The Turnip Princess And Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
by Franz Xavier von Schönwerth
Once upon a time, a collection of five hundred fairy tales were quietly locked away in an obscure archive. And there they languished, forlorn and forgotten, for over a century and a half, until one day, a brave historian ventured deep into the dusty depths of the Regensburg archives and brought them into the light of day.
Although the Grimms themselves praised his skills, Von Schonwerth’s collections never gained his contemporary collectors’ fame. Many of his stories eventually vanished from the public sphere. Which is why the discovery of five hundred previously forgotten tales is such a boon for historians.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Jack Zipes’ translation of the original versions of Grimms’ folk stories, so I was excited by the opportunity of comparing the collections. While many stories share motifs with their more famous contemporaries, Schonwerth’s tales have a very different flavour than the Grimms’.
The collection includes new versions of such old familiars as “Tom Thumb,” “Simple Hans,” “The Glass Mountain,” and one of my personal favourites, “Seven with One Blow.” The motifs--the search for a lost husband, the poor achieving victory over the nobility, the jealous mother-in-law trying to oust her son’s wife-- are all familiar, but many of the stories have new twists. “Ashfeathers” is a Cinderella tale in which the protagonist finds her love at a church service rather than a ball. One labor contract tale features a priest as the villain rather than the standard fare of a devil, an ogre, or a giant. “Lousehead” (yes,that type of louse) is an interesting variation on the more standard beast disguise tale.
Maria Tatar includes a short commentary on each story, and she repeatedly points out the nontraditional gender roles of the protagonists. While Schonwerth’s tales may include more variety than the Grimms' 1857 collection or the later Disney versions, I don’t think the distribution of damsels of action and women in distress is much different than the Grimms’ original 1812 collection. Many of Schonwerth's stories still involve wicked mothers and the punishing of troublesome wives. Heroes and heroines are almost always beautiful--and in the one case where the protagonist is hard-working ugly, her reward is to be magically blessed with beauty. All the same, at least one of the stories was thought-provoking. The “Pearl Tears” involves a protagonist who has pearls and roses dropping out of her mouth, but rather than using her questionable mouth issues to find her prince, she was “blessed” with a disinterest in men and gets her happily ever after by running her castle solo.
Schonwerth’s stories contain many more sexual elements than the more prudish Grimms. Several of the heroines have out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and even more involve sex before marriage as the “heroic” action the protagonist must undertake. An odd Bluebeard-like tale involves seven princesses married to the same man and a bevy of mermaids whose sexual wiles enchant the hapless prince. One particularly crass story has a village woman moon the protagonist, only to have him respond with a hot poker in an uncomfortable area. Even more intriguingly, one happy ending involves the heroine giving her unwanted fatherless baby to the wood sprites-- an outcome many women of the day might have desperately desired. Another story ends with the impoverished mother cheerfully selling her daughter to the ice giants for seven golden apples, an outcome the daughter seems to accept with aplomb.
In Schonwerth’s collection, not all curses get broken, and not all stories have a happy ending. In one story, the mermaids steal and graphically devour a baby. In another, they abduct and murder a young child. In “The Snake’s Treasure,” the protagonist is told to follow a series of Tam Lin-like instructions, but is distracted by greed, leaving the princess enchanted and un-rescued.
Fairy tales aren’t the easiest reads. The characters tend to be caricatures, the stories repetitive and abrupt. The morality see-saws between pious moralizing and burlesque gallows humour. For each tale with a happy-ever-after achieved by simple-minded kindness, there is another that celebrates the protagonist’s savage trickery. Fairy tales are the bones of stories, sharp and sometimes ugly, stripped clean of subtlety and logic, but these archetypes support and shape even the fiction of today.
I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Penguin Classics, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!