Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2012 The Turnip Princess – Part One

 Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin “Turnip Cleaner”
Of Turnips and Princesses

            The fairy tale world is all aflutter with the news coming to us via The Guardian (UK) that five hundred fairy tales have awakened from a one hundred and fifty year slumber in their castle surrounded by a thorn thicket.

OK, they were in thirty some boxes collecting dust in a municipal archive in Regensburg, Germany. The prince who slashed his way through the thorn thicket … ahem, the researcher who slashed her way through the thorn thicket was the scholar Erika Eichenseer. That happened around 2008. In 2010 she published a book, Prinz Roßwifl, (in German) with selections from this archive, a work apparently now out of print. We (English speakers) belatedly heard about it because of the Guardian article that has a link to one of the tales, “The Turnip Princess,” translated into English.

In this raw and disjointed tale, a lost prince takes shelter in a cave, where he is entrapped by a witch. With the witch are a bear and a dog. The dog disappears entirely from the tale, but the bear is central. He tells the prince to pull a rusty nail from the cave wall to break the spell over the bear and then to place the nail under a turnip, thereby finding a bride.

Alas, a monster (whom we never hear of again either after its first appearance) frightens the prince out of the turnip field. The nail is lost and the prince falls into a deep, long slumber. Upon awakening, the prince seeks the nail, eventually finding it one morning in the shell of a turnip he had pierced with a blackthorn branch the evening before. He sees, imprinted on the inside of the turnip shell, the shape of a beautiful girl.

Returning to the cave, he reinserts the nail into the wall, evoking the witch and the bear. The witch turns out to be the beautiful girl from the turnip and the bear the prince’s father. The nail disappears in a burst of flame.

OK, then. Who collected this one? Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (this link is in German. If you are using Google Cromo it will offer to translate).  And who was he? An avid collector of Bavarian folk tales, legends, traditions, and customs. The Grimms had high regard for Von Schönwerth. Jacob reportedly told King Maximilian II of Bavaria that only Von Schönwerth could replace him and his brother given Von Schönwerth’s accuracy, thoroughness, and sensitivity. This was not a recommendation, but rather an observation. The King knew Von Schönwerth very well. Von Schönwerth had been his private secretary before the King’s accession, then his cabinet chief, and later a councilor in the Financial Ministry. Cushy jobs apparently, allowing Von Schönwerth to wander around the countryside collecting thirty boxes worth of notes on peasant life. He put some of it into three volumes called Aus der Oberpfalz — Sitten und Sagen (available as a free Kindle book on Amazon). It slipped quickly into obscurity despite the Grimms’ enthusiasm for his work.

If the fairy dust raised by all the recent fuss made about these tales has settled on you, as it has on me, you will want to know more. Maria Tatar has something to say about it in her blog on the New Yorker site and Jack Zipes has weighed in from Sussex. Both of these are informative reads.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2012 The Turnip Princess – Part Two

Wilhelm Grimm

In the Spirit of Wilhelm

More than once, the term “raw” has been used in describing the tales thatFranz Xaver von Schönwerth collected. “The Turnip Princess” is a good example.

This tale seems raw because it does not adhere to literary rules. The events in the story do not segue neatly, nor logically, from one to the other. Unnecessary and confusing details appear while other details go missing, creating a plotline that feels disjointed and surreal. Had Von Schönwerth’s informant been relating a dream, I would not be surprised.

Perhaps our view of this tale as “raw” comes from our expectations. There are familiar literary forms we want all stories to follow. At the very least, we want the storyline to make sense. That doesn’t seem too much to ask, but is it a requirement for nonliterary tellers and listeners? Might they be as comfortable with “dream logic,” having dreamt, but never having read a book?

Be that as it may, we literates do have our requirements. Wilhelm agrees with me. He is here in my study as I take my first stabs at making sense of “The Turnip Princess.”

Taking my pen in hand, I suggest, “Once upon a time …?” Wilhelm, pacing back and forth in front of the bay window, makes a noncommittal gesture.

“Once there was a prince,” I propose. Wilhelm raises his forefinger in the air approvingly.

“Right then,” I say. “The prince is lost, but why? The story gives no reason. Is he out hunting and became separated from his party?” Wilhelm looks thoughtfully out the bay window. I continue. “Is he on some sort of quest… Ahh, I’ve got it!”

Wilhelm looks at me quizzically, as I continue triumphantly. “At the end of the story it seems that the bear has changed, unaccountably, into the prince’s father. Why not have the prince on a quest to find his father, who has disappeared many years ago. That lends the story a traditional circular structure. The prince starts out to find his father—the king—and in the end not only finds his father but his bride as well through his persistence.” Wilhelm silently applauds.

“Good then. When he wakes up in the cave there is a witch, a bear, and a dog, but the dog has no role in the story.” Wilhelm draws his finger across his neck.

“Right,” I say. “We kill the dog. The reader will never know.” By Wilhelm, I think to myself, This is beginning to shape up!


Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2012 The Turnip Princess – Part Three

Avenue of Chestnut Trees

The Language Divide

I feel that Jack Zipes, well known among folklore scholars, has the advantage of a panoramic view of the fairy-tale forest. He leaves me disgruntled with my realization I’ve been staring at a fairy tree.

In his note on the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy site, Professor Zipes presents me with a laundry list of other early collectors, whom he prefers over Von Schönwerth, a list of names that rings not a single bell in my head. These authors are German and French, and their works written in those languages. I am one of those wimpy Americans who hasn’t bothered to learn another language. Well, a lot of us aren’t near any borders and have been told that English is a universal language. Why make the effort?

Not knowing other languages, I find myself in a deep, dark forest and a little depressed to discover I cannot comprehend its myriad paths. But I do have a candle and there is a signpost with many arrows. How many miles to Babylon?

To guide me through tales from other languages there are good translations of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes’ being one of them. Charles Perrault’s versions of many fairy tales that he wrote for the French court are well covered in translation. Then there is the Decameron of Boccaccio for tales from Italy. (Actually, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Old English sounds rather foreign to most of us.) Celtic and Gaelic stories are easily available via Joseph Jacobs, Jeremiah Curtain, Thomas Croker, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Lady Wilde, Sir George Douglas and others.

Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books contain a wide range of tales from all over the world. Sir Richard Burton’s (not the actor) One Thousand and One Nights is a classic of Arabian tales not to be overlooked. Far less known, but a favorite of mine, is R. M. Dawkins’ Modern Greek Folktales and More Greek Folktales. Dawkins’ works are examples of books out of print, but not in the public domain, which makes them expensive and hard to find.

Public domain books are another matter. We used to depend on Dover Publications for these titles, but no longer. Dover puts out a number of fairy tale collections in trade-paper format. However, if you make the techno-leap to electronic books there are numerous titles of all genres for free, including many cultural folklore collections. The big three for free books in the public domain are Amazon, Google Books and The Gutenberg Project. These free books come in many different formats that may or may not work on your devices. There are conversion programs out there, such as Calibre, that are free. Kindle will read PDFs, but the type is small and cannot take advantage of most of Kindle’s features. Calibre can convert PDFs to MOBIs (a Kindle-readable format), but I have had variable success. Free is not necessarily easy.

With all these translations, we must stay conscious of “fakelore,” against which Eliot Singer has warned us. A certain amount of cultural bias cannot help but creep into translations. In a conversation with Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason, I asked about nonnative Americans telling those stories that do not “belong” to them. She replied, “If I were to tell a Polish tale, it would have a Lakota spin on it.”

I am sure I have missed some authors/collectors worthy of mention, but having written the above, I think I see some light filtering through the dark canopy of the fairy-tale forest above my head.

Your thoughts?