Hermann Hesse: The Fairytales

Hermann Hesse has all the earmarks of a neglected master.  His books, with the occasional exception of Demian and Siddhartha, are rarely assigned.  Steppenwolf and Siddhartha are read outside the well-manicured groves of academe by the errant, bleary-eyed follower of Kerouac or the clear-eyed seeker of esoteric knowledge, often the same person at different places on the never-ending path.

Yet, master he is, evinced by this simple test: when you meet a follower of Hesse, ask which is her/his favorite book.  Invariably, you will get a broad spectrum of replies: Narcissus and Goldmund, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, Strange News from Another Star and Other Tales, Demian, Wandering.

Mine is The Journey to the East.

As part of my New Year’s resolution from last year, I was going to dip into some of the lesser-known works of Hesse.  As all but one of those reading resolutions went unrealized, I decided this year I would do some catching up, at least in this case.

Which brings us to The Fairytales of Hermann Hesse, translated by Jack Zipes and published in 1995. And what a wonderful, as in full of wonder, collection it is.  Zipes is one of the most famous authorities on fairy tales alive today and has collected, translated, and annotated some of the classic fairy tales from many cultures, including the complete Brothers Grimm, the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables, as well as French, German, feminist, and Victorian fairytales.  He has also penned a number of groundbreaking non-fiction studies on the subject.

“Märchen” is the German word for fairytale (and roughly translates as “tales of wonder”); this particular type of tale has a romantic tinge,  and it is in this genre that Hesse was experimenting with these stories. In fact, the original German publication of many of these stories were collected together in a volume entitled Märchen.  They contain many fantastical, wondrous elements which at once give them a universal, slightly surreal quality when filtered through Hesse’s consciousness.   The spellbinding influence of 19th century German fantasy writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, the author of The Mouse King and the Nutcracker from which the famous Nutcracker ballet was adapted, may be felt at different times throughout the volume.

For Hesse, Zipes provides a unifying voice and a context into which the tales have been collected.  Previously, 16 of the 22 tales in this book have been translated into English by 3 different translators in 4 different volumes: Strange News from Another Star and Other TalesStories of Five Decades, Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies, and If The War Goes On.  By extracting the stories with fairytale elements and collecting them together, Zipes has given Hesse fans a whole new way of looking at him, an extra dimension that adds depth and understanding not only to these particular stories, but to the whole of Hesse’s output.

The tales themselves are quite marvelous, ranging from traditional style folk/fairytales to fantasy, with varying elements of fable, science fiction, dream, proverb, and allegory.  Among my favorites is the Kafkaesque story, “A Man Named Ziegler,” about a young man who comes to a new town and decides to spend his off day at a museum and zoo; without thinking, he swallows a “tiny globule” from a medieval exhibit, heads off to the zoo and is suddenly able to understand and communicate with the animals.  As one might expect, they are naturally none too happy with human beings.  The brief fable, “A City,” is the tale of the rise, fall, and imminent rise again of a town, told from an omnipotent, god-like perspective and is quite well-done.  Hesse has a bit of fun at the expense of “militant” vegetarians, a  group similar to which he himself had joined briefly in 1907, in the story “Dr. Knoegle’s End.” “Augustus” is a tale stylistically reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson and yet a perfect example of how Hesse made the form his own.   “The Poet,” too, is also in the style of folklore yet focussed on such familiar Hesse themes as creativity and the quest for self-knowledge.

Dreams, nature, and the consequences of war are recurrent themes, sometimes treated from an apocalyptic perspective and at other times allegorically: “If the War Continues” and “Empire” are prime examples. Like “The Poet,” “The Fairy Tale of the Wicker Chair,” and “The Painter,” the stories examine various aspects of the artistic life.  The volume concludes with perhaps the best story of all, entitled “Iris,” about the secret life of a very young boy in his garden, how he grows up and away from what was most important to him, eventually attempting to recapture the lost magic of his childhood dreams.

David Frampton woodcut

And as if all this was not enough, the book is charmingly illustrated with 13 woodcuts, including the cover, by David Frampton, which somehow exhibit a classic tone yet have a strangely contemporary feel.

These insightful little tales make for perfect reading during snowbound mid-winter days.  Whether you are a lifelong Hesse fan, interested in fairytales, or looking for something at once meatier yet engaging in a volume of short fiction, this book might be just the ticket.  Who knows, perhaps you too might recapture some of the forgotten magic of an earlier time when a story meant more than a quick read and its resonance might last a lifetime, and beyond.

–Don

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Hermann Hesse: The Fairytales

  1. Wow! I teach a class and have a website devoted to fairy tales. I also have read tons of Zipes’s bookk (and he really is a giant in the field), but never knew about this one! Thanks.
    I am going to put a post and link up with this article on D&T.

  2. Thanks much for this. Came across your blog just searching around.

    It’s true – the lesser known works are often the ones author’s experiment most with. I will check this out when I have an extra moment. I actually found your blog when I typed in the word Ralph Ellison because I was wondering if anyone else picked up a copy of his new book. I have not had the time read it yet.

    Thanks for the suggestion though.

    -Christopher

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