The Beauty of Bavarian Oral Traditions: Schönwerth’s Collected Fairy Tales

Schönwerth4Although Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are well-known for their work in collecting fairy tales, they were not alone in their interests. Inspired by the Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie  (German Mythology), Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a high-level civil servant, began gathering oral folklore in the mid-1850s from people living in the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, Germany. However, his compendium of more than 500 tales was locked away and forgotten until the archive was rediscovered and brought to light by Erika Eichenseer in 2012. This new material created a literary sensation that swept across Germany and inflamed the curiosity of fairy tale lovers worldwide, but it wasn’t until The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales was translated by Maria Tatar that the material became available for English speakers to mine.  And what promising material it is.

“Schönwerth’s tales have a compositional fierceness and energy rarely seen in stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, collectors who gave us relatively tame versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’” writes Tater (xii-xiii).  “Schönwerth gives us a harsher dose of reality. Not one to dress up a tale with literary flourishes or to make it more child friendly, Schönwerth kept the raw energy of the tales, resisting the temptation to motivate surreal plot twists or to smooth out inconsistencies.”

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While reading the stories in this collection, I was immediately struck by the inclusion of  such familiar symbols as iron shoes, magic rings, and animal helpers. The difficulty came in separating the familiar from the unfamiliar, in search of new ways to approach the literary refinement of oral traditions faithfully transcribed by a civil servant more than 150 years ago. The rambling structures, inconsistent logic, and odd embellishments made me appreciate just how much work the Brothers Grimm had invested in their own canon, which they had extensively revised for popular consumption. These tales have taken on the allure of timelessness, which is one of the reasons fairy tale writers continue to shape them into new forms. Mining original material from Schönwerth’s collection that is suited for modern retellings turned out to be a more difficult task.

When tackling Schönwerth’s material, my first inclination was to favor tales that have similarities to ones that have already been established in the contemporary fairy tale tradition: “The Iron Shoes,” a variation of the lost husband stories such as “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon” and “Thumbnickel,” whose hero brings to mind “Tom Thumb” and “Thumbelina.”

Schönwerth1But, in truth, the stories I was most drawn to featured unusual takes on transformation tales. For instance, the Kafkaesque “Prince Dung Beetle” follows a cruel young man who is turned into a beetle for his sins. Another example is the rambling and discordant “The Snake Sister,” where “redemption is born from pain and suffering” (230).

One of the more curious things about the tales published in this book is that they predominantly feature men instead women. Of the 72 stories collected, only about a fourth of them feature female protagonists.  Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean that primary (or secondary) female characters are lacking in heroism. For instance, in “The Red Silk Ribbon” the fisherman’s son is the one who must be saved by the princess who married him. The antagonist, a mermaid who seeks to entrap him, transforms her rival into a dragon by throwing blue sand in her face. It takes three attempts at being roasted in kilns before the last of the dragon’s skins are split and discarded, leaving the princess once again in her human form.

Schönwerth3Throughout these wonder tales are the “transformations that break down the divide between life and death, nature and culture, animal and human, or beauty and monstrosity” (xvii). Schönwerth’s dedication to the documentation of the oral traditions of his beloved Bavaria is evident in these stories’ raw energy, surreal twists, and unvarnished narratives. “Fairy tales are always more interesting when something is added to them,” Maria Tatar writes. “Each new telling recharges the narrative, making it crackle and hiss with cultural energy” (xvii).

And Schönwerth’s collection offers the prime opportunity to do just that. These tales are vibrant and fragmented and untouched, ready to take on the literary fingerprints of writers seeking fresh material to work with. “Schönwerth’s collection reveals just how comfortably the tales inhabit a world that values spontaneity, improvisation, rough edges, and lack of closure” (xvii). In effect, this discovery and the distribution of these tales is a boon to fairy tale writers looking for fairy tale silver to turn into literary gold.

Work Cited

Schönwerth, Franz Xaver von. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.  Edited by Erika Eichenseer, translated by Maria Tatar, Penguin Books, 2015.

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