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Telling Tales

David Blamires

4. Musäus and the Beginnings of the Fairytale

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  • 1 A summary list is given in David Blamires, ’The Early Reception of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmär (...)

1German fairytales are indelibly linked first of all with the names of the Brothers Grimm, who produced the first edition of their celebrated collection in 1812-15. Other writers had been publishing a variety of fairytales before then,1 but because they were not scholarly collectors of traditional tales their contributions have not been given much credit. Two names, however, deserve passing mention here. Johann Gottlieb Schummel, whose description of Basedow and the Philanthropin in Dessau we encountered in the chapter on Campe, included four fairytales in his Kinderspiele und Gespräche (Children’s Games and Conversations) (1776-78); they seem to be the earliest German fairytales specifically designed for children. None of these were translated into English. The second name is Albert Ludwig Grimm – no relative of the famous Jacob and Wilhelm – who produced a book entitled Kindermährchen (Children’s Tales) in 1809, Lina’s Mährchenbuch (Lina’s Book of Fairytales) in 1816 and Mährchen aus dem Morgenlande (Oriental Fairytales) in 1843. A number of his fairytales were translated into English and will be dealt with in another chapter.

2It is clear that the Brothers Grimm were not working in a vacuum, but their scholarly approach and Wilhelm’s stylistic skill managed to establish a norm of length, language and tone for printing traditional tales that has dominated the field ever since. In the eighteenth century, however, different forms of the fairytale prevailed. The literary fairytale was all the rage. It had begun in France in the 1690s with the verse tales of Charles Perrault, followed by his more famous prose Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697), which contained the classic versions of what we know in English as ’Cinderella’, ’Bluebeard’, ’Little Red Riding Hood’ and ’Puss in Boots’. Round about the same time the Countess d’Aulnoy wrote her own fairytales, based in part on traditional plots, but combined and embroidered for the pleasure of the fashionable salons and adolescent girls. Many other aristocratic ladies (and gentlemen) composed fairytales too, becoming increasingly prolix and sentimental, but Madame d’Aulnoy was recognized as ’la reine de la féerie’, and her works were translated into English and German and often abridged. Between 1704-17 there appeared Antoine Galland’s French version of The Thousand and One Nights, which again was quickly translated into other languages and enjoyed enormous popularity. This was the international literary context in which a German author first essayed a major collection of fairytales.

3Johann Karl August Musäus (1735-87) was part of the extraordinary flowering of literary culture that characterized the court of the Duchess Anna Amalia at Weimar, a court that included Wieland, Goethe and Herder among its luminaries. Musäus had himself written two satirical novels before he published in 1782-86 his Volksmährchen der Deutschen (Folktales of the Germans). To us today the title is misleading, since what Musäus wrote were decidedly literary tales, more like short novels or romances in terms of length, rational and satirical in tone, minimizing or even excising everything to do with magic and the supernatural. We know from his nephew, August von Kotzebue, that he listened to old people telling folktales and used them as a basis for his own tales, but that is really the only sense in which he can be said to have written folktales. These oral tales were the grit that produced pearls in the oyster of his imagination. He called them German folktales to distinguish them from the literature that came from France. Musäus’s French forbears and contemporaries were on the whole serious in their approach to the fairytale. They might insert the occasional humorous remark, and Count Antoine Hamilton eventually parodied their plots and themes in Les quatre Facardins, but they were subverted by Musäus, whose irony, critical spirit and linguistic virtuosity make his tales one of the brilliant, unsung achievements of eighteenth-century German literature. Musäus has suffered at the hands of folklorists because he did not treat his material like the Grimms, and literary historians have neglected him because his attitude towards the folktale was quite different from that of the Romantics. Nonetheless, his tales have survived, sometimes revised or abridged and made suitable for children, who were certainly not the readership that Musäus first intended.

4The Volksmährchen der Deutschen consists of fourteen pieces (eighteen if the ’Legenden von Rübezahl’ (Legends of Rubezahl) are taken as their five separate parts), of which we may discount ’Dämon Amor’ (Demon Love) as not being based on a traditional tale. The rest are derived from oral or printed folktale sources. ’Die Bücher der Chronika der drei Schwestern’(The Books of the Chronicles of the Three Sisters) comes from ’The Three Animal Kings’ in Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, which Musäus probably knew in the Italian translation of 1769 (there is a copy in the Thuringian State Library in Weimar), and it is likely that he got the inspiration for ’Ulrich mit dem Bühel’ (Ulrich with the Hump) from Perrault’s ’Ricquet à la houppe’ (Ricky with the Tuft). ’Richilde’ is an ingenious and unexpected retelling of the Snow-White story from the viewpoint of the stepmother. ’Rolands Knappen’ (Roland’s Pages), supposedly taken from a Volksbuch, ties in loosely with the story the Grimms published later as ’Tischchen deck dich, Goldesel und Knüppel aus dem Sack’ (The Magic Table, the Gold Donkey and Cudgel in the Sack). The ’Legenden von Rübezahl’recount rumbustious incidents with a mountain spirit in the Silesian Riesengebirge, while ’Der Schatzgräber’ (The Treasure-Seeker) tells of finding hidden treasure in the Harz Mountains. In ’Libussa’ we have a series of fairytale tests which lead ultimately to the founding of the city of Prague. ’Die Nymphe des Brunnens’ (The Nymph of the Fountain) combines motifs from various sources, but has much in common with elements of the ’Cinderella’ tale-type.

  • 2 Alfred Richli, Johann Karl August Musäus. Die Volksmärchen der Deutschen (Zürich und Freiburg im B (...)

5A number of the remaining tales centre on the theme of love. ’Der geraubte Schleier’ (The Stolen Veil) is a version of the swan maiden story, while ’Stumme Liebe’(Dumb Love) manages to combine a sentimental love-story with the hero’s hair-raising encounter with a ghost in a haunted castle, followed by a version of the dream of hidden treasure. Finally, ’Melechsala’ is a daring love-story about a mariage à trois, based on the medieval legend of the Count of Gleichen. The mere indication of theme shows that several of Musäus’s tales are of dubious interest to children, so it is not surprising to discover that they have been very selectively translated into English and adapted. In both German and English Musäus is a prime example of an author who wrote for an adult readership being gradually and very selectively taken over by children. His writings display a detached, ironic spirit that keeps conventional Christianity at a distance. Satire forms a clear part of his literary purpose, but it was kept in check by his deeper devotion to the idyll of domestic harmony.2

  • 3 G. P. Butler, ’Beckford and Musäus: a Likely Pair?’, in Schein und Widerschein. Festschrift für T. (...)

6Musäus made his entry into English anonymously. Neither his name nor that of the translator appears on the title-page of Popular Tales of the Germans (London: John Murray, 1791). The translator was until very recently supposed to be William Beckford (1759-1844), the author of Vathek, an Oriental fantasy of wild indulgence and cruelty that is his lasting contribution to English literature. However, G. P. Butler has shown on what flimsy grounds this attribution rests. So few of the books in Beckford’s enormous library are in German that ’it is hard to believe that, if he indeed read them, he did so unaided or with ease’.3 It is thus improbable that Beckford made the translation.

7The anonymous translator rendered just five of Musäus’s tales into English: ’Richilda’, ’The Books of the Chronicles of the Three Sisters’, ’The Stealing of the Veil’, ’Elfin Freaks; or, The Seven [actually, Five] ’Legends of Number Nip’ (i.e. ’Rübezahl’) and ’The Nymph of the Fountain’. Only two of the many later translators of Musäus attempted as many stories: the anonymous translator of James Burns’s 1845 edition and J. T. Hanstein in 1865. The 1791 translator provides an interesting testimony to his acquaintance with German literature by a reference to both Campe and Salzmann in a footnote to ’The Three Sisters’. He was also conscious that there might be objections on the part of his readers to some of the material he had translated, so he attempted to deflect criticism by providing an introduction in which he presented them in the form of a dialogue between a reviewer and the publisher. In ’Richilde’ the apple that is so fateful for Bianca (Musäus’s name for the Snow-White figure) is poisoned at the queen’s direction by her Jewish doctor, and it is compared by him with both the apple in the Garden of Eden and that in the Garden of the Hesperides. Referring to this, the translator puts into the mouth of the publisher the following words:

I own I did not myself like his flippant familiarity with the good people of Israel; and having one day, by way of experiment, read Richilda, or the Progress from Vanity to Vice, to a very numerous mixed circle, an old lady, a constant frequenter of the neighbouring meeting-house in Black-friars, vehemently protested against setting Eve’s apple on a level with that of Atalanta, though the latter was of gold purified in the fire; and she declared herself more scandalized by the concluding allusion than she had at any time felt at the lewdest print that ever stared her in the face as she walked along the public streets (pp. v-vi).

8This is doubtless an ironic comment, alerting readers to what they can expect from Musäus while simultaneously poking fun at the narrow-minded. The kind of objections that he was alluding to were increasingly voiced by such writers as Hannah More and Sarah Trimmer. It is perhaps indicative of the moral climate that no further translation of Musäus appeared for another thirty-five years.

  • 4 For Abercrombie and Forsyth see entries in Dictionary of National Biography.

9Differences in social and cultural attitudes between Germany and England clearly play a role in explaining English reactions to Musäus, but the tales pose a variety of problems to translators apart from the actual content. Musäus is a very allusive writer, and while many of his allusions would have been picked up by an educated reader anywhere, some of them refer more particularly to German matters that would have been lost elsewhere. The 1791 translator is excellent at reproducing Musäus’s mood and linguistic tenor, but he understandably often omits the more abstruse or local allusions and occasionally inserts one of his own. A good example of this is to be found in the first of the legends of ’Number Nip’ (the translation of ’Rübezahl’). The German text has a descriptive passage about fruit-trees, which is translated as follows: ’... her eye was delighted by the fruit-trees, which bore ruddy gold-streaked apples, such as neither Mawe’s art of gardening, nor Forsyth’s renovating past, can now entice from mother nature’ (vol. 2, p. 17). The German original, as one might expect, does not refer to either Mawe or Forsyth, but for the German Hirschfeld the translator has neatly substituted up-to-date English equivalents. Mawe is Every Man his own Gardener, attributed to Thomas Mawe, but actually by the horticulturalist John Abercrombie (1726-1806), who used Mawe’s name out of a sense of diffidence. Forsyth is William Forsyth (1737-1804), superintendent of the royal gardens at St. James’s and Kensington from 1784, who published Observations on the Diseases, &c. of Forest and Fruit Trees in 1791.4 The trouble with all such topical references, whether German or English, is that while they make the story sparkle at the time of first publication, they often later become completely opaque.

  • 5 Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Lancashire: The Rural North (Harmondsworth: Penguin Bo (...)

10In ’The Nymph of the Fountain’ the translator, rather disconcertingly for those familiar with German geography, converts the Swabian town of Dinkelsbühl into the English Blackpool, wrongly associating the first element ’Dünkel-’ (the old spelling of the name) with ’Dunkel’ = ’dark’. At the time of writing the Lancashire locality had only some six houses ’appropriated for the reception of company’,5 so it was far from enjoying the reputation that it has today. Later on in this same story is a verse passage in which the heroine Matilda describes her skills. In the German this runs as follows:

Ich bin eine Waise,
Mathilde ich heiße,
Kann plätten,
Kann glätten,
Kann nähen und spinnen,
Auch sticken
Und stricken
Und Augen gewinnen,
Kann hacken und pochen,
Auch braten und kochen,
Bin kunstreicher Hand,
Und flink und gewandt.

11The English translation renders this to a treat: ’I am an orphan, Matilda by name: I’m a stout girl, and nimble, can manage the thimble; can spin, card, and knit, and handle the spit; I can stew, bake, and brew; am honest and true, and here to serve you’ (vol. 2, p. 232). This is not an exact translation, but in its attention to rhythm and rhyme and the general sense it provides a skilful equivalent. The over-all achievement in translating Musäus is greatly to be applauded.

12It is not very likely that Popular Tales of the Germans would have been much read by children. Nor would this have happened with the translations of individual tales by Musäus in the late 1820s, which came on the back of growing interest in the German Romantics. ’Stumme Liebe’ was translated as ’The Dumb Lover’ by Thomas Roscoe in volume 3 of The German Novelists (London: Henry Colburn, 1826) and as ’Dumb Love’ by Thomas Carlyle in volume 1 of German Romance (London: Chapman & Hall, 1827). Carlyle also translated ’Libussa’ and ’Melechsala’in the same volume, and all three were reprinted in 1858 and 1897. An anonymous translation of ’Die Entführung’ as ’The Elopement’ appeared in The Odd Volume, part 2 (1826).

13Carlyle, who also translated pieces by Fouqué and Tieck in German Romance, was as free with criticism of Musäus as with praise. Many of his comments were well made, but he constantly belittled Musäus, writing from the changed perspective of forty years on from his subject’s death. By this time attitudes towards the genre of fairytale had substantially changed, due in large measure to the work of the Romantics and the Brothers Grimm. Carlyle concluded his introduction with the hope that his three translated tales

7. J. K. A. Musäus, Legends of Number Nip (1864). Illustrated by Charles Keene.

may furnish a little entertainment both to the lovers of intellectual novelty and of innocent amusement. To neither can I promise very much: Musäus is a man of sterling powers, but no literary monster; and his Tales, though smooth and glittering, are cold; they have beauty, yet it is the beauty not of living forms, but of well-proportioned statues.

14’Libussa’ was translated again in Tales from the German, translated by John Oxenford and C. A. Feiling (London: Chapman & Hall, 1844) and later by J. T. Hanstein as Libussa, Duchess of Bohemia (London: Macdonald & Neal, 1866), but to my knowledge no one apart from Carlyle has translated ’Melechsala’.

15The mid 1840s saw a renewal of interest in Musäus. The publisher James Burns, who had a considerable interest in German literature, issued a volume entitled Select Popular Tales from the German of Musaeus (London: James Burns, 1845), which presented seven tales: ’Mute Love’, ’The Nymph of the Fountain’, ’Peter Block; or, The Treasure-seeker of the Harz’, ’The Three Sisters’, ’Richilda’, ’Roland’s Squires’ and ’Legends of Rübezahl’ (giving only three of the five that Musäus wrote). This increased the number of Musäus’s tales available in English. ’Peter Block’ and ’Roland’s Squires’ reappeared in Popular Works of Musaeus, translated by J. T. Hanstein (London: J. Neal & Co., 1865), so retrospectively we can identify Hanstein as Burns’s unnamed translator. The Chronicle of the Three Sisters, and Mute Love, again translated by Hanstein (London: Macdonald & Neal, 1866), reissues two more of the stories. Burns’s edition and the later publications in which Hanstein is credited with the translation have a few give-away shared mistranscriptions of names. They also contain various features that point to a possible child readership. Some of the stories have been condensed – not a surprising thing to happen, given Musäus’s prolixity – and the Select Popular Tales is illustrated with wood-cuts taken from the German edition of 1842. Certain sexually suggestive touches in the original have also been eliminated. For example, in ’Roland’s Squires’ the passage is omitted in which, in the German, the third of the squires is forced to sleep the night with the ancient witch. Similarly, the ambiguous role of Albertus Magnus in ’Richilda’ in helping the eponymous heroine’s mother to conceive is truncated. These changes may result from moral anxieties of the age, but in any case they make Musäus more accessible to young readers.

16One set of stories above all seems calculated to appeal to children: the ’Legends of Rübezahl’. After the 1791 translation a version of ’The Legends of Number Nip’ appeared in part 2 of The Odd Volume (1826). Then came a further adaptation in Legends of Rubezahl, and Other Tales (London: Joseph Cundall, 1845). Like Burns, Cundall had a particular interest in German literature, and the two of them published quite a large number of German authors and children’s books during the 1840s. Their publications may well have set off the train of retellings of Rübezahl stories that begin with Leitch Ritchie’s ’Legends of Number Nip’ appended to his Schinderhannes, the Robber of the Rhine (London: Simms & M’Intyre, 1848). The name ’Number Nip’ points to the 1791 translation as the probable source, and that is certainly the case with Mark Lemon’s Legends of Number Nip (London: Macmillan & Co., 1864). Both this book and Cundall’s are attractively illustrated, which again signals children as the target readers. Lemon was illustrated by Charles Keene (1823-91), one of the many noted artists who worked for Punch, of which Lemon was the first editor. The book went into a second edition in 1872.

  • 6 A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: being a Guide to Holland ... to Switzerland, 13th edit (...)

17Other Rübezahl stories, not necessarily deriving from Musäus, were published by George G. Cunningham in Tales and Traditions chiefly selected from the Literature of Germany (Edinburgh, London, and Dublin: A. Fullarton & Co., 1854); by Francis Paul Palmer in Old Tales for the Young (London: Routledge, 1857); by Mary C. Rowsell in Number Nip; or, the Spirit of the Giant Mountains (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1884); and by Andrew Lang in The Brown Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1904). These adaptations demonstrate not only the popularity of the stories, but also the permeable boundaries of regional folklore and children’s literature. The Rübezahl tales as examples of tales about events and supernatural beings believed to be true go back way beyond Musäus to the seventeenth-century collection of Johannes Prätorius, but in Germany as elsewhere they nowadays function more as a source for children’s books. Nonetheless, the local origins were pointed out in the mid nineteenth century in A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: ’The Riesengebirge are the theatre of the exploits of the mischievous spirit called Rübezahl, whose name is well translated into English by that of Number Nip (i.e. turnip numberer). There is hardly a mountain or a glen in the country without its legend of this popular demon’.6

18Even more widely diffused than the ’Legends of Rübezahl’ was ’The Books of the Chronicles of the Three Sisters’, of which versions were included in Cundall’s Legends of Rubezahl and in Burns’s Select Popular Tales. In this same year, 1845, a third translation, by A. Sagorski, also saw the light of day, bearing the title The Enchanted Knights; or, the Chronicle of the Three Sisters (London: H. Cunningham). The immense popularity of this story must be due to the fact that of all Musäus’s tales it is the most like a conventional fairytale. The plot is concerned with the transformation of three princes into the shapes of a bear, an eagle and a dolphin, their marriages to three sisters and their rescue by the sisters’ younger brother, Reinald. As mentioned earlier, it was elaborated from a fairytale in Basile’s Pentamerone, and Musäus obviously enjoyed developing it. It was not until 1848 that a pioneering English translation of The Pentamerone, or the Story of Stories was made by John Edward Taylor and published by Cundall (reprinted in 1850), but for some reason Basile never became popular in Britain. The availability of a translation of Musäus’s source did nothing to detract from what he had made of it. New versions continued to be made.

19In 1850 the seventy year old M. G. Kennedy went so far as to produce a verse form of the story: The Arm! – the Sword! – and the Hour! Or, the Legend of the Enchanted Knights (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans). This version in four-line stanzas is a light-hearted romp with burlesque touches, especially at the end of the stanzas. A couple of examples show the kind of comic topical allusion that the author makes. In the baron’s encounter with the bear near the beginning of the story he shows the bear potatoes that he has in his pouch: ’Potatoes which no Irishman / Would wish to have re-pealed’ (p. 22). The punning allusion to Sir Robert Peel may relate to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, but it may also recall the movement for the repeal of the Act of Union in the early 1840s as well as the potato famine. But at this distance in time the comment reads more like a joke than a serious political statement. A couple of pages later Kennedy graces the disappearance of the bear with the comment: ’Quick as a rail-train when express, / Into the thicket sped / The charmed Bear’ (p. 24), which is a reminder to us of just how recent was the growth of the rail network when Kennedy was writing.

20Another ’free version’ of this story, this time entitled The Three Sons-in-law, by A. F. Frere, appeared in 1861 and was followed by Hanstein’s Chronicle of the Three Sisters (London: Macdonald & Neal, 1866). Hanstein, though claiming to follow ’as closely as possible ... the style of the German’, excuses himself by declaring: ’In all works rendered from the German into the English tongue, the adoption must lose much of the beauty of the original, the language of this country being too weak to convey to the mind of the reader the delicate metaphor, and redundant sentences of the German’ (p. i). This perhaps explains the loss of resonance in the names of the towns founded by two of the disenchanted brothers at the conclusion of the story, where the real towns of Bernburg (in Saxony-Anhalt) becomes the fictitious ’Bearborough’ and Aarburg (in Switzerland) ’Eagleborough’. Yet another version of ’The Chronicles of the Three Sisters’ was made by Mark Lemon in his Fairy Tales (London: Bradbury, Evans, & Co., 1868), illustrated this time, simply, but humorously and prolifically, by Charles Bennett.

21This story by Musäus does not seem to have been included in general collections of tales as much as ’Rübezahl’. The only such place that I have found is Alfred H. Miles’s’ Fifty-two Fairy Tales (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1892), in which it appears under the title ’The Story of Reinald, the Wonder-Child’ in a translation by Marie Pabke and Margery Deane. In this respect, then, Musäus fares differently from his great successors, the Brothers Grimm and Wilhelm Hauff. His tales are really not easy to incorporate in anthologies because they are so different in scope and tone from the traditional fairytale. Yet, as we have seen, Musäus is a known literary figure throughout the long nineteenth century. He starts clearly enough within the orbit of serious literature in the 1791 translation, but by the middle of the century he has been at least partly claimed for children’s reading. This could not come about through total fidelity to Musäus’s original text, but only through progressive adaptation and assimilation. We shall see this process operating on many subsequent occasions, as the works of other authors undergo similar changes because of changes in their target readership.


1 A summary list is given in David Blamires, ’The Early Reception of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen in England’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 71, no. 3, p. 65.

2 Alfred Richli, Johann Karl August Musäus. Die Volksmärchen der Deutschen (Zürich und Freiburg im Breisgau, 1957).

3 G. P. Butler, ’Beckford and Musäus: a Likely Pair?’, in Schein und Widerschein. Festschrift für T. J. Casey, eds. Eoin Bourke, Roisin Ni Néill and Michael Shields (Galway: Galway University Press, [1999]), p. 30.

4 For Abercrombie and Forsyth see entries in Dictionary of National Biography.

5 Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Lancashire: The Rural North (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 68.

6 A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: being a Guide to Holland ... to Switzerland, 13th edition, corrected (London: John Murray, 1860), p. 424.

Table des illustrations

Légende 7. J. K. A. Musäus, Legends of Number Nip (1864). Illustrated by Charles Keene.
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