Thursday, February 11, 2016

Old Bestsellers: Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer

Old Bestsellers: Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer

a review by Rich Horton

OK, I don’t know that this was a bestseller – probably not. But the writer was very successful in Germany in the 19th Century. It’s fair to say that his reputation has not survived at all, certainly not in the US, but it would seem not so much in Germany either.

Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer was born in what is now Aachen in 1816. He tried a career in the military, but it didn’t take, and he turned to writing, with little success at first, with plays and translations of Dickens. His successes, eventually, seem to have been memoirs (perhaps lightly fictionalized at times) and travel books. He also worked as a secretary for the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg, as a war correspondent, and as a civil servant.

I can’t find much about this book online. It’s a collection of fairy stories. Apparently Hackländer wrote two such books – I don’t know if this is one of them, or a compendium of stories from both. It was translated by Mrs. A. L. Wister, who seems to have worked steadily translating from the German. The copyright is 1870, presumably the date of the translation, by the publisher, J. B. Lippincott. My edition is also from Lippincott, but it must be from later – it advertises the 1887 edition of Worcester’s Unabridged Quarto Dictionary on the inside front cover.

There are five stories. I don’t recognize any of them as traditional fairy tales, though they definitely have that feel. So they might be of Hackländer’s invention, or they may be tales with which I’m not familiar.

The stories are:
“The Elfin Tree” (13,200 words)
“The Dwarfs’ Nest” (8200 words)
“The Princess Morgana” (16400 words)
“Castle Silence” (9600 words)
“The Fairy Tankard” (12400 words)

The first very vaguely recalls “The Nutcracker”. A young orphan boy has been taken into the house of a rich tradesman, and is ill-treated. One Christmas night he sneaks down to see the Christmas tree, and the gifts, including wooden dolls and soldiers. They fascinate him, and then they come to life. He particularly likes a beautiful tiny lady, who tells him that they are all under the spell of an evil sorcerer. With the help of a fierce Nutcracker, the boy finds the sorcerer figure and manages to free the dolls, who run away into the forest. The boy escapes too, but except for the lady, the wooden figures seem to resent him. He ends up adopted by a woodsmen, and grows up to be a fine young man, and more or less randomly encounters an old man who tells him how to find the Elfin Tree, which will allow him to free the beautiful wooden lady again from her enchantment … the ending is clear from that point.

“The Dwarfs’ Nest” is a more of a morality tale. A weaver finds an abandoned house, which legend has it was menaced by Dwarfs. He cleans it up nicely, and his industriousness pleases the Dwarfs, so instead of chasing him out as they did to the previous dweller, they begin to help him, on the condition that he never disturb them while they are weaving for him, once a month. This works well for a while, but then the young weaver falls into evil ways, partly because of the extra money he earns from the Dwarfs’ weaving; and eventually he betrays them. Things go badly until he learns to mend his ways.

“The Princess Morgana” is the only story not set in Central Europe. Instead, in the Bagdad of Haroun al Raschid we meet an old retainer and his charge, a tortured young man. The Caliph learns their story – the older man had been the servant of a wise scholar. They had rescued a baby from a sandstorm and raised him to adulthood. But after the scholar died, the young man foolishly opened one of the scholar’s possessions – a picture of the Princess Morgana, who lives in the “Fata Morgana” (a mirage) in the desert, and who is so beautiful that anyone who even looks at her picture will be so consumed with love (or lust) that he will die of the obsession. The Caliph helps them, and soon they are travelling across the desert, the young man still planning to search for the Fata Morgana. Eventually he sets out alone to follow it, but as it’s a mirage he never gets there, until, dying of thirst, he is rescued by the ghost of his mother – you see, ghosts of people who died in the desert visit the Fata Morgana. Once there, of course, he encounters the real Princess … and again you can see where this will lead.

“Castle Silence” is the story of an isolated valley that everyone shuns, because those who do go in never come out. We learn its secret – it was the home of a couple whose wife betrayed her husband, only to regret it. What can remove the enchantment – the help of a pure young woman who is also in love.

Finally, “The Fairy Tankard” concerns the last survivor of a brigandish noble family, a young boy who escapes his father’s castle’s destruction by the agency of the magical title object. He and his companion, another boy, wander to another isolated valley, where they encounter a castle in a lake, and two snakes who turn into girls their age every so often, and a tableau of frozen people.

These stories are all familiar in form, but not to my taste as interesting as the best of, say, Andrew Lang’s retellings (which are what I grew up on). There is a tendency to rushed and convenient endings, and a bit too pat moralizing. The writing is quite stilted, very 19th century in not the best way. I’m not sure if that’s from Hackländer’s original prose, or if it’s a result of Wister’s translation. All in all, a fairly negligible book.

1 comment:

  1. Book is available here: