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Telling Tales

David Blamires


Texte intégral

[Christoph von Schmid], The Basket of Flower; or, Piety and Truth Triumphant (London, [l868]).

1The boundaries between childrens literature and literature for adults are difficult to determine. Until books were written specifically for children – first of all to teach them their letters and instruct them in the rudiments of religion and social behaviour and only later to amuse them − they would read whatever came to hand from other sources. In the eighteenth century animal fables and chapbooks would be their most likely reading material. But other more demanding books might also attract their attention. In this way such classics as Defoes Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swifts Gullivers Travels (1726) were adopted by children, and the texts were quickly adapted to suit their needs. Stories from the Thousand and One Nights, which first appeared in French between 1704 and 1717 and was widely translated into other languages, were also much read by children, as Wordsworth indicates in the first book of The Prelude.

  • 1 David Blamires, Fortunatus in His Many English Guises (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Edwin Mellen (...)
  • 2 David Blamires, Eulenspiegel in englischer Sprache’, Eulenspiegel-Jahrbuch, 29 (1989), pp. 51-66.

2Many works from the Middle Ages and early modern times were read by children and have only survived in the popular consciousness as childrens books, their original forms now being read only by specialists. Germany provided two such books with the stories of Fortunatus and Till Eulenspiegel (or Howleglass, as he was first known in English). Both of them began as works for adults and were adapted in a variety of ways after their initial translation into English. Fortunatus became a chapbook in the late seventeenth century and was rewritten for children in several different forms from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. Its German origin was lost very early along the way.1 The story was so well known that Dickens could take knowledge of Fortunatuss inexhaustible purse for granted in Bleak House. Eulenspiegel was also early translated into English, but the stories were not adapted for children until 1860, when two different selections appeared in the same year.2 Chapbook versions of Doctor Faustus derived from Marlowe and/or the English Faust-book, circulated widely in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and would have been easily accessible to children, though not as their principal readers. The many translations and adaptations of Goethes Faust eventually eclipsed the chapbook. In addition, Reynard the Fox came into English from Dutch through Caxton rather than from Low German, but it too became part of childrens literature in the course of the eighteenth century, with its origins equally as forgotten as those of Fortunatus. The reception of Reynard the Fox in English is tangled and complex and would merit detailed treatment, but I have chosen not to deal with it here.

  • 3 John Clare by Himself, edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell (Ashington: Mid Northumberland Arts (...)
  • 4 Marjorie Moon, John Harriss Books for Youth 1801-1843 (Cambridge: Marjorie Moon and Alan Spilman, (...)

3It is perhaps surprising that Gessners Death of Abel should have formed part of childrens reading, but John Clare mentions it as forming part of his library as a boy at the beginning of the nineteenth century.3 The childrens books publisher John Harris published editions of it in 1808 and 1814.4 Although books specially written to entertain children appear in the early part of the eighteenth century in England, we find books for adults taken over by children throughout the nineteenth century as well as in the eighteenth. Among German books Fouqués Undine and Sintram and Chamissos Peter Schlemihl are cases in point.

4Most histories of literature are written from a national point of view; they are histories of English, of French or of German literature. Translated works figure only at the margins, if at all. Childrens books are less concerned with these national or linguistic boundaries. Foreign material is readily absorbed; indeed it may often be so fully assimilated that the reader is unaware of its origins. Many French fairytales, such as Perraults Cinderella’, Bluebeard and Puss-in-Boots and a few tales by Madame dAulnoy, have been so thoroughly acclimatized in Britain that they are often thought to be of native stock. To perhaps a lesser extent, this has also happened with some of the Grimms best known tales.

5The Brothers Grimm are the most obvious and prolific German contributors to British childrens books. The tales they collected have been more extensively translated into other languages than any other German book, so they are known throughout the world. But there are many other German childrens books that have been translated into English too, though few have proved as long-lasting as the Grimms. Fairytales are probably the most significant and enduring contribution of German authors and collectors to British childrens books, and this goes back to the late eighteenth century with an anonymous translation of some tales by Musäus. The Grimms pioneered the collection of traditional tales and were followed by many other national and regional collectors, among them Ernst Moritz Arndt and Ludwig Bechstein. The fairytale enjoyed immense popularity among the German Romantics, many of whom turned their hand to composing their own. From the childrens point of view the most successful of these authors was Wilhelm Hauff, but for sheer inventiveness and a multilayered narrative E. T. A. Hoffmanns Nutcracker surely beats the rest into a cocked hat. These are the highpoints of a tradition that stretches through the whole nineteenth century.

6Fairytales, however, were far from being the only kind of German childrens reading to be translated into English. Educational, moral and religious stories appeared right at the beginning of the process and became particularly prevalent in the Victorian period. In general, these tales have not worn as well as the fairytales, having virtually disappeared from publishers lists by the time of the First World War, if not earlier. But as reward books, prizes given for Sunday school attendance and the like, they were distributed in enormous quantities in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Of course, the German tales formed only a small proportion of this material, but one of the most widely circulated was Christoph von Schmids The Basket of Flowers. This archetypal religious tale can usually still be found today in the stock of most second-hand book dealers who keep nineteenth-century books. More than 120 different editions of this story are known in English.

7This range of educational, moral and religious material overlaps to a considerable extent with tales of adventure and exploration, since in our period the latter were usually designed to point moral lessons. The deeds of explorers demonstrated heroism, stoic endurance, courage, inventiveness and the need for mutual support in the face of danger. They could also be used to provide lessons in history, geography, botany and zoology, as we find in the various adaptations of Robinson Crusoe, especially The Swiss Family Robinson.

8The last major category of childrens literature that Germany provided Britain with was, perhaps surprisingly, the comic. Till Eulenspiegel has already been mentioned as a figure imported into English at a very early date, in the sixteenth century, though not adapted for children until the mid nineteenth century. But the period we are now concerned with saw a German work of comic genius at its outset – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – and added sixty years later another enduring classic of the nursery – Heinrich Hoffmanns Struwwelpeter. A couple of decades further on Wilhelm Busch provided a whole series of verse tales with pictures with Max and Moritz at their head.

9The subjects and literary forms that Germany offered were richly varied. For the most part they took the form of prose narratives, though some verse did manage to find its way in too. The fables of Wilhelm Hey enjoyed a modest popularity, especially as illustrated by Otto Speckter. German illustrators had an important role to play in the production of childrens books, but as this book is chiefly concerned with texts they will not be treated as extensively as they deserve. The quantity of literary material that was assimilated from Germany is extensive. There is more than can be dealt with in detail in this book, especially when it comes to moral and religious tales. They will be treated selectively, but I hope all the same to provide a typical cross-section of what exists. Other kinds of texts and authors will be considered at greater depth.

10The transposition of German childrens books into English was not a straightforward process. Even where books were conscientiously translated, they were frequently subject to excisions and alterations in order to make the material more acceptable to English readers. Cultural differences between Britain and Germany meant that texts were ruthlessly adapted. The important thing was to produce a book that British parents would buy for their children; it was of quite subordinate significance whether it accurately conveyed the meaning of the German text or made German life and culture more comprehensible to the British reader. Of course, translators varied considerably in competence. Some were very skilled, others much less so. Many were given no credit on title-pages or elsewhere for their work. The translation of childrens books was poorly regarded and often done by anonymous women. It may surprise some people to learn that quite a few books were not translated directly from their German originals, but from a French version. The number of Britons conversant with German increased substantially during the nineteenth century, but French was still understood by a much larger proportion of the population. The phrase translated from the German on a title-page always needs to be treated with care. In some instances it may, misleadingly, only mean that the original was written in German. In some instances the name of the original author of a story, in addition to that of the translator, may be omitted from the title-page, so it can be difficult to trace the source. The reason for the omission of names may in certain cases relate to matters of copyright, but it may also have to do with the low status accorded to childrens authors. Many such writers were credited on title-pages as the author of their best selling book rather than having their own name given.

11The history of childrens books presents all kinds of bibliographical problems, since publishers often failed to date their publications so that potential buyers would always imagine they were up-to-date. It is thus very useful to find copies of books with dated inscriptions or labels inside them. These may in addition provide helpful information about patterns of readership. Prefaces may give indications of target readership or buyers, but that is not the same as actual readers, whose responses are very difficult to trace.

12Of the many childrens books that came from Germany to Britain some have proved to be of enduring value. The fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and of Wilhelm Hauff are still part of childrens reading today, and new translations and newly illustrated editions keep appearing on the market. The same is true of Munchausen, The Swiss Family Robinson and Struwwelpeter. These works endure because in some extraordinary way they transcend the particular circumstances of the periods in which they were first put into print. Other works were important in their day, but because social conditions and religious and moral values have changed they have lost their relevance. But even the childrens books that endure are subject to adaptation to increase their appeal to new readers. Their texts are never regarded as sacrosanct, and for this reason they exemplify social and cultural changes in a quite fascinating way. Of course, many works are of genuine high literary value in their own right; they need no justification as socio-historical texts. With this variety in subject-matter and treatment the German childrens books that made an impact on Britain between 1780 and 1914 provide an appealing area of study.

13Translations and adaptations of childrens books, however, constitute only part, though the major one, of the impact that Germany had on nineteenth-century British childrens literature. Many British educators sought to satisfy curiosity about Germany by providing information in school-books about its geography, topography, history and culture. Some of this, especially at the outset of our period, is rudimentary and second-hand, tending to be anecdotal rather than analytic, but as the years go by gradually a more detailed picture of the country and its long history is built up. Textbooks are supplemented by travel books, and towards the end of the nineteenth century we find history presented also in story form. Illustrations naturally play a significant role in presenting this material.

14Linked with books dealing with German history and culture I have included a chapter on Germanys national epic, the Nibelungenlied, and its central figure Siegfried. Here we find mingled translations of the high literature of adults and its adaptation for children, the latter of which does not begin until the mid nineteenth century. There is, moreover, a striking combination of German and Norse materials, beginning with Fouqué and reaching its apogee with Wagners Der Ring des Nibelungen (1863). Wagner, however, lies outside the scope of this book, which concentrates on the medieval epic and the works that go with it.

15While textbooks generally provide historical accounts going back to the Romans, several British authors wrote novels of their own, focussing on key periods of German history such as the Thirty Years War and the Franco-Prussian War. G. A. Henty is best known for his boys adventure stories placed in the context of Britains colonial expansion, but three of his boys books focus on aspects of German history and contemporary events. Hesba Stretton, one of the foremost writers of evangelically motivated fiction at the end of the century, wrote about the Franco-Prussian War as it affected the lives of a family and their neighbours in Strasbourg. She was followed by several other authors, and it is interesting to note differences of approach and attitude over a period of some thirty to forty years.

16While Britain stood politically on the sidelines as far as the Thirty Years War and the Franco-Prussian War were concerned, British armed forces were directly involved in the First World War. For British children this resulted in a plethora of books on current events, contemporary history, adventure stories and political satires based on childrens classics such as Lewis Carrolls Alice books, Hoffmanns Struwwelpeter and nursery rhymes. The First World War marks a fundamental change in British attitudes towards Germany. The positive appreciation of German culture and its signal contribution to British childrens books was abruptly shattered. Only classics such as the Grimms fairytales and Struwwelpeter survived unscathed. Christoph von Schmids incredibly popular Basket of Flowers also continued to be published, but without the authors name and with the German place-names changed to Dutch.

17The engagement of British childrens books with Germany over a period of around 130 years is far more extensive than most people are aware of. Alongside works that have become classics it includes a wide range of books and stories of less enduring interest, some by authors whose names are now known chiefly to specialists, others that have been transmitted anonymously. Several books and authors have a complex reception-history. Many works originally designed for adults were taken over and adapted for a younger readership. If we take school-books into our purview, we can see childrens awareness of Germany gradually expanding as the nineteenth century progresses. Ideally, there should have been some consideration of language textbooks, guides to German conversation, grammars and dictionaries, but this is a large field and one that extends far beyond the limits of childrens books. Now, however, it is time to look at individual texts, authors and historical and cultural topics.


1 David Blamires, Fortunatus in His Many English Guises (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996).

2 David Blamires, Eulenspiegel in englischer Sprache’, Eulenspiegel-Jahrbuch, 29 (1989), pp. 51-66.

3 John Clare by Himself, edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell (Ashington: Mid Northumberland Arts Group; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1996), p. 16.

4 Marjorie Moon, John Harriss Books for Youth 1801-1843 (Cambridge: Marjorie Moon and Alan Spilman, 1976), no. 314.

Table des illustrations

Légende [Christoph von Schmid], The Basket of Flower; or, Piety and Truth Triumphant (London, [l868]).
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