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[personal profile] mtvessel
Jan 2016
The Turnip Princess - Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, tr. Erika Eichenseer - Penguin Books, 2015

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Here is an interesting thing: a collection of fairy tales recorded in the early nineteenth century and only recently rediscovered in a municipal archive in Regensberg. They were collected by von Schönwerth a couple of hundred miles away from the area around Marburg where the Brothers Grimm worked. It is therefore hardly surprising that some of the tales seem distinctly familiar - Ashfeathers, for example, is essentially Cinderella dialled down a social notch, with an innkeeper father, a nobleman lover rather than a prince, a dwarf in place of the fairy godmother and dressing up for church replacing going to the ball. Many of the other stories are variations on the old theme of a prince or princess transformed by a spell, but it is interesting to see the imaginative inventiveness of the whimsical details that the different tellers came up with. The title story, for example, concerns a prince who more-or-less inadvertently breaks a curse by sticking a blackthorn branch into a turnip in a field.

To be honest, there are no great lost masterpieces here, partly because von Schönwerth seems to have been content simply to write down what he heard without attempting to edit the stories into more artistically satisfying shapes. But as a result they are closer to the voice of the people who created them. Most of the stories have a conventional male protagonist (often called Hans), but there are a few such as Tricking the Witch where a resourceful girl saves the day or gets her way. My favourite is probably King Goldenlocks, which gender-reverses Snow White by having a king order a huntsman to murder his fair-haired son for releasing a captured wild giant. It is one of the few tales in the collection with a dramatic and thematic unity, with a nice recursive use of the law of three and a climactic scene in which everything is resolved.

Although I applaud von Schönwerth for elevating authenticity over artistry and Eichenseer for preserving this in her translation, it would nonetheless be interesting to see what could be done with a bit of Grimm-style polishing. There are some quite subversive themes - strong dimwits who prevail against cleverer men, the small good deed that has major consequences, love across the social divide - but these tend to be submerged in the extraneous whimsical elements. Nonetheless, it's great to have this snapshot of rural folk tales from the nineteenth century, particularly in the rough-hewn contrast it offers to the stories of the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault. But, like Ashfeathers, you may have to do a lot of sifting to find the grains of millet.

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