Clemens Brentano's "The Tale of the Honest Casper and Fair Annie" is a dark broody tale (the Wikipedia calls it charming, but my definition and theirs must not be the same), almost closer to a regular short story than a fairy tale. Actually it has more elements of a folk tale than anything else I've read so far in this collection. The four stories in Romantic Fairy Tales are meant to follow the development of the genre from "Weimar Classicism to the final years of the later Romantic school". They cover the years 1795 to 1817 and of the four this last feels the least like a traditional (am using the term loosely here) fairy tale. Coming towards the end of the period it foreshadows the coming realist tone according to the editor's introduction.
(Possible spoilers to follow).
Published in 1817 the story has a contemporary setting. Casper is a soldier who prides himself in his honor. As a matter of fact honor is rife in this story and each character adheres to it in the extreme--choosing an honorable death over disgrace. Despite the tragic ending, however, I suppose this is a story that could be read as one with ultimately a 'happy' ending since the last wishes of Casper and Annie are granted. Once again the story is full of symbolism and has a religious edge to it, which mirrors the concerns of the author who by this time had returned to the Catholic faith after an unsettled youth.
The story has an unnamed narrator. He's both an observer as well as a participant in the action. One day he comes across an old woman sitting on the steps of the Duke's residence where she worked as a maid when she was a young woman. She wishes to petition the Duke to have her grandson, Casper, and her godchild, Annie, buried next to each other. One has chosen to commit suicide rather than live dishonorably and the other has committed a crime so heinous that the only option is to submit to the executioner's sword. No, not a happy story this one.
Returning home from France Casper cuts his journey short to give his horse a rest and puts up at an inn for the night. He's awakened by two men who have come to rob him, or rather rob the inn--as there was a secret cache of money in the room. They only manage to steal his horse and saddlebags, but Casper catches them in the stable only to discover the men are his father and stepbrother. He does his duty by turning them in for their thievery, but his honor is lost--not only has he betrayed his family but he's related to common thieves. Casper was set to marry Annie, but he cannot allow her to marry the son of a thief. As for Annie, she had been seduced and dishonored by a wealthy man who had promised to marry her but then left her while Casper was away in France. In her despair she murdered her own child. Is it an act of honor that she refuses to name her seducer? But she accepts her punishment. And now the grandmother tells their story in hopes that the narrator can help her have them buried together.
There's lots of references to honorable actions and what follows dishonor. Lots about faith and God. And a few odd bits as well.
"An order has gone out to all the courts that only those who commit suicide through melancholy should have an honorable burial. Those who kill themselves out of desperation are to be sent instead to the anatomical institute, and the sheriff told me that he must send Casper there because he admitted himself to being desperate."
And poor Annie is witnesses the executioner's sword moving on its own, and then later the severed head of a hunter bites her dress. To be honest the story is a little unnerving and slightly bizarre at times. I'm sure I missed the symbolism, and the story is complex in the way it's presented, so I went back over it several times but I'am sure I've missed the point of the story.
As a matter of fact this was a challenging collection of fairy tales to work through--not really what I was expecting when I set out to read the book, but I'm glad I stuck it out. It was interesting to read the different stories and be exposed to German Romanticism. Hopefully the next book I choose from the period will be easier going now that I've had a taste of the literature if even on a small scale. I'm definitely in need of something a little brighter and happier now (and perhaps more straightforward). I had planned on reading Peter Handke next, but Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal which came recommended by Tom very conveniently arrived in the mail yesterday. Stifter, and Austrian author, lived from 1805-1868, so he came after the Romantics (maybe a good thing...). It also sounds like a perfect holiday read.
"Seemingly the simplest of stories--a passing anecdote of village life--Rock Crystal opens up into a tale of almost unendurable suspense. This jewel-like novella by the writer that Thomas Mann praised as 'one of the most extraordinary, the most enigmatic, the most secretly daring and the most strangely gripping narrators in world literature' is among the most unusual, moving, and memorable of Christmas stories."
Has anyone read it? I'm trying to wrap up the last of my reads for Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature month, though I suspect I'll still be writing about them into December. I've finished three books so far and hope to get through a further two more, but of course will keep reading as much literature in translation as I can.