Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Book Review: The Turnip Princess And Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales

Collected by Franz Xavier von Schönwerth; translated by Maria Tatar; edited by Erika Eichenseer

Pros: fun, wide variety, readable translation, interesting characters, informative introduction

Cons: commentary could have been more in depth

This is a collection consists of 72 of the lost tales Franz Xaver von Schönwerth recorded in the Eastern Bavarian region of Oberpfalz in the late 1850s.  Rediscovered recently and translated into English, this collection allows modern readers more insight into the Germanic oral culture of what we now call fairy tales.  

There’s a short forward by the historian who discovered the papers on how this volume came to be published.  The translator of the collection, the chair of folklore and mythology at Harvard, does the introduction and commentary on each of the stories.  The introduction explains where these stories fit with the other tales that have come down to us and points out that fairy tales morphed from stories told by and to adults into stories told more often by women (whether mothers or nannies) to children.  Which is why there are so many princesses and female rags to riches stories, and so few such tales about boys.  This book brings back several tales of ‘Cinderfellas’ and other disenfranchised young men.  The commentaries, coming at the very end of the collection, mention the similarities between these tales and others we’re familiar with.  There’s only room for a little explanation, so some of the commentaries are merely synopses while others have a bit more depth to them.

While some of the tales have morals and happy endings, several don’t have either, with some truly unscrupulous people getting away with horrible things and curses going unbroken.  And since these were oral tales you can expect a lot of twists out of left field, where the stories turn on previously unmentioned characters and events.  

The collection is separated into seven categories: Tales of Magic, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes, and Tales About Nature.  It’s a decent attempt to separate the stories, but the reality is that most of the stories can fit into several categories and that some stories with similar elements end up in different sections.  There are a few with overly Christian themes (including some tales with the devil as the antagonist), and some with more ’pagan’ themes.  There are a lot of dwarfs and witches/evil women, and a smaller number of elves, gnomes, mermaids and other fantastical creatures.  And curses.  Lots and lots of curses.

One story ended with a very modern idiom, which made me wonder what the original German said, but on the whole I thought the translation was great, immersive and entertaining.

The stories are only a few pages each and the collection as a whole is a quick and pleasant read.  While most of these wouldn’t be considered ‘children’s stories’, they’re not overly bloody or ribaldrous.  The collection is fantastic for the variety of tales told and for the ways they used the fairy tale tropes we’ve become familiar with.

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