If September and October were all about ghost stories, this month is going to be filled (I hope anyway) with German Literature. I've been thinking about what I want to read this month and a few fairy tales seem a natural progression from my reading of myths and even ghost stories to some extent. I've not read many fairy tales (much like mythology) since I was very young, so I thought a little definition might come in handy.
"a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creatures and is filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land, humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses. The characters and motifs of fairy tales are simple and archetypal: princesses and goose-girls; youngest sons and gallant princes; ogres, giants, dragons, and trolls; wicked stepmothers and false heroes; fairy godmothers and other magical helpers, often talking horses, or foxes, or birds; glass mountains; and prohibitions and breaking of prohibitions." (via as defined by Stith Thompson and A.S. Byatt).
Romantic Fairy Tales is a collection of four stories by German authors Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and Clemens Brentano. Since there are four Sundays to fill this month, I thought it would be convenient to read one story each weekend and work my way slowly through the book. First up is "The Fairy Tale" (1795) by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. Now if you're thinking that fairy tale equals easy, I've decided that's not exactly the case. Like any other story a fairy tale can be read purely for pleasure as well as for deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. I know that myths and fairy tales have been used and interpreted in ways well beyond my own knowledge in the areas of psychology and literature--I'd like to learn/read more about these aspects, but for the short term I'm opting for the pleasure factor with a little help from the editor's introduction for a little interpretation and historical background. I'll add on a bit with each new story, since the introduction goes into some detail.
In the case of Goethe, this is a fairy tale doesn't quite jive with the above definition. It's much more complicated and complex than the fairy tales I remember from childhood, or maybe I've just gotten bogged down by the explication of it. Goethe apparently worked more in the Classical school than the Romantic, but this story spans the two genres. It sounds as though this story was a natural progression from one type to the other. Plus there were all sorts of other things going on at the time--the Enlightenment was in full swing and contemporary thought and beliefs were not at all in tune with the goals of the Romantic movement. Classicism seems to be all about lightness and Romanticism focuses on the dark and unknown which made things uncomfortable for those who weren't followers.
It's all really fascinating to read about, and hopefully as I make my way through the stories it will become more clear and make more sense. But first Goethe's "Fairy Tale". Reading it made me think of two things. First, there is a serpent in the story that glides through the river which reminded me of A.S. Byatt's retelling of the Norse myth Ragnarok, though they are both very different and I expect the latter has nothing to do with the former. And as silly as this sounds, the story reminded me of the song about the old lady who swallowed a fly. You know how the story progresses--one thing swallowing the next. Well, in this story it moves along in much the same way--one character or set of characters is introduced and interacts with the next with a natural sort of progression from scene to scene interlinking it all.
It begins with two will-o'-the-wisps crossing the river with the help of a ferryman. They're a happy-go-lucky pair and when they shake their bodies gold falls out. But the ferryman can't accept the gold, only "fruits of the earth". Instead he requires three cabbages, three artichokes and three large onions. They promise to pay up later if only he'll drop them on the other side. The ferryman dumps the "dangerous" gold in a deep chasm, which is then found by the serpent who eats it with great joy and begins to glow. Then she swims down to an underground temple where four kings are introduced. And so the story begins. In the realm of the four kings is a man with a lantern and the story switches at this point to his wife who begins a journey to see the beautiful Lily. On her way she meets a young man who has met Lily but is saddened by the fact that anyone who touches her immediately dies. You can probably guess where this story is headed and what's going to happen to the prince. But everything is woven together with later characters promising to pay the ferryman's price if only the initial characters will offer help in this forward journey tying it all together.
Interestingly Goethe was an adversary to the Romantic school, yet it's his work that forms the bridge between the two. There are all sorts of mythical and classical allusions in the story, some of which are explained, but for a novice like me it was all a little over my head. As stories go, it wasn't hard reading but heavy with meaning that I knew I wasn't getting. It's interesting, however, to think about how the story relates to what was happening at the time it was written. Goethe created a sort of Utopia in the story as a counter to the terror of the French Revolution. I wonder what people thought of it at the time and who Goethe's audience was? Other intellectuals? The common reader?
I don't usually like to read introductions before reading the actual story, but I think I might have to do so when I move on to Ludwig Tieck's "Eckbert the Fair". If I was expecting something along the times of the Brothers Grimm, but I think I have gotten more than I bargained for. I'm still going to press on and look at this book as a nice literary challenge.
If you haven't heard about Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month, do go check it out. Caroline has already given an update on what others are reading. For something a little less challenging I am also reading Ingrid Noll's The Pharmacist. Nothing like a good crime novel to balance things out.