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Telling Tales

David Blamires

12. The Folktale Tradition in Germany

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1Although Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm now dominate discussion of folktales and fairytales, they were far from being the only ones concerned with collecting and publishing such material in Germany during the nineteenth century. The Grimms had separated the traditional tales that they were interested in into two broad categories – Märchen and Sagen. Märchen are basically fictional in character and include tales of magic (what we usually call fairytales), comic, religious, nursery and animal tales, while Sagen are legends and make some claim to recount incidents that are believed to have actually happened. The Grimms published a large collection of Deutsche Sagen in two volumes (1816-18), but this was not translated into English as a complete work until quite recently. Individual tales or small selections were, however, excerpted and included in a variety of British books, as we shall see. Most other nineteenth-century collectors did not categorize their material as strictly as the Grimms and printed fairytales (in the narrower sense) alongside local and historical legends, as British collectors also did. For the most part, they made regional or local rather than national collections of traditional oral tales. Some of this made its way into English and formed part of the growing and widespread general interest in folklore, appealing to both adults and children. As the scholarly work progressed in Germany, various authors used the material for children’s books, but little of this was translated into English. The one German writer who followed closely in the Grimms’ footsteps, rivalling their attraction to both old and young, and who was also translated into English was Ludwig Bechstein. It is to him that we now turn.

  • 1 Werner Bellmann in Enzyklopädie des Märchens, vol. 2, cols. 15-19.
  • 2 Kinder- und Hausmärchen, gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesell (...)

2At the beginning of the twentieth century Bechstein, if we judge by the number of editions that his major collections had achieved, was more popular in Germany than the Brothers Grimm. By 1929 his Deutsches Märchenbuch (German Fairytale Book), first published in 1845, had reached its seventieth impression, and by 1922 his Neues Deutsches Märchenbuch (New German Fairytale Book), first published in 1856, was in its 105th impression.1 By comparison the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen had only reached its twenty-third impression by 1890.2 Bechstein was able to build on what the pioneers of folktale scholarship had accomplished. He also collected many tales that do not figure in the Grimms’ collection, and he knew how to make them accessible to young readers.

  • 3 Walter Scherf in Ludwig Bechstein, Sämtliche Märchen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaf (...)

3Born in Weimar in 1801, Ludwig Bechstein was the illegitimate son of Johanna Dorothea Bechstein and a French emigré, Louis Hubert Dupontreau. He was taken into the household of his uncle, Johann Matthäus Bechstein, a noted botanist and ornithologist. The young Bechstein studied pharmacy in Arnstadt, Thuringia, but his literary activities brought him to the notice of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, who enabled him to study philosophy, history and literature at the University of Leipzig and then appointed him, in 1832, librarian of the ducal library. Bechstein had already published four of his own tales as Thüringische Volksmährchen (Thuringian Folktales) in 1823, but from the late 1820s there flowed from his pen a series of literary, historical and folkloristic works that occupied his talents for the rest of his life. He was married twice and died in 1860. While a small proportion of Bechstein’s scholarly work is of importance, it is his activity as a collector and editor of folktales and legends that has kept his name alive.3

4Bechstein was not a field collector of tales in the way that later became the practice among folklore scholars. He took his material from a multiplicity of sources – printed works of all kinds and periods, editions of medieval poems, single folktales published in scholarly journals, Volksbücher (chapbooks) and what he refers to in his notes to individual tales as ’oral’ sources. Modern scholarship tends to take this last source with a pinch of salt and to assume that Bechstein meant that a story was orally current rather than that he had personally noted it down. Some of his tales are demonstrably reworked versions of tales published by the Grimms.

5Like Wilhelm Grimm, Bechstein reworked and revised his material. The latest edition of the Deutsches Märchenbuch to be published in his lifetime was the thirteenth edition of 1857, which contained eighty tales. The original edition of 1845 had contained another nineteen tales, which were eliminated in the twelfth edition of 1853. In addition the 1853 edition has considerably reworked versions of four of the original tales – ’Das Märchen von den sieben Schwaben’ (The Fairytale of the Seven Swabians), ’Die verzauberte Prinzessin’ (The Enchanted Princess), ’Die Königskinder’ (The Royal Children) and ’Die drei dummen Teufel’ (The Three Stupid Devils). The Neues Deutsches Märchenbuch provided a further fifty tales that are quite different from those previously published. Bechstein thus has 149 tales compared with the Grimms’ 211.

6Despite Bechstein’s immense popularity in Germany, he did not have anything like the same success in Britain, although a fine selection of his tales was translated into English and published in 1854. The firm of Addey and Co. had published a two-volume edition of the Grimms’ Household Stories in 1853, illustrated by E. H. Wehnert. This was the most comprehensive translation of the Grimms to date and almost certainly owes its origin to the enthusiasm for fairytales of Joseph Cundall, who was in partnership with Addey from 1849 to 1852. Cundall had previously published a different selection and translation from the Grimms in 1846 as well as their namesake A. L. Grimm, The Heroic Life and Exploits of Siegfried the Dragon Slayer and several other German items. It is more than likely that Addey and Co.’s The Old Story-Teller. Popular German Tales, collected by Ludwig Bechstein (1854) is a further example of Cundall’s German interests.

  • 4 Ibid., pp. 795, 805, 823.

7The Old Story-Teller, like so many similar books, does not name the translators who made Bechstein accessible to British readers. They made versions of fifty-six tales from the Deutsches Märchenbuch, using the 1853 edition, since that is the first edition to include ’Der Mann ohne Herz’ (’The Man without a Heart’), ’Siebenschön’ (’As Pretty as Seven’) and ’Der weiße Wolf’ (’The White Wolf’), which Bechstein took from Karl Müllenhoff.4 The tales are accompanied by one hundred illustrations by the celebrated German artist Ludwig Richter. Eight of them are full-page hand-coloured plates and extremely attractive in their evocation of picturesque pre-industrial Germany.

8What sort of tales were included in this, the only translation of Bechstein to be made in the nineteenth century? Of the fifty-six items eight were actually taken from medieval texts, and a further ten came from an early printed book usually known as the Buch der Beispiele der alten Weisen (Book of Exempla from the Wise Ancients), which Bechstein knew in its last popular edition of 1592. This is a German version of the famous Oriental collection known in many languages and with many titles, but generally known in English as the Fables of Pilpay, of which the latest edition had appeared in 1818. Two other tales – ’Hop o’ my Thumb’ and ’Bluebeard’ – are closely derived from Perrault. The medieval tales are for the most part moral tales, and those from the Buch der Beispiele are chiefly animal fables.

21. Title-page and frontispiece by Ludwig Richter of Ludwig Bechstein, The Old Story-teller: Popular German Tales (1854).

9In looking at the character of this selection of what was available of Bechstein’s tales at the time, we find that twenty-three have a male protagonist, fourteen a female, and four have them combined, i.e. a brother and sister or a husband and wife. Twelve are animal tales, and two have no protagonist. The German tale ’Das Tränenkrüglein’ does not specify the gender of the child that cannot rest in its grave because of its mother’s tears, but the English translation, ’The Jug of Tears’, makes it a little girl. Many of the tales, like ’Das Tränenkrüglein’ (’KHM 109, ’Das Totenhemdchen’), have a parallel in the Grimms’ collection, that is to say, the tale-type to which the story belongs is also represented in the Grimms. As far as the fairytales (tales of magic) are concerned, readers would not have noticed any obvious difference in tone and length from what they were accustomed to from the Grimms. In his German originals Bechstein does allow himself the occasional personally motivated aside, but these are just the things that the English translators were likely to remove or modify.

10The sequence of tales as printed in The Old Story-Teller is only loosely related to that of the German original. It opens with ’The Man without a Heart’, which reads smoothly but contains a number of mistakes in translation – not things which alter the shape and tone of the story, but blemishes nonetheless. The story concerns an old man who keeps his heart outside his body, turns six brothers and their prospective brides into stone and makes the seventh bride a virtual prisoner. The seventh, youngest brother goes in search of his older brothers, finds the old man’s heart, rescues the seventh bride and disenchants the rest. In the course of the story the old man tells the girl his heart is ’in der Bettdecke’ (in the quilt). The girl then embroiders flowers on it to please him. The English version has the old man say his heart is ’under my bed-covering’, and so the girl gathers flowers on places them on the bed. The old man next says, in the German, that his heart is in the room door (’Stubentür’), which the English mistranslates as ’in the oven’. The youngest brother, on his search, encounters an ox which he invites to share his food. In the German the ox sits down in a leisurely manner (’gemächlich’), which the English renders as ’genteelly’. Whether the extraordinary ’Vogel Greif’ that appears a little further on should be translated as ’a large vulture’ (as here) or as ’a griffin’ (the more usual meaning) is open to debate.

11The occasional mistranslations generally concern details and tend not to affect the broad outline of the story. But elsewhere there are deliberate alterations. ’The Two Bones of Contention’ (’Der Zornbraten’) is both more loosely translated and makes more serious changes. This is a medieval story about how a knight tames an obstreperous mother and daughter who both want to mock and master their respective husbands. It is one of the most extreme examples of a tale calculated to teach women that their role in life is to be subservient to their husbands and fathers. The young knight who solves the situation first kills his falcon, then his hound and his horse for supposed disobedience in order to demonstrate what his new wife can expect from him. This sufficiently tames his wife, but to deal with the mother he has to slice two ’anger-steaks’ (’Zornbraten’) from her hips. The English changes this to ’“two bones of contention”, one in each arm’, presumably considering the hips a rather too risky and realistic site for the butchery/surgery.

12The German original contains several word-plays and allusions that would have made Bechstein’s text amusing as well as shocking – humour is one of his hallmarks – but as these can’t easily be translated into English, they are omitted or become less specific. In the original, for example, the father upbraids his daughter with the words ’O du böse Chriemhilt!’ (you wicked Kriemhild), equating her with the terrible queen in the Nibelungenlied who is prepared to sacrifice her own son as well as her brother to gain revenge for the murder of her husband Siegfried. Although there had been two English verse translations of the Nibelungenlied, published in 1848 and 1850 respectively, the reference to Kriemhild would have been lost on British children, so it becomes ’Oh, you good-for-nothing girl!’ Spoken and written German make frequent and casual reference to the Devil, and one such occurs in this same story when the young bride, following the slaughter of the falcon, hound and horse, thinks the Devil has brought her to this husband. The English translation omits all such allusions. A similar reference in ’Der beherzte Flötenspieler’ (’The Courageous Flute-Player’) is simply changed to ’some evil spirit’.

13A more awkward problem occurs with ’Der Hasenhüter und die Königstochter’ (’The Hare-Keeper’), in which a king attempts to test and then try to cheat a shepherd boy, who, through magical help, succeeds in guarding and returning a hundred hares for him. In disguise, the king attempts to buy a hare from the shepherd boy, who says he will only do this if the king kisses the donkey he is riding ’under its tail’. In order to stop the boy from marrying his daughter, the king agrees to this indignity, but the boy whistles with his magic pipe and the hare comes running back to him. The English translator changes the king’s task to kissing the ass’s tail, something that is merely bizarre rather than demeaning or humiliating.

14Bechstein’s fairytales were probably too similar to those of the Grimms for them to be serious competition in English translation. Indeed, many of them are only slightly different versions of tale-types already well known from the Grimms. The tales in The Old Story-Teller were reissued by John Camden Hotten in 1872 with the new title As Pretty as Seven and Other Popular German Tales in a format parallel to Hotten’s reissue, now with an introduction by Ruskin, of Edgar Taylor’s translation of the Grimms’ German Popular Stories. The Bechstein volume also incorporated nine more tales by the Grimms, taken from the Addey and Co. edition. Chatto and Windus, who purchased Hotten’s business after his death in 1873, found sufficient of his stock to sell it in their own binding in 1884.

15A very few individual tales of Bechstein’s were included in some of Andrew Lang’s fairytale collections. Both ’The Three Musicians’ and ’The Three Dogs’ were incorporated in The Green Fairy Book (1892), though they sailed under the name of the Grimms. ’The Man without a Heart’was slipped into The Pink Fairy Book (1897) without any indication of provenance at all. All three were new versions of Bechstein, somewhat freer translations than those in The Old Story-Teller. Five other tales – ’Millet-Thief’, ’The Seven Ravens’, ’The Little Cup of Tears’, ’The Three Gifts’ and ’The Man in the Moon’ – were included by Benjamin Thorpe in Yule-Tide Stories. A Collection of Scandinavian and North German Popular Tales and Traditions (London and New York: George Bell & Sons, 1892). They were credited to Bechstein and translated afresh. Versions of two other tales – ’Gold Maria and Pitch Maria’ and ’The Lost Crown’ – were included by Zoe Dana Underhill in her collection of ’fairy tales from all nations’entitled The Dwarf’s Tailor and others (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1897). Again, these are new translations of tales that had already appeared in The Old Story-Teller. ’The Lost Crown’ was there called ’Golden Hair’, and it was taken over by Bechstein from a tale originally written by Justinus Kerner and published in 1813. Neither of them is credited to Bechstein by Underhill; each is simply an ’old German tale’. With these anthologized stories the British transmission of Bechstein seems to have petered out until two new translations were issued in the 1960s.

16While Bechstein vied with the Grimms in presenting folktales on a national basis, other collectors focussed on tales from a particular region of the German-speaking lands. Only a few of these made a mark in Britain, but prominent among them is the great German patriot, Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), who devoted the whole of his adult life to working for a Germany united culturally and politically on the basis of language. Arndt was born on the Baltic island of Rügen, then Swedish territory (a legacy of the Thirty Years War), though German in population. It was Napoleon’s invasion of Pomerania in 1806 that sent Arndt into exile in Sweden and developed his ideals of German nationalism. After the defeat of Napoleon he became Professor of Modern History at the newly founded University of Bonn, but his liberal views led to his suspension from office for several years until he was reinstated in 1840. Towards the end of his long life Arndt gave up politics and devoted himself to scholarship. He did not live to experience the united Germany he had worked so hard for.

17Shortly after his appointment to the Chair of Modern History at Bonn Arndt published a collection of folktales and reminiscences from his youth with the title Mährchen und Jugenderinnerungen (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1818). A second edition of the work appeared in 1842-43. The publisher was G. A Reimer, the same man as published the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen. The folktales that Arndt printed in this book are those locally current in Rügen, and they include both fairytales and legends, the latter consisting mainly of stories about encounters with supernatural creatures. Given Rügen’s political situation at the time, it is not surprising that some tales have a Scandinavian touch. Three of these stories were translated into English in a little book entitled Merry Tales for Little Folk, edited by Madame de Chatelain (London: Cundall & Addey, 1851). The tales are ’The Elfin Plough’, ’The Nine Mountains’ and ’Johnny and Lisbeth’. The book was reissued in undated editions by Charles Taylor and Crosby, Lockwood and Co., both of London. In my copy of the Taylor edition ’The Elfin Plough’ is wrongly credited to Grimm, ’The Nine Mountains’ to Arndt and ’Johnny and Lisbeth’ left anonymous. The three tales were also reprinted in Fairy Folk and Wonderful Men, again edited by Madame de Chatelain (London: Addey & Co., 1852), with no indication of where they came from. Arndt’s presence in mid nineteenth-century Britain is thus largely anonymous.

18Dinah Mulock included a story called ’Adventures of John Dietrich’ in The Fairy Book (London: Macmillan, 1863), and this turns out to be an uncredited version of ’The Nine Mountains’, but in a different translation. The Fairy Book went through eleven editions up to 1913, so that story gained wide circulation. Two other uncredited pieces by Arndt appeared in the Everyman’s Library edition of The True Annals of Fairyland in the Reign of King Cole (London: J. M. Dent & Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1909). These were two considerably adapted excerpts from ’The Elfin Plough’, now entitled ’The Lost Bell’ and ’The Wonderful Plough’. It is quite possible that other children’s books of the period contain further unacknowledged tales from Arndt’s pen. All of these translations and adaptations were in prose, but the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier made a ballad version of the story of John Dietrich and Lisbeth in rhyming couplets with the title ’The Brown Dwarf of Rügen’ in 1888. He spells John’s surname wrongly as ’Deitrich’, but his ballad is a lively, straightforward rendering of Arndt’s tale.

19We now come to a much fuller collection – the Fairy Tales from the Isle of Rügen, by Ernst Moritz Arndt, selected and translated by Anna Dabis (London: David Nutt, 1896). This prints new translations of the tales that were already known, but extends the range of material to a total of seventeen tales. About half the collection consists of tales that centre on the involvement of local people with what Dabis calls ’the underground folk’. This includes the stories edited by Madame de Chatelain and about as much again. Of the remaining eleven tales half a dozen are fairytales in the narrower sense and do not overlap with those of the Grimms. Most deal with figures that have been bewitched and can only be released from their enchantment by the successful completion of a series of difficult tasks. The events described in them take place in a wide area between Sweden, Denmark, Rügen, central Germany, the Alps and India, but the locations are specific rather than general. The other tales recount happenings believed to have taken place in different parts of Rügen and have a variety of named locations and protagonists. Very frequently they involve encounters with supernatural beings and attempt to explain the acquisition or loss of wealth. One rich peasant owes his wealth to meeting and helping the Rat-King one Walpurgis Night, but when his luck deserts him he feels happier in his poverty with God than having riches and being in thrall to the Rat-King (’Birlibi, the Rat-King’). In ’How the Mice are Whistling’ the card-player Martin Drews falls prey to the Devil and a fiery mouse and finally has his house burnt down by flaming mice. ’The Story of the Seven Coloured Mice’ tells how seven disobedient daughters are turned into mice and their mother into a large stone. They will only revert to human shape if a woman the same age as the mother comes along with seven sons for them to marry.

20What is fascinating about Arndt’s tales is the way in which the everyday life of the peasantry is fraught with temptations and dangers. The hardness of winning the fruits of the earth is reflected in the encounters with ’the underground folk’ and the destruction that can be caused by vermin. In addition, there are dangers to the simple Christian life from the remnants of heathenism (as in ’Princess Svanvitha’) as well as from the blandishments of the Devil. Some of the legends demonstrate that these dangers are not always overcome. The tales in general have an immediacy that derives from the fact that their protagonists have ’real’ rather than the typical or symbolic names that characterize the Grimms’ collection and that the events are carefully localized. Moreover, Arndt informs his readers that he got ’The Nine Mountains’ and ’The Hoopoe’ from his father’s bailiff, Henry Vierk, that his own father frequently told him ’The Story of the Seven Coloured Mice’and that Baltazar Tiers, a farm servant on his father’s estate who knew many fairytales, told him ’Birlibi, the Rat-King’.

21While Arndt’s tales from Rügen are clearly presented in English as part of children’s literature, the same cannot be said of the folktales and legends of the region of Germany that is most profusely represented in English – the Rhineland. Books of legends of the Rhine were designed for the tourist trade and published in Germany in English from the 1830s onwards, and travel books often included outlines of legends in connexion with the places they described. Such works as Joseph Snowe’s two-volume compendium, Legends, Traditions, Histories of the Rhine (Frankfort o. M.: Charles Jugel, 1841) and Lays and Legends of the Rhine. To which are added: Translations of German Poems and Songs, and a Selection from Grattan’s Rhenish Legends (Frankfort o. M.: Charles Jugel, 1847) were targeted principally, if not exclusively, at the adult reader. Many more similar volumes followed throughout the century, but they belong more to the history of travel and topography than to children’s books. A few of the most popular legends are in fact included in the small number of travel books about the Rhineland that were written for children by British authors.

22One story, however, enjoyed enormous popularity and was presented to children as well as adults in a wide variety of forms. This was the story of Bishop Hatto of Mainz, whose cruelty towards his people was punished by his being pursued to a tower on an island in the Rhine and eaten by mice. The story was recorded in English as early as 1611 by Thomas Coryat, and this provided the stimulus for Robert Southey to write one of his early stirring ballads, ’God’s Judgement on a Wicked Bishop’ in 1799. The author of Travels with Minna and Godfrey in many Lands. The Rhine, Nassau, and Baden (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1839) reprinted it after a short prose account of the story. The ballad was reissued in volume 6 of Southey’s collected Poetical Works (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844). The story appears, in a prose version by Gottschalk entitled ’The Mouse Tower’, in The German Novelists, translated by Thomas Roscoe (London: Henry Colburn, 1826). Another version was included by George G. Cunningham in Tales and Traditions chiefly selected from the Literature of Germany (Edinburgh, London, and Dublin: A. Fullarton & Co., 1854). The fact that it is entitled ’The Mausethurm’ is perhaps an indication that German was now sufficiently well understood for it not to need a translation. The most extensive treatment the tale got in English was in Hatto’s Tower: and Other Stories, by Mary C. Rowsell (London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dublin: Blackie & Son, c. 1870), where it extends to about forty pages. The story of Bishop Hatto clearly enjoyed great popularity, probably because it provided a telling example of cruelty and injustice being subjected to supernatural retribution – a prince of the Church brought low by an army of one of the smallest of God’s creatures.

  • 5 John Woolford and Daniel Karlin (eds.), The Poems of Browning (London and New York: Longman, 1991) (...)

23The fate of Bishop Hatto circulated widely in English, but it did not acquire a canonical form. However, the German local legend that is probably best known in Britain – ’The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ – owes its name and popularity chiefly to the dextrous rhyming and rhythmic verve of Robert Browning, though he was not the only one to recount it in English. Browning wrote his poem for the son of the actor-manager William Macready when he was ill in bed in the spring of 1842, and it bears the subtitle ’A Child’s Story’. It was first published later that year in the collection of booklets known as Bells and Pomegranates and was reprinted in 1849 and 1861. Browning’s source was not German, but English. He declared that he based himself on the account in Nathaniel Wanley’s The Wonders of the Little World (1667), but some of the details are almost certainly derived from Richard Verstegen’s Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities (1605) despite Browning’s denial that he had consulted it.5 Verstegen’s account is reprinted in Joseph Ritson’s Fairy Tales (London: Payne and Foss; and William Pickering, 1831), so the story was not completely unknown before Browning made it famous.

24Browning dates the events to 1376, like Verstegen, while Wanley has 1284, the traditional date given by the Grimms in Deutsche Sagen. Browning further follows Verstegen in describing how one lame boy could not keep up with the rest and so was not swallowed up in the hill to which the piper led them. Again, like Verstegen, he mentions the tradition that connects the German community in Transylvania with Hamelin, suggesting some inexplicable subterranean route between them. There has been much debate about the origins and meaning of the legend, linking it, for example, with the Children’s Crusade (1212), but also with other historical feuds and a visitation of the plague, which was carried by rats. The piper’s ability to charm both rats and children into following him by playing his magic pipe links him with such folktales as the Grimms’ ’The Jew among Thorns’, in which the protagonist forces people to dance when he plays his fiddle. The piper is a compelling figure, attractive to children, but suspicious to those in authority. The punishment he metes out to those who refuse to pay him what they have freely promised in order to get rid of their plague of rats is every parent’s nightmare – the loss of their children. In essence this legend is a horror story, but somehow in the retelling, perhaps especially in Browning’s poem with its joky rhymes, the horror has been displaced by an emphasis on the pictureque and quirky appearance of the piper and by the satirical characterization of the Mayor and Corporation.

25Browning’s poem quickly became a classic of children literature and was frequently anthologized. It gained a great fillip when it was issued with copious illustrations by Kate Greenaway (London and New York: Frederick Warne & Co., 1888), though her images are a curious mixture of modern and would-be medieval. Another illustrated version of Browning with pictures by T. Butler-Stoney was published by Ernest Nister in 1906. Meanwhile, Robert Buchanan wrote a two-act opera entitled The Piper of Hamelin, which was published with illustrations by Hugh Thomson (London; William Heinemann, 1893). This is set in the fifteenth century and follows Browning for the first act, but diverges in the second act to provide a restoration of the children to their parents. Presumably the transposition of the story to the stage and the context of popular entertainment required a happy ending. Browning’s poem, however, has not ceased to be the best known form of the story, and the twentieth century has seen many more retellings dependent on it.

26In Germany the legend was elaborated by Gustav Nieritz into a children’s book typical of the mood of the mid nineteenth century. Die Wunderpfeife, oder: Die Kinder von Hameln (Leipzig: Gustav Mayer, 1835) was translated into English by C. W. Heckethorn as The Ratcatcher’s Magic Whistle; or, the Children of Hameln (London: Ben. George, c. 1873). Nieritz makes the ratcatcher into a much more sinister figure, a magician called Kokerill, and places the emotional weight of the story on the fraught relationship of Tobias, the bailiff’s son, and Gilbert, the son of the burgomaster. The children of Hameln are abducted by Kokerill to Siebenbürgen (Transylvania in the early English forms of the legend) and made to work for him, but Tobias, through various magical devices, finds his way there and released them from their underground prison. Kokerill is captured in the shape of a bird and strangled, and the children make their way back home, arriving there after the winter, a year after their disappearance. Gilbert and Tobias are reconciled and become friends, and Nieritz ends his story with the moral that Kokerill represents vice, which all children ought to shun. Nonetheless, Kokerill’s despotic control of the children, separated from their parents and set to hard work, may also be seen as a reflection of conditions in the nineteenth century to which children were subjected in order to earn a precarious living. It is interesting to note the changes to the original legend that both Nieritz and Robert Buchanan found necessary to make it palatable to nineteenth-century children and their parents.

  • 6 Richard M. Dorson, The British Folklorists. A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968) (...)

27A considerable number of German legends were published in English from the 1820s onwards, but most of them appeared in books that do not seem to have been designed for children. The second volume of Thomas Roscoe’s The German Novelists (1826) contains selections from the collections made by Otmar, Gottschalk, Eberhardt, Büsching, the Grimms and Lothar, and Cunningham’s Tales and Traditions (1854) has a comparable set of offerings. But by the last third of the nineteenth century we have collections, more like Arndt’s, that may well have had children among their readers. One of the earliest of these is Household Stories from the Land of Hofer; or, Popular Myths of Tirol (London: Griffith & Farran, 1871). It has illustrations credited to T. Green, but no indication of the compiler’s name, Rachel Busk (1831-1907), who was proficient in several languages and collected material from many, chiefly printed sources.6 Like Arndt, she begins with legends about the fairy dwellers in her chosen territory – the Norgs – then proceeding to longer narratives from North and South Tirol, what she calls ’Wälsch-Tirol’ (Italian Tirol) and the Austrian province of Vorarlberg. The main item among the Norg myths is a retelling of the medieval German poem whose title she gives as The Rose-Garden of King Lareyn (Laurin), in which Lareyn, the last of the Norgs, having abducted Simild, the daughter of duke Biterolf, is attacked by her brother, Dietlieb, Theodoric and Wittich in his magic rose-garden. Lareyn has a cloak of darkness that makes him invisible and a girdle that gives him the strength of twelve men, but Theodoric manages to defeat him. After several further exploits Lareyn is defeated and made court fool by Theodoric in his palace at Verona.

28Many of the remaining tales in Household Stories from the Land of Hofer have analogues in other well-known collections. ’The Wilder Jäger and the Baroness’ contains the motif of the protagonist escaping retribution by guessing his supernatural opponent’s name, a motif best known in ’Rumpelstiltskin’. ’The Grave Prince and the Beneficent Cat’ is a version of the tale-type exemplified by Madame d’Aulnoy’s ’The White Cat’ and the Grimms’ ’The Poor Miller’s Lad and the Cat’, while ’Klein-Else’ is a variant of the ’Cinderella’ story. ’Prince Radpot’ is a combination of the Grimms’ ’The Riddle’ and ’King Thrushbeard’, and ’Luxhale’s Wives’ a blending of the Grimm’s ’Fitcher’s Bird’ with motifs from ’The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs’. ’Zovanin senza paura’ (Fearless Johnny) is a version of ’The Boy who set out to Learn Fear’. The Tirolean tales are thus clearly part of the well-known stock of European, specifically German, folktales, but have their own character from the mountains and remote valleys in which the stories are located.

29A comparable volume dealing with another area was issued a few years later by the same publisher – W. Westall’s Tales and Legends of Saxony and Lusatia (London: Griffith & Farran; Geneva: The Continental Company, 1877). However, the temper of the majority of tales in this collection is dark and brooding, focussing on family disputes and crimes of passion leading to the destruction of all involved. Three centre in various ways on entanglements with the Devil. In ’The Priest, the Fairy, and Doctor Horn’ a mother promises her infant son to the Church if he is spared his life. An angel gives her a talisman to protect him. When the boy grows up and is about to become a priest, he meets a Doctor Horn (the Devil) who tries to dissuade him. But he also meets the fairy Luna, his guardian angel, who helps him in his trials and temptations. Doctor Horn leads him on night rides and adventures reminiscent of Faust’s tricks in the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, but eventually his soul is saved, though his body is drowned in the fairy’s fountain. In ’The Katestone of Annaberg’ the Devil is similarly thwarted by Christian sentiments, whereas in ’The Devil’s Blacksmith’ the eponymous blacksmith, addicted to drink, fails to complete an extraordinary commission he has undertaken and is hauled off to the nether regions in consequence. But while the collection as a whole dwells on the darker side of life, there are occasional lighter touches. ’The Christmas present’, for example, tells of a stocking-weaver who can’t get any money for a job he has completed for Christmas because the commissioner is absent. On his sad way home he meets a little man who gives him food and goodies, and when he reaches home he finds they have turned into gold and silver. The little man is called Count Carl Kinderfreund (Friend of children), but his action is strangely similar to that of the mountain spirit Rübezahl, who inhabits the Riesengebirge, the chain of mountains separating Silesia and Bohemia.

30Rübezahl is a figure who keeps cropping up in the folktales and children’s books of our period. Documentation of his quirky activities goes back to printed sources of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He appears in a variety of human disguises, tormenting the strong and those in authority and leading them on wild goose chases, while helping the poor and those in distress. We have already encountered him with the English name Number Nip in the 1791 translation of Musäus, and we find that name and Rübezahl (with or without the umlaut) in many subsequent versions of tales told about him. (The German name is commonly interpreted as Rübe, ’(tur)nip’, and Zahl, ’number’.) Joseph Cundall’s Legends of Rubezahl (1845) was taken from Musäus, as was Mark Lemon’s Legends of Number Nip, illustrated by Charles Keene (London: Macmillan & Co., 1864; reprinted 1872).

31Musäus was not the only purveyor of Rübezahl stories, so it is difficult to trace the sources used by each and every British author. Leitch Ritchie briefly retold three legends of Number-Nip as an appendix to his Schinderhannes, the Robber of the Rhine (London: Simms and M’Intyre, 1848), and George Cunningham included six, again very briefly, in his Tales and Traditions (1854). Francis Paul Palmer also retold some under the heading ’Rubezahl, the Prince of Gnomes’ in Old Tales for the Young (London: George Routledge & Co., 1857). However, the largest collection of tales in English was made by Mary C. Rowsell in Number Nip; or, the Spirit of the Giant Mountains (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1884). This concludes with a short verse play, presumably designed for children to act. Finally, at the beginning of the twentieth century, we must note another ’Rübezahl’ in Andrew Lang’s The Brown Fairy Book (London, New York and Bombay: Longman, Green, & Co., 1904), where what is the first of Musäus’s legends is retold by Mrs Lang. Rübezahl’s fame was sufficient for him to be mentioned in A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: being a Guide to Holland ... to Switzerland (London: John Murray, 13th edition, 1860), where it is claimed ’There is hardly a mountain or a glen in the country [i.e. the Riesengebirge] without its legend of this popular demon’ (p. 424). But popular as he was in Britain in the nineteenth century, Rübezahl did not survive very long into the twentieth. Knowledge of him in British children’s books vanished after the first decade.

32At about the same time there was published the first book in English to deal with folktales from yet another area of Germany. This was Alfred C. Fryer’s Fairy Tales from the Harz Mountains, illustrated by Alice M Odgers (London: David Nutt, 1908). The Harz was already well known for its legends and literary connexions. Its highest mountain, the Brocken, notorious as the site of witches’ sabbaths, was the setting for the lurid Walpurgis Night scene in Goethe’s Faust. Another mountain, the Kyffhäuser, was famous as the place where the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa supposedly lay asleep with his knights, waiting for the time that they would be called to save Germany in its hour of need. The story of Peter the goatherd, who stumbles on the scene by accident, had already been translated into English by Edgar Taylor and included in the second volume of the Grimms’ German Popular Stories (1826). Another version by Madame de Chatelain was published in Merry Tales for Little Folk, Fairy Folk and Wonderful Men and also separately. This was not one of Grimms’ tales, but was collected by Otmar (pseudonym of Johann Carl Christoph Nachtigall) in an early volume simply entitled Volks-Sagen (Bremen: Friedrich Milmans, 1800). Thomas Roscoe provided a further version of the story, together with several others relating to the Harz from Otmar and from Friedrich Gottschalck’s Die Sagen und Volksmärchen der Deutschen (Halle, 1814), in his The German Novelists (1826). A number of other stories from the Harz were included in Cunningham’s Tales and Traditions (1854). The area was thus by no means neglected as far as British readers were concerned.

33Alfred Fryer’s collection seems to be the first (and only) book to present a considerable number of tales and legends from the Harz specifically to children. The book is dedicated ’to my godson Bernhard and all other good little men’. Fryer gives no indication of the sources for his twenty-one items, which range from simple anecdotes to quite complex stories. ’Brunhilda’ and ’Brunhilda’s Golden Crown’ spin legends around the rugged gorge of the River Bode, where Brunhilda, the daughter of the king of Bohemia, loses a golden crown in the river as she jumps a chasm in her flight from the giant Bodo, her would-be husband. Another two tales recount legends of Princess Ilse, who gives her name to the River Ilse and the Ilsenstein, a rugged peak nearby. A version of these latter tales had previously been translated by Lady Maxwell Wallace as a separate small book entitled Princess Ilse (London: Bell & Daldy, [1856]). Another tale, ’The Three Grey Mannikins’, which presents the same story as A. L. Grimm used in ’Tony, the Miller’s Son’, reflects the importance of mining in the Harz, and ’The Everlasting Lamp and the Magic Spindle’ gives voice to some of the superstitions characteristic of the mining community. As we have learnt from the Rübezahl stories in the Riesengebirge, the Harz mountains too have many a legend connected with the discovery of unsuspected treasure.

34Collections of legends generally sound a more mysterious and melancholy note than collections of fairytales, and Fryer’s Fairy Tales from the Harz Mountains certainly follows the accustomed pattern. Several of the legends that he recounts attempt to explain features of the landscape by reference to sinister or romantic events, or they cloak ancient ruins with strange occurrences or characteristics to render them significant. Germany led the way in the systematic collection of local and historical legends, and in the publications that we have looked at we have a fine selection of this material. It is significant that none of the German scholarly collections were translated in toto into English during the nineteenth century. What was presented was excerpts, often just a few tales, whether the target readership was adults or children. Only at the end of the nineteenth century do we get full-length books – Rachel Busk’s Tirolean tales (1871), W. Westall’s Tales from Saxony and Lusatia (1877), Mary Rowsell’s Rübezahl Tales from the Riesengebirge (1884), Anna Dabis’s selection from Arndt’s Tales from Rügen (1896) and Alfred Fryer’s Tales from the Harz (1908). All of these reflect the increasing interest in German books and culture in the period following the Franco-Prussian War.

35Legends and accounts of folk beliefs seem to have had an appeal to adults and children alike, and this appeal lasted the whole of the nineteenth century and continues to perhaps a lesser degree today. However, only a few individual tales gained sufficient popularity to be reprinted or retold. None of the big collections enjoyed the reprints that were so common with fairytales. Indeed, when we look at what has survived and is still known today, we cannot cite a great deal more than a couple of new translations of Bechstein’s fairytales and Robert Browning’s ’Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Legends tend to circulate in less defined, less stable forms than fairytales and works with a known author, so it is not surprising that it took the skill of a leading poet to create an enduring form for the legend of the ratcatcher and the children of Hamelin.


1 Werner Bellmann in Enzyklopädie des Märchens, vol. 2, cols. 15-19.

2 Kinder- und Hausmärchen, gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966), p. 840.

3 Walter Scherf in Ludwig Bechstein, Sämtliche Märchen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976), pp. 868-71.

4 Ibid., pp. 795, 805, 823.

5 John Woolford and Daniel Karlin (eds.), The Poems of Browning (London and New York: Longman, 1991), vol. 2, pp. 130-42.

6 Richard M. Dorson, The British Folklorists. A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 381-82.

Table des illustrations

Légende 21. Title-page and frontispiece by Ludwig Richter of Ludwig Bechstein, The Old Story-teller: Popular German Tales (1854).
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