The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth (Maria Tatar, translator)

Title:  The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
Author:  Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth
Translator: Maria Tatar
Publisher:  Penguin Classics, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 14 310742 2

There was once a farmer, and he had two sons…

One day a prince lost his way in the woods…

A farmer had three sons…

Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day…

A nobleman had three daughters, each more beautiful than the next…

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy TalesThis is how fairy tales begin. Not with “once upon a time”, but with individuals standing on an empty stage patiently waiting to be told what to do next. Because fairy tales are essentially about the completion of tasks, even when the hero or heroine has no idea what that might lead to.  The underlying moral of most fairy tales is – do as you’re told and good things will follow.

Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm.  Like them he collected folk tales, employing a scientific method and focusing on a specific region of Bavaria known as the Upper Palatinate. He used questionnaires and carefully recorded the dialect, customs and costumes of the people he interviewed.  His work was much admired during his lifetime, but seems to have disappeared after his death. Until 2009 when Erika Eichenseer (a Bavarian author, storyteller & poet) discovered 500 unpublished works in a Bavarian archive.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales translates 72 of these newly discovered stories into English. The book divides them into six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes and Tales About Nature.  And they are quite unlike anything you might have encountered in the past.  Yes, there are some familiar themes – such as dancing princesses, a miniature child (“the size of a thumb”) and enchanted toads.  But in Von Schönwerth’s versions the Prince is often the one who needs saving; soldiers carry guns, not swords; the toad is just as likely to be a Princess and even after the hero saves the day he doesn’t always get the girl.

What you realize as you read is how spare, fragmentary and contradictory these tales actually are.  The Three-Legged Goats (found in Part 2: Enchanted Animals) begins –

“Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day. It was growing dark, and they still could not find a way out.  The tailor decided to climb to the top of a tree, and from there he could see a light in the distance. He started walking in that direction, without saying a word to his companions, until he reached a castle. The first room he entered had nothing in it but three-legged goats and cats. Some of the cats were playing the fiddle on the tables and benches; others were dancing to the tunes. The tailor was hungry, so he ate some food. Once he was done, he stuffed his pockets with good things to eat and went back to give some food to his companions. After the tailor returned, the miller also climbed the tree, saw the light, found the castle, and discovered everything the tailor had found.”

At this point the soldier follows in the footsteps of his two companions and the tailor and miller disappear – never to be mentioned again. The story goes on to tell how the soldier breaks the enchantment on the castle, marries the princess and then journeys home to tell his parents the good news.  And where traditional fairy tales might end, this one is just getting started:  his wife, discovering he is poor, spurns him.  She disappears and the soldier is forced to search for her. While searching he encounters three thieves, from whom he steals three magical items.  He uses these three items to find his princess and win her back. And even after all he has done the Princess still questions her father, the King, as to whether she should keep the soldier as her husband.  “What should I do? Should I choose a new broom or take back the old one?”

The Three-Legged Goats, like many of the stories in this collection, appears to be a compilation of several fairy tales into one. Which makes sense when you consider that Von Schönwerth’s purpose when setting down these tales  was to faithfully record the oral history of those he interviewed.  These stories were transcribed in the telling  – not copied from books.  They changed and evolved over time.  And so it’s not implausible that two or three may have eventually merged together and been condensed into one.  Or that a story which began one way would end in another.  This results in very different narratives than most of us are accustomed to.

Maria Tatar makes some interesting choices in her translation.  Three soldiers, we are told, have “finished their tour of duty”.  When a huntsman asks three giants if they are planning to free a princess, the giants growl “From her wealth, anyhow.”  There are more guns mentioned than I remember in The Brothers Grimm.  Von Schönwerth lived from 1810-1886, so the modernity of the language and references is not entirely misplaced.  But it is definitely unexpected and at times jarring – which might have more to do with my expectations of what a fairy tale is than the quality of the translation.

Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang (of the Blue, Red & Green Fairybooks, etc.) and Walk Disney have – for better or worse – shaped most of our expectations of what a fairy tale should be.  It is easy to forget that folk tales are just another form of folk art – and that folk art is primitive by definition.  The stories in The Turnip Princess range from one to five pages in length, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for embellishment. But it is the stripped-down, primitive nature – the potential in these stories of what they can become – which makes this collection so exciting.  Consider the literary impact of Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel.  The plots & characters have become archetypal.  Their influence can be detected (whether overt or subtle) in many contemporary works of fiction. What, then, might a new generation of writers make of Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth’s stories?  Of a girl who becomes a snake when her stepmother casts her into a lake? Or a Prince who is kidnapped by a mermaid? Or a beautiful maiden freed from a turnip? Erika Eichenseer’s discovery has created new possibilities… new opportunities.

 

 

The Dark Monk by Oliver Pötzsch (translated from the original German by Lee Chadeayne)

TheDarkMonkA few months ago a friend asked for a book recommendation.  Something light and easy to take on vacation.  I told her to try Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter.  She sent me a text when she finished telling me it was perfect.  Without that exchange I don’t know if I’d have picked up The Dark Monk, the second book in the Hangman’s Daughter series.  I’m glad I did.

All the characters from the original book return.  The hangman of the stories is Jakob Kuisl.  Magdalena is his pretty and impetuous daughter.  Simon Fronwieser is the young village doctor (more or less) and Magdalena’s beau.  Set in Bavaria, in the middle of 17th century, the mystery this time is linked to a Templar treasure.  Not the most original plotline – the Templars and Masons have been pretty much bled dry – and in typical DaVinci Code fashion our heroes are led on a frustratingly predictable chase after a string of clues.  But the draw of this kind of series isn’t the plot, it’s the characters and the world they inhabit.  And, in the case of the Hangman’s Daughter books, it’s also the way Pötzsh weaves his family history into the stories.  Because Jakob Kuisl the hangman and his daughter  Magdalena were real people.  More than that, they were Pötzsh’s ancestors.

There are plenty of historical nuggets scattered through these pages.  The Kuisls spawned a dynasty of Bavarian hangmen.  And in researching his family tree the author learned several interesting facts about what amounted to an exclusive society.  Hangmen were responsible for the town’s garbage collection.  They made additional money not just for torturing and killing the condemned, but from selling their remains in various forms.  Hangmen could not be buried on hallowed ground and they married from within their class.  What this means is a hangman’s daughter was only allowed to marry another hangman – which adds an interesting twist to Simon and Magdalena’s romance – one that Pötzsh may have a hard time unravelling.  In the meantime, though, he’s having fun balancing facts with fiction.  Both books end with notes from the author.  The first discussed his family history, the second a travel guide of the region where the stories are set.  His enthusiasm is catching.

The Dark Monk is interesting and entertaining, but not particularly challenging.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  We all love the classic beach or airplane read.  The history raises it a level above most other books in the category. Oliver Pötzsh’s gift was in realizing what he had.  And until a non-fiction book comes out, or Ken Follett develops an obsession for the medieval Bavarian hangmen, Pötzsh seems to have a monopoly that guarantees his readers will keep coming back.

The English translation of the third book of the series, The Beggar King, is due out January 8th, 2013.

Publisher:  Mariner Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 05478 0768 3

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne

Looking for a historical thriller?  Some fast-paced beach reading? A page turner that you can’t put down? Oliver Pötzsch’s novel The Hangsman’s Daughter is all of those things.

The year is 1659 A.D.  Children in the Bavarian town of Schongau, specifically the orphans and bastards, are disappearing.  The bodies of those that are found each have a small tattoo on the shoulder – a known witch’s symbol.  That isn’t the only strange thing that’s been happening:  the construction site for the new leper house is being repeatedly vandalized; the Burghers’ warehouse is set on fire; and the devil has been seen on the roads at night.

Of course Schongau’s midwife, Martha, is accused of witchcraft.  The dead and missing children were known to visit her and – let’s face it – in a Medieval town it’s always the midwife who superstitious townspeople point their fingers at first.  Martha is taken prisoner and the hangman is brought in to make her confess.  What follows is a daring sprint against the clock to solve the mystery.  A week in which to find the real killer before more children are harmed, the midwife burned alive and Schongau descended into the madness of witch trials.  Jakob Kuisl (the reluctant hangman), his daughter Magdalena and the son of the town physician attempt to prevent the worst from coming to fruition.

Pötzsch has created a decent puzzle for the reader to solve along with his protagonists.  Nothing is clear-cut.  Red herrings abound.  The solution is far from obvious, but does not strain incredulity.  Jakob and the physician’s son Simon (who plays the role of Watson to Jakob’s Holmes) are appealing characters.  As is Magdalena, though I wish she’d had a larger role.  She spends more time along the fringes of her father’s and Simon’s investigation than the title suggests.  But she’s brash and earthy and one of the highlights of the novel.  The other being, of course, the hangman.

Jakob Kuisl is a kinder, gentler hangman.  He studies herbs and healing.  He keeps a library of books on those subjects which must have cost a small fortune in the 17th century. He philosophically sees his occupation – to torture and kill – as necessary to the public peace.  Despite that, he get’s drunk before being called upon by the Burghers to perform his duties…as did his father before him.  Kuisl comes from a long-line, a dynasty, of Bavarian hangmen.  Of whom the novel’s author Oliver Pötzsch is descended.  Johann Jakob Kuisl was a real life Medieval hangman. In fact the entire Kuisl family – wife, daughter and twins – actually existed.  The story may be fiction, but one of the most interesting things about The Hangman’s Daughter is that there is a tangible element of truth to it.  Genealogy.

As for the writing, it seems that lately every book out there is described as being “cinematic”.  But Oliver Pötzsch is a screenwriter for Bavarian television.  It’s not surprising that The Hangman’s Daughter reads like a script.  Which is what makes it perfect Summer reading.  This isn’t a deep, psychological glimpse into the heart of darkness.  It’s not Pillars of the Earth.  If anything, the story reminds me most of Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.  It’s slick and clean and modern – filled with period details without becoming bogged down in them.  The company of these characters is highly addictive.  So much so that I wasn’t surprised to learn that there are two other books in the series so far.  Unfortunately, they’ve yet to be translated into English.

Publisher:  Mariner Books, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 0 547745 01 5

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