case may be. I’ve been hoping to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf since I knew it existed (and this was before Christopher Tolkien had edited it for publication), so I am very happy to have that. It might have to be a 2015 read. And of course, I must continue my collection of the Annotated Editions of Jane Austen, with the fifth, Northanger Abbey. Only one left!
  • I promise at least one more post before the end of the year–my “traditional” New Year’s Eve post reviewing the past year and looking ahead to the new. Until then, happy reading!

Completed: The Quiet Little Woman

Reader beware: The discussion following references the ends of the stories in a very general way, which might be considered “spoilerish” by some, but I think that a reader familiar with Little Women, or a typical Christmas story, would not be surprised by any of the endings. No specific plots are given away.

The Quest Little Woman: A Christmas Story
Louisa May Alcott

Contains the stories:
“The Quiet Little Woman”
“Tilly’s Christmas”
“Rosa’s Tale”

These three tales were originally published in Little Things, a late-1800s home-produced magazine by the Lukens sisters. Fans of Alcott, they were inspired by Little Women to create their own publication and, after writing to the famous writer of their endeavor, she supplied them with several original stories to include in the magazine.

Such a poor little supper, and yet such a happy one, for love, charity, and contentment were welcome guests around the humble table. That Christmas eve was a sweeter one even than that at the great house, where light shone, fires blazed, a great tree glittered, music sounded, and children danced and played.

(From “Tilly’s Christmas”)

Years ago, when I first received this little book I read and was enchanted by all three stories. Quintessential Christmas stories, each contains a central character who longs for something desperately but with little hope of getting it as Christmas Eve turns to Christmas Day. They are simple tales, ultimately hopeful and optimistic about the human spirit and human nature. They should be perfect Christmas reading, and I looked towards them eagerly this year as the day itself quickly approaches.

But.

This time, I was not nearly as charmed or enthralled. Although each story moralizes, fitting to the era of their first publication, it was not this, but the pat, happy endings that bothered me. Quite frankly, my discomfort with such neat ends is not the story itself, but by my own reality—my experiences with the real world have unfortunately made me a bit cynical and bitter. In the real world goodness and virtue might be its own reward, but isn’t necessarily rewarded. Value is too often placed on things other than those which are good or truly worthwhile.

Alcott’s stories should be a remedy, an antidote to these hard realities, reminding us of people who are benevolent and good and kind. But this year, this difficult year, it just doesn’t work for me. And that’s really sad.

Maybe next year.