It’s good to have Thalia back again, she having been stolen away from me during Christmas. As the winter doldrums set in, her presence is a continuing comfort. While the correct order of things has been restored, nothing stays quite the same. Shifts are usually subtle and minute.
Thalia sits in her comfy chair, a book on her lap, and the household tribe has gathered. I in my comfy chair, Johannes curled up on the window seat, the brownies in the shadows, and the fairy on Thalia’s shoulder.
But . . . the book on her lap is The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. Not Grimm. Not Lang. Not Jacobs. But rather Schönwerth. She must have plucked the book from my library, a volume I had almost forgotten about. I am struck by the irony. The world almost forgot Schönwerth.
The scholar Erika Eichenseer came across hundreds of stories that Schönwerth collected in Bavaria in the late nineteenth century, stored in a German municipal archive. She dusted them off and published a good number of them that now lay on Thalia’s lap.
“The Iron Shoes,” Thalia proclaims.
Hans, a ne’er-do-well son, is kicked out of his home by his father, to make his way in the world. In his wanderings, he stumbles onto an abandoned castle, taking refuge in one of its rooms. A woman, dressed in black, appears, lays food on a table, points to a bed, and wordlessly leaves.
At midnight, a man comes into the room and tries to choke Hans and otherwise torture the lad. The next morning the woman reappears, dressed in grey, again silently leaving him food. That night two men come to torture Hans.
By morning, Hans has had quite enough and prepares to leave. The woman, now dressed in white, asks him to stay one more night. For her sake he does, and three men show up to abuse him.
In the midst of this pummeling of the lad, the woman interrupts, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and drives the abusers off. What Hans achieved was breaking a spell over a princess, who gives Hans her hand in marriage.
Now, awash in wealth, he desires to visit his father to prove his success. The princess allows this, giving him a ring, which he need only turn on his finger for her to come to him. However, he must only do this in true distress.
His father, who works as the king’s groundskeeper, does not (could not, would not?) recognize his son. Hans ends up introducing himself to the king, who orders a feast to honor his guest.
The other noble guests, jealous of the lad’s handsome looks, challenge him to prove that his wife is as beautiful as he boasted. Hans turns the ring on his finger, and carriages roll up, from one of which steps his radiant princess.
Unfortunately for Hans, the next morning his old traveling clothing are laid out on the bed, a pair of iron shoes are on the floor, and a note states, “I am punishing you by leaving. Don’t try to find me. You will never discover where I am, even if you wear out these iron shoes.”
Undaunted, he searches for her, even though he cannot find their castle, where he met her. After some time, he comes across three fellows arguing over the ownership of three magical treasures: an unending bag of gold coins, a cloak of invisibility, and a pair of hundred-league boots. He agrees to settle their dispute but claims he needs to verify the magical validity of the items. Testing the cloak of invisibility, he steals the bag and the boots.
While fleeing rapidly, thanks to the boots, he sees a little man beside him, keeping pace. It is the wind, off to a certain town to dry the clothing of a princess who plans to marry that day. It turns out to be his wife. Hans crashes the wedding in his cloak, knocking the good book from the parson’s hands, and clobbering the bridegroom every time he tries to say, “I do.”
The marriage is given up, yet all go off to the wedding feast. Hans sits among the beggars, invisibly stealing food intended for the guests, and sharing it with his fellows. During his antics, he loses his ring. A servant finds it, and because it bears the princess’s initials, it is returned to her.
Realizing that Hans has found her, she calls for him, they are reconciled, and the real marriage takes place.
Thalia closes the book and smiles.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2023 The Iron Shoes – Part Two
As I enter Augustus’s tobacco shop, the familiar, ever-welcoming tinkle of the bell above his door . . . is missing! I stop in my tracks and look up. The bracket is there. The coiled metal spring is there. The bell is missing.
“It fell off,” Augustus explains, standing behind the counter.
“You will repair it, won’t you?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
Oh, but you must. We can’t let the world slowly fall into disorder.”
Augustus smiles at me. “I don’t know that my missing bell qualifies as falling into disorder. Haven’t you been listening to the news? That is disorder.”
“Of course I haven’t. I make it a point not to listen. Oh, I did in my youth, avidly. Then I realized it wasn’t going to make me happy. So, I gave it up.”
“Admirable,” Augustus concedes. “I will make sure to repair the bell.”
I am content.
“Are you familiar with Franz Schönwerth?” I ask.
“Yes, a competent fellow at whatever he did.”
“I know him as a folklorist,” I say.
Augustus sits on his stool on his side of the counter and I sit on one on my side.
“He was a servant of the Bavarian state, trusted by the royal family. He became the private secretary to the Crown Prince Maximillian and was entrusted with managing the prince’s and his wife’s personal wealth.
“Schönwerth proved his loyalty when, during the revolutions of 1848, he transferred the royal family’s wealth to Nymphenberg Palace for safekeeping. He did this by disguising himself as a common workingman, loading three million thalers worth of cash, securities, and valuables onto a handcart and wheeling it through the streets of Munich, filled with the very rebels who would have otherwise plundered it.”
“Remarkable,” I say. “I hope he was rewarded for such a thing.”
“Oh, yes. He became ennobled, always rising in the soon-to-be king’s estimation. Schönwerth had the privilege of guiding the king in the patronage of the arts and sciences.”
“Excellent, but how did he get involved with folklore studies?”
“I suspect as he rose in stature he ended up with more free time to pursue his interests. Both he and his wife, Maria, were native Bavarians. Like other intellectuals of the nineteenth century, he saw his world going through upheaval and rapid change. The old ways of his beloved Bavaria were being lost and forgotten.
“He started collecting information from his wife, a person knowledgeable about folkways, then moved on to his housekeeper. His housekeeper introduced him to her acquaintances, leading him to make collecting tours through the countryside. He apparently had a knack for getting commoners to open up to him through the application of much coffee and cigars.
“And, he collected everything: legends, fairy tales, comic stories, children’s games, nursery rhymes, children’s songs, proverbs, how people lived, everyday-life details, customs, and traditional dress. Much of this material he published in a three-volume work, From the Upper Palatinate—Customs and Legends. The Grimms’ considered him heir to what they were accomplishing. They recognized his competence and skill as a folklorist.”
“Yet,” I say, “the better part of his work ended up collecting dust in that vault in Regensburg.”
“Well, for him it was a hobby. Also a passion, but he wasn’t trying to make a living at it as the Grimms were.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2023 The Iron Shoes – Part Three
“Why, though,” inquires Augustus, “are you asking me about Schönwerth?”
“Ah, Thalia has taken an interest in him. She read The Iron Shoes . . . last night.” (I almost said “to us,” which would have needed an explanation.)
“Iron shoes,” murmured Augustus. “There is more than one story with iron shoes in it. There is the Grimms’ Little Snow White, where the witch/queen is danced to death in red-hot iron shoes. Then there’s The Enchanted Pig. In that the heroine must wear out three pairs of iron shoes looking for her husband.”
“You’re getting warmer,” I say.
“Now I remember. The Schönwerth version is where the Psyche-looking-for-her-husband motif gets turned on its head. The hero . . .”
“Hans,” I interject.
August rolls his eyes. “Of course it’s Hans. This is a German story. Hans is the one looking for his bride after violating some rule set up by the spouse, as is always the case in this motif. Let me find my copy of Schönwerth.”
I fill my pipe with Fairies’ Delight from the courtesy canister on the counter. As I light up, Augustus returns with book in hand, reading as he walks.
“Right. Hans is a delightful rogue, not the usual hero who starts out being portrayed as a simpleton but then shows unexpected wisdom. Hans stays something of a rogue straight through. He gets kicked out of his home by an irate father for being useless. He never does get reconciled with his father, but on the other hand, he bears no ill will toward anyone. He is happy-go-lucky.
“His luck is in finding the enchanted castle and its occupant, putting up with beatings for food, and almost unintentionally breaking the spell over the princess. Then he blows it all by not listening closely to his wife’s instructions about the ring. He calls her to him to show her off to the other nobles, not out of dire necessity.”
I pick up the thread of his thinking and say, “Roguishly, he steals the three magical gifts from the quarreling fellows. With the magical boots he can travel with the wind, which leads him to find the princess.
“But wait.” I ponder for a moment. “Hasn’t he exchanged the iron shoes for the magical boots? Is there some symbolic significance in that? Some act of transformation?”
Augustus is lighting his pipe and takes some time to reply. “Nope. Not likely. Not unless you decide to shoehorn a metaphor into the tale. When Schönwerth collected these stories, he was actually formulating for himself methods later used by professional folklorists. He did not allow his thoughts and opinions to creep into what he collected. With the tales, he recorded what he heard.
“Had the Grimms collected this tale, they would have edited it for their bourgeois audience. Being romantics, they might have found a connection between the iron shoes and the magical boots and put that into the story. For the teller that Schönwerth recorded, the iron shoes were a challenge by the princess, thrown at Hans’s feet—notice my pun, please—for him to go find her. Having served that purpose, he could give them up for a better pair of footwear to help him.”
“I loved the bit about him punching the suitor in the mouth before he could say, ‘I do.’”
Augustus grins. “A loveable rogue, as I said.”