You’ll recall from my review of The School for Good and Evil that I am a fairy tale enthusiast, so when I heard that Penguin was publishing stories from a collection compiled by Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth–lost until very recently–which would mark the first time these tales were available in English, I knew I needed to add it to my collection.
In the 1850s, Schonwerth travelled all over northern Bavaria recording fairy tales, many of these tales were told to him by labourers, women and weavers, people who expressed disbelief that a learned man like Schonwerth would be interested in their stories. This book includes over seventy of the stories that he collected. The stories in this book are divided into several categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes, and Tales About Nature. Most of the stories are only a couple pages long.
Some of the stories in this collection will be familiar to many readers, and include variations of tales like “Cinderella”, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, “The Devil’s Three Gold Hairs”, “The Clever Tailor”, and “Our Lady’s Child”. In fact, it would be interesting to compare these stories side by side with a book of fairy tales by the Grimms. Some stories have recognizable mythological motifs, such as the princess turned dragon who is burned three times in order to transform her back into a human, a woman who trades sex with a dwarf for a necklace (their names indicate that they are thin disguises for Odin and Frigga or Freyja), to golden apples and friendly ice giants. I was pleasantly surprised to find a variant of a Finnish story where a boy makes a bargain with the devil that whoever loses their temper first will obtain enough skin off the loser’s back to make a pair of boots, only in this story, a priest is the villain and the prize is gold. There were also plenty of stories I’d never heard of before, such as one where a mother rescues her children from mermaids with the help of a magic belt and necklace.
Many readers will be happy to hear that unlike their more famous counterparts, these stories haven’t been subject to censoring. Some of the protagonists are far from heroic (including one who is a serial killer) and some of the stories end on depressing notes or wouldn’t be out of place as a modern horror movie. Although the tales are more violent than sexual (a woman moons one of the protagonists in one of the stories), the stories don’t sugarcoat the violence and at least one story is a darkly comedic yarn involving a corpse stuffed in a trunk, and while encounters with wood sprites are usually benign, there are at least seven stories in this collection featuring evil mermaids, Bavarian storytellers have something against mermaids, apparently. Some stories feature unlikely allies: beetles, weasels, and even the devil himself help out protagonists who are down on their luck.
The stories also address class conflicts (those of you who are interested in discussions of class and fairy tales need this collection, because there’s a lot of it) and do some interesting things with gender. Heroes are just as likely to faint when frightened as heroines, heroines rescue their lovers or family members, and in “The Scorned Princess” a hero gets his happy ending by burning down the titular princess’ city (killing her and the entire court in the process) and reigns as king over the country.
Some of my favourite stories in this collection include “The Figs” which contains elements of a tale I loved as a child called “The White Snake” and also involves the hero making friends with Death and the devil, “The Enchanted Quill” where the heroine obtains a magic quill from an enchanted crow, “The Scorned Princess”, “The Belt and the Necklace” where a woman rescues her children from mermaids, “Tricking the Witch” where a princess defeats a witch by cutting her way out of her stomach, and “The Ice Giants” where the titular ice giants end up marrying mortal women and having ice giant children.
The only negative thing that I have to say about this book is that some of the stories might be a little confusing for some readers. Sometimes plot elements are introduced seemingly at random, and some things just aren’t explained even by fairy tale logic, which is frequently bizarre but makes sense if you can accept that talking animals and magical fruit exists. The translator also chose to insert some modern phrases into the text which, while they aren’t especially jarring, might look odd to people who are used to translations with flowery language. However, if you are at all interested in fairy tales, or particularly if you’re interested in Bavarian folk and fairy tales, you need this book in your life, trust me on this. This review can’t do these wonderful stories justice. Do yourself a favour and pick this one up, it’s a rare glimpse into a world of enchantment that hasn’t been butchered into an attempt to make it “child-friendly”.