E.T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and Mouse King (Nussnacker und Mauskönig translated by Joachim Neugroschel) is a really charming story, perhaps a smidgeon dark, but a perfect holiday read. I thought I knew the story but was surprised by how much it varied from my recollection of having seen the ballet years ago. I think this is one of those stories that has made its way into popular imagination and has taken on a life of its own quite apart from the original tale. There's much more to the story and a certain poetic license was taken with the ballet. Hoffmann published it in 1816, but it is Alexandre Dumas' 1845 retelling of it that Tchaikovsky's ballet is based on.
Hoffmann's Nutcracker is a story within a story, or perhaps better described as a story that is many-layered with fantastical elements. It's quite magical and comes alive through the imagination of one young girl, Marie Stahlbaum, who along with her family is celebrating Christmas Eve. The children, Marie and her brother Fritz and sister Luise, are anticipating the arrival of their godfather, Herr Drosselmeier. Known for his extravagant gifts, Drosselmeier is an artistic man and a clockmaker who can fix anything mechanical. His gifts, however, are so exquisite that they get locked away on the top shelf of a glass cabinet for fear of breaking them. Drosselmeier presents them with a beautiful and intricate castle with tiny people taking up residence in its rooms. The children soon tire of it, however, not being very practical as a child's toy.
Marie's attention is caught by an "excellent little man, who stood there, quiet and modest, as if calmly awaiting his turn". The Nutcracker. The children soon begin dropping nuts into his mouth to crack them open, but Fritz mishandles him and the nutcracker's teeth begin breaking. Tenderhearted Marie takes him in her arms and wraps the poor Nutcracker in her handkerchief. When their parents announce bedtime, Marie begs to be allowed to stay up just a little longer with the Nutcracker, and this is where the adventure begins.
As the clock chimes midnight there is a scurrying behind the walls and a whispering.
"Soon the room reverberated with trot, trot, and hop, hop, brighter and denser squads of mice were galloping to and fro and they finally lined up in rank and file, the way Fritz stationed his soldiers before a battle."
So the Mouse King with his fearful seven heads and troops of mice marches straight for Marie who staggers back and breaks the glass door of the cabinet cutting her arm. The Nutcracker raises his sword and comes to her rescue, the other dolls and toy soldiers in the cabinet are not far behind. But after a fierce and valient battle they're overwhelmed and just before the Mouse King strikes the Nutcracker, Marie flings her shoe at him and then faints, saving the Nutcracker.
When she awakes Marie is safe in her bed with her arm bandaged and her parents convinced that the fantastical story Marie tells is simply a dream. Godfather Drosselmeier comes bringing with him a restored Nutcracker. He has fixed his teeth and made him good as new, and then goes on to tell the story of Princess Pirlipat and how Nutcrackers have come to look the way they do.
Princess Pirlipat, the victim of a spell cast on her by Frau Mouserink (the mouse queen) after an argument over royal bacon (the mice having eaten too much of it that was intended for the King and his guests), was once a beautiful child but now has a deformed head and twisted body--looking much like a Nutcracker. The only way to cure her is for her to eat a rare Krakatuk nut. The catch is the nut must be given to her by a man who had never been shaved nor had ever worn boots. The King sends two of his courtiers off to find the nut, which takes them many years to unearth. When the nut is presented to the princess and her beauty once again restored, the King offers her hand in marriage to the young man. Unfortunately he trips over Frau Mouserink who casts a spell on him (still seeking revenge)--the same as she cast on the princess. But faced with such ugliness the princess refuses to marry the young man.
Godfather Drosselmeier tells this story of Princess Pirlipat over the course of several nights as Marie is resting and recuperating. Marie, not being as shallow as Princess Pirlipat, is much more loyal to the poor Nutcracker. In the night the Mouse King comes to her, threatening Nutcracker and each successive night she gives something up to him--her marzipan, her sweets, her dolls--in return for the Mouse King not hurting Nutcracker. Soon there will be nothing left to give, so despairs Marie. Finally Marie goes to Fritz, who offers Nutcracker a sword from his toy Hussars to battle Mouse King one final time.
I won't reveal the ending, though you may already be familiar with the story of the Nutcracker and Mouse King. It's much happier than my previous forays into German fairy tales. My only disappointment with this book is that I have the movie tie-in edition, which does not have the introduction. I know there is more to this story than excitement and adventure, of which there is plenty! I'm now reading Dumas's version, The Tale of the Nutcracker, which is included in my Penguin copy. I'm curious to see how the two compare, and then later today I'll get to see the story performed live. I've added E.T.A. Hoffmann to my list of authors whose work I want to explore. The book is a keeper, the story quite entertaining (how fun it would be to read aloud to children) and I look forward to revisiting the story again.