A Hundred and Fifty Years Sleep
Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, translated by Maria TatarThe Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales(Penguin Classics, 2015)
Once upon a time (in 2012), the Guardian reported that “500 New Fairy Tales” had been discovered in Germany. A trove of folk tales collected by Bavarian historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the mid-1800s had recently been unearthed after sitting in an archive for 150 years. The fairy tale crowd—bloggers and writers and general enthusiasts of stories bewitching and grim—went wild. We love things that have been sitting in archives, long forgotten. That’s a fairy tale in and of itself, and it was shared wildly over the Internet when the story broke. Well-meaning attempts to wrangle with its virality followed, from scholars like Jack Zipes, who argued that “there are literally fifty or sixty collections that are more interesting than Schönwerth’s,” and Maria Tatar, who pointed out that these stories were not exactly new discoveries. Many, in fact, were already in print. Yet the Guardian article popped up again and again on social media over the next two years, like the Grimms’ Willful Child sticking his limbs through the earth of his grave, not to be tamped down.
This February, Tatar, acting as translator, and editor Erika Eichenseer are giving English-reading fairy tale enthusiasts the very thing they’d been so quick to celebrate: The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, an English translation of Schönwerth’s unearthed Bavarian fairy tales. It would seem, given the title, that Tatar has reconsidered her stance on the tales’ status as “new,” and one wouldn’t be blamed for wondering whether her New Yorker rebuttal was just one part of a bit of promotional theater. But the more important question is this: will the fairy tale crowd, who so loves a “long-lost” story, be enchanted enough with Penguin’s slim, unimposing paperback to make Schönwerth’s fairy tales a new classic, or will this publication’s impact pale in comparison to the Guardian’s more sensational narrative? The buzz preceding The Turnip Princess’s publication may well guarantee popularity beyond an academic audience. But without the force of over 200 years of exposure and appropriation behind him, Schönwerth has some catching up to do if, as Penguin claims, “the holy trinity of fairy tales—the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen—[will become] a quartet.”
Tatar has made the case for Schönwerth’s potential significance by pointing to an unexpected muddling of gender stereotypes. In both her introduction to The Turnip Princess and in the New Yorker, Tatar claims that Schönwerth’s tales, unlike those of Charles Perrault and the Grimms, feature dudes in distress just as often as damsels. In the title story, “The Turnip Princess,” for instance, a beautiful young man is enchanted into a deep sleep much like the Sleeping Beauty of the Grimms’s “Brier Rose.” The Guardian, eager to continue its hold on the story, has added to Tatar’s argument, claiming that the new tales also feature “surprisingly emancipated female characters.” This will excite readers eager to see time-worn gender roles upended; after all, the most impactful literary fairy tale movements of the last 50 years have been built on feminist explorations of the old tales, via the work of Angela Carter and her ilk. But readers diving into Schönwerth looking for evidence of a gender-progressive worldview will end up disappointed. Although his tales feature many a vulnerable male protagonist, his female characters aren’t necessarily painted in a more empowering light. According to M. Charlotte Wolf, the translator of Original Bavarian Folktales: A Schönwerth Selection, a collection of tales taken from Schönwerth’s three-volume Sitten und Sagen and published in 2013, many of Schönwerth’s collected stories “warn of the existential threats from just one hostile magical force: women, in a variety of guises” (emphasis Wolf’s). For instance, in a fascinating set of tales in The Turnip Princess evoking the Russian rusalki, mermaids prove to be as malicious as witches, luring men underwater and eating children. Schönwerth’s tales teem with such treacherous temptresses and objectified princesses alongside their stronger counterparts. Additionally, many of the stories in both Wolf’s and Tatar’s collections outline rather unforgiving folk beliefs which dictate how women should behave in matters of marriage and motherhood. Spoiler alert: in many of these cautionary tales, the woman is punished with death and/or taken into Hell. And let’s not forget that the Grimms often featured not only male victims, such as the beleaguered boy in “The Juniper Tree” who is murdered by his stepmother, but also clever little sisters and maidens of unwavering resolve: it’s Gretel, after all, who saves herself and her brother Hansel from the witch, and in the grisly tale “The Robber Bridegroom,” a brave young woman exposes the sordid misdeeds of her groom-to-be. Fairy tales have never been without their troubling gender stereotypes, and they’ve never been without their exceptions as well.
So what, if not a re-examining of gender roles, will Schönwerth’s tales offer contemporary readers? The excitement surrounding the so-called discovery of the tales speaks to an interest in raw, “original” fairy tales, which can also be seen in the popularity of Jack Zipes’s The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, published last October. The Original Folk & Fairy Tales, unlike most Grimm volumes readers will be familiar with, is the first complete English translation of the Brothers’ earliest two volumes of fairy tales, published in 1812 and 1815, before they would go on to edit the tales, getting rid of some and adding others, as well as prettifying the language and dulling many a sharp edge. Zipes’s book, making available versions of the tales that have hitherto been seen mostly by scholars, flew off the bookstore shelves in the last months of 2014. Perhaps this new interest in “original” versions of fairy tales is the result of our peak saturation of retold tales. Postmodern versions of the old standards surround us, from the newly released film adaptation of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods to the wide swath of literary updates such as Marissa Meyer’s young adult Lunar Chronicles series, or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. Audiences raised on Disney’s bland brightness are clamoring for darker fairy tales, and they’ve received them in spades. But another desire, which goes hand in hand with this craving for grimness, has risen to the surface: for authenticity. A Google search for “‘fairy tales’ + ‘origins’” finds dozens, if not hundreds, of lists and articles posted on pop culture sites like Huffington Post, Cracked, and more, claiming to expose the lurid past of the most Disneyfied of tales. Alongside those: “10 Creepy, Sexy Fairy Tales That Should be Films,” and “5 Grimms’ Fairy Tales Way Too Dark to Read to Kids.” Readers aren’t just hungry for darker versions of what they know, but for stories they haven’t been told yet. They want to expose the roots of fairy tales, not by remaking the same ones again, but by unearthing more from less familiar sources.
For this reason, Schönwerth has, after 150 years, found his moment. While much of The Turnip Princess will seem familiar, even a little crude, to those who’ve read Grimms’ grimmest, those readers digging for fairy tales in their rawest forms will find in Schönwerth’s tales, untouched by two centuries of appropriation, rawness indeed. In fact, what’s found when such roots are exposed might surprise some readers. Schönwerth, who collected his tales from oral storytellers in the Upper Palatinate region of Germany, recorded stories full of crass humor and uncensored sexuality, abrupt shifts in plot, and very little narrative logic—in other words, exactly the sort of thing the Grimms smoothed out of later versions of their tales. In “Thumbnickel,” a lad the size of (you guessed it) a thumb is ingested by a cow, and we’re left in no suspense as to how he eventually escapes out the other end. In “The King’s Bodyguard,” a young princess spends the night with a man and becomes pregnant—shocking!—before her father will allow the wedding. Stories bump along at a rattling pace, leaving neither the characters nor the reader any time to reflect, or even catch a breath. As Tatar says, the driving question in Schönwerth’s tales is always “And then … ?” While fairy tales as a form are characterized by gaps in logic and flat, archetypal characters, Schönwerth’s tales have the flavor of something made up on the spot by someone who seems to have forgotten where the story began. Scholars and writers from Bettleheim to Bernheimer have loved to sink their teeth into this kind of fairy tale non-logic, which makes the stories seem stark and strange in the way of a vivid dream, but lay readers may find The Turnip Princess to be an exhausting, even irksome, read. With their rampant abandonment of plot lines and their graceless explanations of convenient developments, these naturalistic tales of the volk—which Schönwerth took pains to record faithfully—make for odd bedtime reading.
What the Schönwerth tales are, at their core, are artifacts, reminders of the humble origins of some of the most enduring stories in our shared imagination. The public interest in the tales, no matter how deserving they are of artistic acclaim, does denote something of a turning point for popular understanding of fairy tales. Fewer and fewer people may be surprised to hear that Walt Disney didn’t invent Cinderella and Snow White (yes, this happens) if more readers are turning an eye to the fairy tale of how a story is made, and how it endures. For that reason, I’m compelled to be supportive of this new book, though as a lover of fairy tales, I see little in Schönwerth’s work that makes him more relevant than any other collector cast under the shadow of Grimm, least of all his representations of women or the men who fear and win them. Rather, what I see is a cultural moment in which we are on a quest for fairy tale authenticity. Well, here is material as close to an original oral source as many folk tale collectors could hope to get. The irony, of course, is that such a thing as an authentic fairy tale scarcely exists. A fairy tale on the page is either a recording or a retelling of the ineffable original, the source and meaning of which lives only in an unreachable time, and in our imaginations. The paradox of this search for the origins of fairy tale is that the truest sign a fairy tale has staying power is if it’s re-imagined for a new audience. Will the raw seedlings of “The Turnip Princess” or “Prince Dung Beetle” grow to be the inspiration for new short stories, poetry, even films? I have a feeling only time—another 150 years should do the trick—will tell.
CATE FRICKE is a writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her work has appeared in Slate, Fairy Tale Review, The Sycamore Review, and others.