Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Telling Tales

David Blamires

9. Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl

Texte intégral

1In Britain the German Romantic writer Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) is known for one thing only – his extraordinary story of Peter Schlemihl, the man who exchanges his shadow for a purse which, like that of Fortunatus, produces gold coins every time he puts his hand in it. Later in the story Schlemihl acquires a pair of seven-league boots which enable him to travel quickly wherever he wants to go. These are fairytale devices, but Peter Schlemihl was not designed as a children’s book any more than was Fouqué’s Undine. In what they enable to happen the gold-producing purse and the seven-league boots correspond to the inexhaustible purse and wishing hat of the late medieval German story of Fortunatus, which, though employing various magical devices, is thought of as an ancestor of the modern novel for its realistic accounts of people, events and places. Fortunatus unfolds a profoundly moral and thought-provoking view of the world, illustrating the problems that the possession of great wealth is apt to bring and showing how human desires untempered by reason lead to self-destruction. It proved popular both in Germany and abroad. In Germany it circulated as a Volksbuch right up to the nineteenth century. In Britain there were translations, a verse play by Thomas Dekker, several chapbooks and adaptations for children from the mid eighteenth century onwards. Peter Schlemihl, like Fortunatus, has aspects that could appeal to children, but it primarily embodies unsettling questions about alienation and identity that belong indubitably to the province of adulthood. However, some of these anxieties were put back into the sphere of childhood by Hans Andersen in his story ’The Shadow’, which was clearly sparked off by Chamisso.

2The plot of Peter Schlemihl is deceptively simple, but the telling is full of subtle touches that create suspense and make the reader ponder. The story, like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, depends on a single event that transgresses reason, before and after which the narrative proceeds in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner until a further element of fantasy – the accidental acquisition of seven-league boots – comes in at the end. Schlemihl, the protagonist of the story, tells in the first person how he went with a letter of introduction to meet a gentleman called Thomas John, from whom he expected to get help. Among the party of people gathered in the garden of John’s house he sees a beautiful lady, Fanny, and witnesses how a nameless man in a grey coat produces from his pocket a series of objects, beginning plausibly enough with plaster to bind Fanny’s bleeding hand, pricked by a thorn from a rose, then going on to a telescope, a large Turkish carpet, a pleasure-tent and three black horses. No one apart from Schlemihl appears in the least amazed at what happens, yet no one knows who the man is. Schlemihl decides to leave the company, but encounters the mysterious stranger as he departs and is persuaded to part with his beautiful shadow in exchange for a magic purse. Almost immediately Schlemihl discovers that people notice the loss of his shadow, point it out and mock him for it. Wealth, however, eases his path considerably, and he gains the reputation of being a certain ’Count Peter’. He attempts to deflect mockery through avoiding light when outdoors, but every time his lack of a shadow is noted he is ostracized. In this way he loses the hand of his love, Mina, because of her father’s suspicions and antagonism. The man in the grey coat keeps reappearing unexpectedly at different stages in Schlemihl’s history. On the first occasion, a year and a day after their first meeting, Schlemihl refuses to sign away his soul to the man when it departs naturally from his body. None of Schlemihl’s attempts to regain his shadow are successful. The latter part of the story sees him travelling all over the world with the aid of the seven-league boots and devoting himself to scientific work in botany, collecting lichens and algae. He falls ill, faints and on recovering finds himself a patient in an institution called the Schlemihlium, founded in his name, where he is looked after, unrecognized, by Bendel and the widowed Mina. On departing from the hospital he leaves a note, telling them that their old friend is now doing better than previously and that, if he is doing penance, it is the penance of reconciliation. Schlemihl finds his dog again and returns home, finally communicating his strange history to Chamisso.

3Chamisso, like E. T. A. Hoffmann in Nußknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker and Mouse-King), makes great play between levels of fantasy and reality. The fictive Peter Schlemihl addresses his story in a manuscript to his friend Chamisso, whom he addresses five times as Chamisso and twice as Adelbert in the course of the narrative. The story also refers explicitly to Fouqué’s novel Der Zauberring (The Magic Ring) of 1813, which Schlemihl dreams is lying on Chamisso’s desk along with the works of Haller, Humboldt, Linné and a volume of Goethe. Der Zauberring was the latest novel of Chamisso’s friend Fouqué, while Albrecht von Haller, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl von Linné were among the leading scientists of the day. Indeed, the various scientific works that Schlemihl declares himself to have written at the end of the book probably represent a kind of homage to Humboldt’s explorations and publications in the fields of geography and botany. Schlemihl mentions only the interior of Africa and Asia, the northern polar regions and the eastern coasts of Asia, a complement to Humboldt’s concern at this time with South and Central America. The suggestion that Schlemihl’s manuscripts will be deposited in the University of Berlin on his death is a graceful acknowledgement of the very recent founding of the University by Alexander’s brother, Wilhelm.

4Goethe may well represent the synthesis of science and literature with the unnamed volume from his extensive works. We may imagine that volume to be the first part of Faust, published in 1808, with its Mephistopheles stalking anonymously through the pages of Peter Schlemihl. But the man in the grey coat is more urbane than the figure of the wandering scholar in whose guise Mephistopheles first appears in Faust, though his grey coat may recall the diabolical grey monk who first fills that role in the sixteenth-century Historia von D. Johann Fausten. But the Devil also appears unbidden in various guises in folktales that were current during Chamisso’s own lifetime. The second volume of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1815) has two such tales, in which he appears as a little mannikin (’Des Teufels rußiger Bruder’) and as a man in a green coat (’Der Teufel Grünrock’, later replaced by ’Der Bärenhäuter’) and provides magical gifts in exchange for services of strange kinds. The man in the grey coat offers Schlemihl a choice of typical fairytale devices, among which feature the magic napkin of Roland’s squires (referring to a Volksbuch that Musäus also refashioned), a mandrake (probably alluding to a story by Fouqué) and the wishing-cap and magic purse of Fortunatus. Chamisso thus cleverly splices the fairytale world with popular literature of the day. The conclusion of the book returns to the subject of scientific enquiry regarding the natural world, and here Schlemihl adverts to another contemporary Romantic author, Ludwig Tieck, drawing him into this ambiguous world of fact and fiction with an allusion to the satirically titled De rebus gestis Pollicilli, i.e. Leben und Taten des kleinen Thomas, genannt Däumchen (Life and Deeds of Little Thomas, called Thumbling) (1812), a Tom Thumb play based largely on Perrault’s fairytale ’Le petit Poucet’ In this way Peter Schlemihl becomes a nexus of both traditional tales and the most up-to-the-minute contemporary literature and scientific research.

5The fact that many features of Schlemihl’s story reflect key aspects of Chamisso’s own life has led to an understandable, but unfortunate emphasis on biographical interpretations of the story, but Chamisso himself was careful to avoid answering questions about the meaning of the story’s symbolism. Its continuing appeal derives from the fact that Chamisso, like Kafka, leaves many things open and unexplained while at the same time creating a coherent narrative.

6Schlemihl gains access to Thomas John through a letter from the latter’s brother, about which John says he will perhaps have time to speak later, if Schlemihl stays. But Schlemihl leaves before any explanation is made and in the process encounters again the man in the grey coat, with results that dictate the remainder of his life. Schlemihl’s voyage before arriving in the unnamed port is characterized as both fortunate (glücklich) and yet very troublesome (beschwerlich) for him, a pointer to the strange events that overtake him. By the end of the first chapter he has exchanged his initial poverty for boundless wealth, but also loses his senses. In his new life he acquires a new identity as Count Peter through the mystification of the King of Prussia using that name as an incognito, and this identity obtains for the central sections of the narrative. Later, after he has seen the fate of Thomas John at the hands of the man in the grey coat – Justo judicio Dei judicatus sum; justo judicio Dei condemnatus sum (I have been judged and condemned by the just judgement of God) – and after he has hurled the purse of fortune into the abyss, he experiences a period of wandering that resembles that of the Wandering Jew. This image of the Jew is made explicit as he is reduced to an existence as a mere number, Number Twelve, in the so-called Schlemihlium where he recovers from the extremes of his physical exertions. The name Schlemihl comes from a Hebrew word meaning ’good for nothing’ and connotes a persistently unlucky person. Because of his long beard Schlemihl is thought to be a Jew, but was ’not less carefully looked after on this account’. The legend of the Wandering Jew is part of the widespread Christian tradition of hostility towards the Jews as a people for condemning Christ to be crucified, but the narrator’s comment seems to hold out a prospect of mercy. Number Twelve presumably suggests the last of the twelve tribes of Israel. At the end of the book Schlemihl returns to his old life of scientific research, aided by the seven-league boots which do not wear out, and he concludes by admonishing Chamisso, the recipient of his story, to respect first the shadow and only afterwards money.

7The links between Peter Schlemihl and folktales are readily apparent. But we can perhaps also note similarities with Munchausen in the travels to Russia and other exotic places, and with The Swiss Family Robinson in the geographical and botanical explorations. Despite these features that would surely appeal to children, most of the English translations seem to have adults as their target readers. Up to 1914 there were a dozen editions of Peter Schlemihl in English, two of which form part of composite volumes containing items of interest to children. The first was an 1889 volume published by Cassell, which includes Carové’s The Story Without an End and Novalis’s Hymns to Night – a rather strange combination of literary works. The Story Without an End, a religiose tale for children that enjoyed considerable popularity from much earlier in the century, figures elsewhere in this book. The second composite volume was a copiously illustrated gift book that presents Schlemihl alongside Wilhelm Hauff’s ’The Cold Heart’ (London: Holden & Hardingham, 1914). Both are Romantic tales written within around a dozen years of each other and sit together well in terms of their focus on fantasies of wealth and its dangers.

8If we now look at the translations of Schlemihl in chronological order, we can see an immediate parallel with the transmission of the Grimms’ fairytales. Both English editions were first illustrated by George Cruikshank, and both printed an anonymous translation that has been reissued many times up to the present day. The Cruikshank illustrations to Schlemihl were reprinted at least twice in the nineteenth century, but have only been used once, enlarged, in the twentieth in a limited edition (Henley on Thames: Langtry Press, 1992). Cruikshank’s eight etchings pick out key stages in Schlemihl’s history – the man in the grey coat picking up Schlemihl’s shadow; Schlemihl with Fanny in the garden; alone in his room; the man in the grey coat attempting to get Schlemihl to sign the deed; chasing his shadow; on the edge of the abyss; crossing the sea in the seven-league boots; escaping the polar bear. Undoubtedly, these illustrations helped to give Schlemihl a good send-off in his English guise.

9Chamisso’s German original was edited by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and published in Nuremberg in 1814. In consequence the first English translation attributes the work, wrongly though not entirely surprisingly, to ’Lamotte Fouqué’. It appeared in 1824 (London: G. and W. B. Whittaker) in the same format and a year later than the Grimms’ German Popular Stories. Fouqué’s own Undine had been published in English in 1818. Clearly, prose works of the German Romantics were making quite an impact in Britain. The translation of Peter Schlemihl appeared anonymously, but it stemmed from the pen of Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), as the attribution in later editions makes plain. Bowring was a considerable linguist, writer and traveller and made translations of Goethe, Schiller and Heine. As well as being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, he received numerous foreign honours.

10A notice by the translator in the 1824 edition attributes the impetus for translating Schlemihl to a conversation with Adelung in Petersburgh (Saint Petersburg). This was Friedrich von Adelung (1768-1843), the nephew of the famous grammarian and lexicographer J. C. Adelung, who had been the teacher of Princes Nicholas and Michael, the brothers of Tsar Alexander I, and who in 1824 became Director of the Oriental Institute. After this notice by the translator follows a sonnet, ’To my Friend Wangner’, presumably by Bowring. Then comes the author’s introduction, i.e. a letter written by Chamisso to his friend Julius Eduard Hitzig, another member of the literary circle in Berlin that included Fouqué and Hoffmann. This letter declares the work to have been put into Chamisso’s hands by ’A strange man with a long grey beard, wearing a black, worn-out kurtka, with a botanical case suspended at his side, and slippers over his boots, on account of the damp, rainy weather, [who] inquired after me, and left these papers behind him. He pretended he came from Berlin’. This letter figures in most editions of Chamisso’s story and forms part of the playfulness in the story itself, claiming factuality for something that is transparently a fiction. Hitzig, in a letter to Fouqué dated January 1827, describes how, when he first read Schlemihl to Hoffmann, the latter ’was beside himself with delight and eagerness, and hung upon my lips till I got to the end’. Hoffmann’s reaction not only displays his own affinity to Chamisso as a writer, but is a splendid testimony to the inherent fascination of the story.

11Bowring covers himself as a translator by declaring: ’I have not scrupled to introduce a few verbal alterations; but the deviations from the original are very trifling’. His understanding of German is not perfect, so some generally minor mistakes enter the text, but otherwise he follows the original closely. He makes Thomas John, the man to whom Schlemihl had a letter of introduction, into the more familiar Thomas Jones. One misprint seems to have gone through all subsequent reprints of Bowring. At the opening of chapter 3 in the original Schlemihl describes himself alone in his room, starving despite his gold, as lying like Faffner with his hoard. This appears in English as ’Taffner by his strong hold’, and it was never corrected. The Tarnkappe or ’cloak of darkness’, which allows the wearer to become invisible and which is used by the man in the grey coat in chapter 6 to destroy Schlemihl’s prospect of marrying Mina, is misleadingly called a ’wishing cap’. The allusion to Faffner and the Tarnkappe links up with Fouqué’s dramatic trilogy Der Held des Nordens (1808-10), which deals with the legendary figure of Siegfried on the basis of Scandinavian sources, where he is called Sigurd. Presumably the name was garbled in English because it was not recognized and its associations were not understood.

16. Peter Schlemihl. With plates by George Cruikshank (1824).

12Bowring’s translation, together with Cruikshank’s plates, was reissued in 1861 (London: Robert Hardwicke) and 1878 (London: Hardwick & Bogue). It was used a generation later, with new illustrations by Gordon Browne, in an edition clearly designed for children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910). This Edwardian book has a new title – The Shadowless Man, Peter Schlehmihl – though it is new only for this translation, as naming the book The Shadowless Man goes back to a different translation of 1843. In this 1910 edition Bowring is explicitly credited with the translation, as he had been with the editions of 1861 and 1878, but the ’note to a new edition’, which refers to the translation having been made ’[m]ore than twenty years ago’ must have been taken from an edition that appeared in the late 1840s. By 1910 Cruikshank’s illustrations would have seemed very old-fashioned, hence the new commissions from Gordon Browne (1858-1932), who illustrated a whole host of children’s books in the period from the 1880s to just after the First World War. The full-colour frontispiece, sixteen full-page black and white drawings, twelve smaller drawings and numerous headpieces are vigorous and varied, but Browne is more interested in the social satire and comic sides of the story than in capturing its more menacing and unsettling aspects. While the book still contains Bowring’s ’To my Friend Wangner’ and Chamisso’s letter to Hitzig, it sandwiches between them a letter of Fouqué to Wangner (Hitzig seems to be the recipient) and a fuller one from Hitzig to Fouqué, together with Chamisso’s poem ’To my old Friend, Peter Schlemihl’, dated 1834. All of them are designed to paint the background to the story’s original appearance in print in Germany. Literary history thus becomes an increasingly insistent accompaniment to Chamisso’s tale, even in an edition targeted at children.

13The second and third translations of Schlemihl both appeared in the same year, 1843. One was anonymous, the other was by William Howitt. Howitt’s translation appeared in a bilingual edition published by Longman and Co. in Nuremberg and London, and it contains six illustrations. William Howitt (1792-1879) had a particular interest in Germany, and he and his wife Mary, a prolific children’s author, lived in Heidelberg and travelled around the country from 1840 to 1843. William’s solid, richly informative book, The Rural and Domestic Life of Germany, had been published by Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans in 1842 and is based on detailed first-hand knowledge. It is one of the major books in English about contemporary Germany, since Howitt had an enquiring mind and wrote appreciatively, though not uncritically, about what he saw. His translation of Schlemihl, however, has a tendency to literalism, perhaps because it was intended as an aid to understanding the German rather than standing as a work on its own. As far as I am aware, it was not reprinted during the nineteenth century, but was used for the Rodale Press edition of 1954, which was designed as a piece of stylish printing to set off Peter Rudland’s striking two-colour wood-engravings.

  • 1 Brian Alderson, ‘Some Notes on James Burns as a Publisher of Children’s Books’, Bulletin of the Jo (...)

14The other translation of 1843 was entitled The Shadowless Man; or, the Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl (London: James Burns) and was reissued in 1845. Around this period Burns was also publishing translations of tales by Musäus, Fouqué and Hauff among others and clearly had a fascination with German literature of the previous sixty to seventy years. When Burns ceased publishing this kind of secular material in 1847, having converted to Rome,1 his stock was taken over by Edward Lumley, from whom there is a typically undated edition (c. 1860). A Routledge edition with exactly the same title and same number of pages (London and New York: G. Routledge & Sons, [1877]) is almost certainly a further printing of this translation.

15Burns’s anonymous translator, perhaps the same as he used for other German prose tales, was not a master at the art. He or she was apt to omit occasional sentences, presumably through inability to understand, and there are certainly instances of misunderstanding or simplification that point to an imperfect command of German. These are relatively minor faults, compensated for by helpful explanations elsewhere. Thus, the reference to Faffner is turned into ’like the dragon guarding his treasure’, and the Tarnkappe is called a ’mist-cap’. Chamisso’s original eleven chapters are combined to make five, a process of reduction that Burns used also in his edition of Fouqué’s Undine. Proper names are kept as in the original apart from Mina (a diminutive of Wilhelmina) being changed to Minna and Schlemihl’s appropriately named servant Raskal getting the English spelling for his name. The book is adorned with seven small engravings by an unknown artist.

16The Burns/Lumley translation crops up again in a combined edition of Schlemihl and Hauff’s ’The Cold Heart’ (London: Holden & Hardingham, [1914]). Here it is given the title of The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man. An eight-page introduction by A. S. Rappoport sketches in information about Chamisso and the background to the story. However, the main interest of the edition lies in its eleven full-colour plates and six two-colour plates by Forster Robson, for whom the events of the story provide opportunity for a great variety of scenes – picturesque old town, open heath, dark forest, bleak mountain, frozen sea, tropical island, nocturnal settings, a closed room and a romantic dream. This is the full gift book treatment, more chocolate box than individual vision. It is a pity that Rackham never illustrated the story.

17Two other editions were published in the last dozen years of the nineteenth century, paralleling the interest shown in Fouqué’s Undine and Sintram in the same period. The first, an edition of 1889, which printed Schlemihl along with works by Carové and Novalis, has already been mentioned. The second is notable for containing illustrations by Sir Philip Burne-Jones and an introduction by the folklore scholar Joseph Jacobs (London: George Allen, 1899).

18All of the editions mentioned so far are serious attempts at translating Chamisso’s masterpiece into English. They are witness to a fascination with the story over every decade from 1824 to 1914, if we can take the Lumley edition as having been available in the 1850s. They were all aimed at the intelligent middle-class reader. Evidence of a different readership, however, is provided by a little volume entitled Tales of Fairy Land; or, Legends of the Olden Time, published ’for the booksellers’ in 1852 in a series called ’The Cottage Library’. This is the kind of book that the Halifax firm of Milner and Sowerby and the Wakefield firm of William Nicholson and Sons published during this period and later in the nineteenth century, but this particular volume was printed by Joseph Smith of High Holburn. The preface declares roundly: ’the Germans seem to possess the faculty of invention and contrivance, together with originality of conception and power of execution in such an eminent degree, as to leave the legendary writers of our own, and other countries, at an immeasurable distance’. A little further on it asserts: ’The Romance writer of Germany brings into action such outre beings, such legions of Number Nips, such unheard of Demons, Incubusses, Freeshooters, Wild Huntsmen, Bottle Imps, Nightmares, Cocked-hats, and Wooden-legs, as to defy all imitation ...’ This is, thus, just the place to find a curious version of Peter Schlemihl; or the Man without a Shadow amidst a variety of poems and prose tales from Ireland, Scotland and Germany.

19This is less a translation than an adaptation of Chamisso’s story. Indeed, there is no mention of Chamisso as author, still less any indication of adapter. There are several alterations in names. The unnamed place to which Schlemihl sails in Chamisso’s original is here called Torrenburg, and Thomas John is oddly rechristened Henric Melthal. The surname may well be taken from the Melctal who figures as the chief supporter of the Swiss patriot William Tell in Florian’s retelling of the traditional story. Fanny is given the name Angelina, Schlemihl’s servant Bendel becomes Bandel, while Raskal becomes the much less symbolic Bernsdoff (probably a misspelling for Bernsdorff). The forester’s daughter Mina, whom Schlemihl is unsuccessful in gaining as his bride, is renamed Maria. The story is given without divisions into chapters and follows the outline of the original up to the middle of chapter 9, when it presents an alternative ending. At the point in the original where Schlemihl thinks that he might find work in a mine he does so, but then experiences such taunts from the other miners that he contemplates suicide. Despairing, he falls asleep and has a dream in which he once more meets his tormentor, the man in the grey coat, refuses to sign his bond and wakes up to find his shadow has been restored. Surprisingly, Bandel greets him outside the mine as the men arrive for their labours. It turns out that Bernsdoff and Maria have not actually married, as Raskal and Mina did in Chamisso’s original, so she is not a widow after her husband’s criminal execution. Schlemihl can now happily marry her himself and continue with Bandel as his faithful servant. This is, of course, a travesty of the original. It eliminates the episode of the Schlemihlium and removes Schlemihl from the mysterious isolation in which he exists at the end of the story. The happy ending of romance and fairytale has supplanted the solitary life of the scholar and scientist.

20Peter Schlemihl is another of those works of German Romantic fiction that were designed for an adult readership, but gradually were also adopted by children. The version included in Tales of Fairy Land was certainly in this case, as my copy of this book contains the inscription ’Mary Sumner Willson / A Birthday Present / from Papa’. Though some aspects of the story – its literary and contemporary allusions, for example – may have escaped the attention of youthful readers, the narrative plot is readily accessible. It was illustrated from the start, and Cruikshank’s etchings were also used in Germany. The most extensive set of illustrations came from the pen of Gordon Browne nearly eighty years later. Chamisso’s story continued to be reprinted and abridged in the period after the First World War, and a new translation was made in 1957. Schlemihl did not enjoy quite as high a degree of favour in nineteenth-century Britain as Fouqué’s Undine, but it deservedly achieved the status of a classic.


1 Brian Alderson, ‘Some Notes on James Burns as a Publisher of Children’s Books’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 76, 3 (Autumn 1994), p. 122.

Table des illustrations

Légende 16. Peter Schlemihl. With plates by George Cruikshank (1824).
Fichier image/jpeg, 456k