Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Nutcracker and the King of Mice

E.T.A. Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the King of Mice was written in 1816. Given the legacy it has had, it is hard for us to realize the story was written as a dark fantasy.

The young Stahlbaum children, seven year old Marie and her older brother Fritz, eagerly await their Christmas presents from their parents and godfather Drosselmeyer, although they usually only enjoy their godfather's clockwork gifts for a brief time before they are put away. Fritz grows tired of a clockwork castle Drosselmeyer has created, preferring his toy army. Marie is quieter and more appreciative. She finds a wooden nutcracker soldier. The family enjoys cracking nuts until Fritz uses the biggest and hardest nuts that break off some of the Nutcracker's teeth and ruins his jaw.

The Nutcracker is left in Marie's care and she is allowed to stay up a little late to ensure the Nutcracker is seen to. When she begins to head to bed, she sees the owl on top of the clock has turned into Drosselmeyer. Mice swarm into the room, and Marie crashes into the glass toy cabinet. The toys in the cabinet come to life, Fritz's soldiers being led by the Nutcracker to battle against the mice and their seven-headed king.

It appears the toys are winning, but the mice keep coming, and the Mouse King is fighting with the Nutcracker one on one. Marie takes her slipper off and throws it at the Mouse King, but as she does, she goes unconscious.

The next morning she awakes in her bed, bandaged, with orders to stay in bed (with medicine the way it was in those days, a cut would need to be observed over time for infection). Fritz and Drosselmeyer visit after Marie is well enough to sit up in bed for a time. Drosselmeyer has repaired the Nutcracker, and Marie demands to know why he didn't help the Nutcracker. Drosselmeyer says a mysterious rhyme and then proceeds to tell her the Nutcracker's story, which is broken into three parts that he tells over three days.

In an unnamed kingdom, a king and queen had a daughter named Pirlipat, who was hailed as the prettiest baby. But she was always kept guarded. Before her birth, the queen was making her special sausages for a special banquet, but as she was doing so, Madame Mouserinks, queen of the mice, appeared and demanded some of the fat. The queen offered her some, but other mice came and ate almost all of the fat, leaving very little for the queen to make her sausages with, making them too dry and coarse. The king expressed his outrage by having a clockmaker create mouse traps to rid the castle of mice. The clockmaker did his job well, killing every mouse except Madame Mouserinks.

Madame swore to get even with them by cursing their new baby. Despite a watch of six maids with six cats, Madame made good on her vow and cursed the princess, making her hideously ugly. The clockmaker and court astronomer are called to find a cure for her (which involves a scene where we're told they examined her by taking her apart, rather disturbing), and they discover that if a young man who has never shaved or worn boots breaks the krakatook nut with his teeth and feeds it to Pirlipat, she will be restored. However, the krakatook nut is the rarest nut in the world and they spend fifteen years looking for it and a man who fits the description.

Homesick, the clockmaker wishes to visit his brother in Nuremberg. When he tells his brother of his troubles, the brother laughs, because not only does he have a krakatook nut, his son fits the requirements to crack it and give it to the princess! They hurry to the castle, where the young man cracks the nut with his eyes closed and takes seven steps backwards, breaking the curse. On the seventh step, he steps on Madame Mouserinks. With her dying breath, she turns him into a nutcracker, saying that her seven headed son (disturbingly created from her seven dead sons) will defeat the Nutcracker, who can only be restored if he wins unconditional love of a young woman.

Marie realizes her Nutcracker must be the clockmaker's nephew, and the clockmaker himself is none other than Drosselmeyer. That night, the Mouse King arrives and threatens to chew the Nutcracker into splinters if she doesn't give him some of her things. She agrees, but when he begins to repeat his demands, she worries she will have nothing left soon. When she tells the Nutcracker this, he comes to life and tells her he needs a new sword so he can defeat the Nutcracker. When she explains this to Fritz, he happily provides a sword for the Nutcracker. (This redeems Fritz for his poor treatment of the Nutcracker earlier.)

That night, the Nutcracker fells the Mouse King in combat, and takes Marie through her father's coat to a ship and they sail to a land made of candy, where all the things Marie sacrificed are now immortalized as actual characters. She looks into the water while sailing to his castle and sees a beautiful princess that she thinks must be Pirlipat. Nutcracker assures her that it couldn't be Pirlipat. A princess who would shun a young man who had sacrificed so much for her couldn't be that pretty. The beautiful princess is Marie herself.

At his castle, Nutcracker is greeted by his sisters, who are crying for joy at his return. Nutcracker and Marie are entertained by people preparing food, and Marie is even asked to grind rock candy. Marie finds herself being lifted away dreamily, and finally awakens in her own bed. Her parents don't believe her tale of the Nutcracker. When she shows them the Mouse King's crowns the Nutcracker gave her, her father says they're from his old watch. She is forbidden to speak of her experiences again.

When Marie has grown older, she finally declares her love for the Nutcracker. Drosselmeyer overhears and dismisses it as nonsense. Marie faints, but when she awakens, she discovers they have a guest: Drosselmeyer's nephew from Nuremberg. After charming the family with his manners and nut-cracking, he assures Marie he returns her love, and we are told they are married afterward and go to live in his kingdom.

Despite how it was supposed to be a dark fantasy in 1816, today, the story reads beautifully and charmingly. I loved it as a kid. I have two versions of the book: Ralph Mannheim's translation (I did say it's a German story, right?) illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and a "retelling" that was little more than a slightly abridged translation by Warren Chappel. Both of them manage to be more than flat translations, infusing the story with an actually fun writing style. However, some satire got lost in translation, which made the story better. Here's the end of the story, roughly translated by Google and myself:
After a year he had them, as they say, picked up in a golden carriage drawn by silver horses. At the wedding were twenty-two thousand of the most brilliant dancing figures ornamented with pearls and diamonds. And Marie will still be forever the Queen of the country where there are everywhere shiny Christmas forests, transparent marzipan castles, and you can behold the most glorious wonderful things, if you only have eyes to afterward.
 Yeah... It gives you the impression that a land of Christmas trees and candy castles might get disgusting. (As a jaded adult, I agree.) Here's how Ralph Manheim translated it:
In a year and a day he called for her in a golden carriage drawn by silver horses. At the wedding, two and twenty thousand of the most brilliant figures adorned with pearls and diamonds danced, and Marie is believed to be still the queen of a country where sparkling Christmas woods, transparent marzipan castles, in short, the most wonderful things, can be seen if you have the right sort of eyes for it.
See the more gentle phrasing?

Whatever the phrasing, it's still a wonderful story about love and the fascination children can have with Christmas and make believe. Hoffman writes in a dreamy fashion, never telling you that Marie's visions of the Nutcracker are true or not until the very end. He manages to perfectly capture the excitement of the children for their Christmas presents, and his characterization of Fritz is an oft-ignored gem. Drosselmeyer's mysterious manner can be charming or downright creepy when needed. Marie's wide-eyed innocence and childish faith in her amazing visions of the Nutcracker and his kingdom are convincing.

And the Nutcracker story has proved to be quite inspirational.

(The images are illustrations by Artuš Scheiner from an edition published in Prague in 1924. It seems they were scanned by josefskrhola on Flickr.)

1 comment:

Sam A M said...

Nice to know and find out some history about this classic story. Now I know some more about it, Thanks!

Can't wait to read about the different adaptations in the coming days!