“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.

The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
c. 1200, Germany
A.T. Hatto, translator

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

Thus begins the medieval German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied. The poet’s introductory description is indeed apt, for it is full of both brave heroics and great tragedies.

One of several sources for Wagner’s four-work cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Nibelungenlied tells us the story of the great hero Siegfried and his fair Kreimhild. As the epic opens, Kreimhild declares that she will never love, for she believes that if she ever knows such happiness, it will only come with great pain. Siegfried, for his part, has heard the tales of Kreimhild’s beauty, and vowing to make her his wife, sets out from his homeland for Burgundy, where Kreimhild lives with her three brothers, Kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. The tales of Siegfried’s great strength and prowess as a warrior go before him, and he is warily greeted, but the kings are won over to admiration and friendship for Siegfried by his great bravery and he soon joins them in battle. The reward for his success in battle is his first sight of Kreimhild–who he nevertheless was already in love with–and despite her earlier protests against love, she in turn loves him. Gunther and Siegfried soon agree: if Siegfried will help Gunther win the hand of the proud Icelandic queen Brunhild, Siegfried will be granted Kreimhild’s hand in return.

A series of great feats–and great deceptions follow. And from these deceptions, great tragedy will come. Brunhild’s mistaken belief in Siegfried’s status as an inferior to Gunther (rather than an equal) will spur a great fight between herself and Kreimhild, and Brunhild, publicly humiliated, will plot Siegfried’s death in revenge. This can only mean further plotting and vengeance, for due to Brunhild’s schemes, Kreimhild’s brothers have twice betrayed her, and so many years later, remarried to King Etzel of Hungary, Kreimheld will plot against her brothers and their vassals in return.

One point of interest for me–and some mild amusement–is the frequency with which the poet tells us what is going to happen. There is no doubt from the first chapter that this will not end well, for so we are told: “the maidens will have reason to weep,” or, “the knights will rue the day that…” What a contrast to our contemporary abhorrence of “spoilers”! But this poem was written for an audience that knew the stories being told; The Nibelungenlied is likely the formalization of an oral tradition already well established.

The Nibelungenlied is described by its translator and a heroic epic “surpassed only by the Iliad,” and while I have not read enough epic poems to know the justice of this assertion, I did note points of comparison between the two poems. In both, themes of honor and vengeance underline much of the action. Just as Achilles, smarting from Agamemnon’s insult to his honor, does not enter the fray until he has reason to seek revenge for his dear friend Patroclus’s death, so many of Etzel’s sworn allies will not entertain Kreimhild’s schemes of revenge against the Burgundians until they feel compelled to defend their own honor as warriors or to seek revenge for their own friends, slain in the Burgundians’ desperate attempts to escape fate. In the end, in both poems, we see great feats of battle, great tests of courage and honor–and many, many deaths. More deaths, in fact in The Nibelungenlied–this is a story in which is seems the cycle of violence cannot end until nearly all in its path are consumed, save a scant few to tell the tale. It reminds me rather of the bloody revenge drama Titus Andronicus, though here we are spared the cannibalistic feast.

There is some inconsistency in The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild, so important to much of the inciting action, nearly completely disappears in the second half, and we never learn her fate. Characters seem to be introduced more than once. Some actions or words seem inexplicable on their own. The translator provides helpful notes and Appendices that explain possible reasons for these seeming contractions, primarily being, it seems, the melding of multiple older sources and adapting certain scenes to the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of his audience (such as making Siegfried more chivalrous). These minor inconsistencies aside, it is a gripping tale well told, and a poignant reminder that injustice and violence beget too often only more violence.

I read this for the Classics Club Spin #23.

Completed: Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the DetectivesEmil and the Detectives [Emil und die Detektive]
Erich Kästner
(1929, Germany)
Eileen Hall, translator
Walter Trier, illustrations

’Oh he’ll like Berlin, I’m sure of that,’ declared Mrs. Wirth from the depths of the wash-basin. ‘It’s just made of children. We went there the year before last for the skittle club outing. My word, but it’s a noisy place! Do you know—some of the streets were as light at night as during the day. And the traffic! My, what a lot of cars!’ (Chapter 1)

Emil and the Detectives starts out deceptively, Emil carrying the water jug and his mother washing her client’s hair—a scene of domestic tranquility, nothing of adventures in sight. Yet this opening chapter, slow by current standards, is our introduction to Emil and his character: he is obedient and polite, determined to do right by his mother. Which is why it is so important to Emil, when the one thing she warns him against happens, losing the money she gives him for his grandmother, that he make it right. Especially since he feels particularly wronged; he didn’t lose the money, it was stolen from him after he fell asleep on the train, despite all his precautions, both to protect the money and stay awake. It is from this point that the story takes off; Emil soon meets up with a group of boys who upon learning his story are only too happy to help him chase down and trap the thief. His cousin, Pony, the only girl in the story, makes occasional appearances with her new bike—which she is only too eager to show off—functioning as messenger or go-between with Emil’s adult relatives. We also see other aspects of Emil’s character–his determination to right a wrong, a bit of temper (he nearly fights the first boy he meets), and a hint of mischief: he believes he can’t go to the police, because he chalked a statue at home and believes the Berlin police will surely learn of it and accuse him of stealing the money!

I’m really not quite sure what I expected from this classic from 1920s Germany. Perhaps more of a mystery, but the detective work in this story is tailing a known suspect, not discovering “whodunit.” Of course, this makes for an exciting adventure, and the reader never really cares that we know the thief already or that we feel fairly assured of a positive outcome. After all, there are still plenty of twists and turns and we can’t be sure, exactly, how the boys will manager to confront the thief and reclaim Emil’s money.

A German writer, Kästner would some years after writing this children’s tale watch the Nazis burn many of his books, including the sequel Emil and the Three Twins. But they didn’t include Emil and the Detectives, in part because of of its popularity. It’s been adapted for several film versions, including multiple German versions and the 1964 Disney adaptation, as well as a UK stage production.

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - 300px wide

As well as reading this for the readalong, it also counts as one of my titles for the Books in Translation Challenge 2016.

Emil and the Detectives RAL

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - Original

It’s here, time for discussion of our thoughts on Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives! Leave links to your posts in the comments, or feel free to discuss below.

If you’ve never read Emil and the Detectives before, was there anything that surprised you? How does it compare to other children’s mystery-adventure stories you’ve read?