Late Nights with New Fairy Tales

I can’t remember how I discovered Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s book of “newly discovered fairy tales,” but I am glad I did. It is called The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (2015), and it is just that. Von Schönwerth apparently collected these stories from the Bavarian countryside in the 1850s, and a researcher recently discovered them in some archives and had the book printed. It is a delightful read, one that sheds light on beloved and familiar fairy tales through new versions and retellings of them.

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In these tales, there are echoes of Cinderella, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Tom Thumb, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumplestiltskin, and many more familiar stories. While the versions in this book are not necessarily the same as these familiar fairy tales, there are pieces of these stories that appear in von Schönwerth’s tales and new variations of them as well.

In the introduction, written by Maria Tatar, the translator, we learn that fairy tales are the beginnings of philosophy. From them, we “witness transformations that break down the divide between life and death, nature and culture, animal and human, or beauty and monstrosity. Fairy tales take up deep cultural contradictions, creating . . . ‘miniature models’ – stories that dispense with extraneous details to give us primal anxieties and desires, the raw rather than the cooked, as it were” (p. xvi). I loved this characterization of the tales, as they do come across as simple stories that might not have much meaning or depth. However, their twisted paths and many truths within a simple story give us a road map for our own lives and a way to engage with the dangers of nature and the scary parts of humanity without becoming overwhelmed. I’ve always enjoyed reading such tales. I once spent many nights as a young girl staying up late to read Aesop’s Fables. Something about these appealed to me then, and I stayed up late again over the last few weeks to read von Schönwerth’s marvelous collection.

One of my favorite devices at the end of some of these tales went a bit further than the stock phrase “and they lived happily ever after.” Von Schönwerth’s versions instead said, “And if they have not died, they are living happily today” (p. 38). There’s something unique about that to me, and it gives more hope. It makes the stories more accessible and suggests that these people were real and that they could still be living. They could be your neighbors or be living in the mountains just beyond your home. It breathes reality into the tale, in a way that other presentations do not.

There’s also a tale called “Ashfeathers,” which is a retelling of Cinderella. In this version, Ashfeathers gets into trouble with her stepmother, and when she tries to correct it, a little dwarf gives her some instructions about what to say at a well before going to church. She does this, and is transformed into beautiful clothing, with doves perched on her shoulders. She does this for several Sundays, and her own family doesn’t recognize her, not even her stepsisters. Eventually, a stranger leaves tar outside the church so her shoe gets stuck as she leaves. Of course, her sisters then insist on trying on the shoe, and one cuts off her toe and the other cuts off her heel, as in another familiar version of Cinderella. The stranger eventually figures out that it is Ashfeathers whom he wants to marry, and he does. However, only her father (who is not deceased in this version) is allowed to attend the wedding. (And does anybody find it odd that some stranger would leave tar to keep her shoe and then she would agree to marry this stranger? He seems a little weird to me.)

The other tales follow similar patterns. Some of them focus on women and families, others tell tales of animals or nature, and others have a magical element. Often, they are didactic, and each tale is just a page or two long.

If you enjoy fairy tales or myth and legend, then this book will delight you with its charm. I loved knowing that I was reading the storytelling traditions from long ago that had once been lost. I love reading about history, conducting historical research, and saving voices of people who would otherwise not be heard from. This collection of fairy tales does just that.

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