When he was 10 years old, Hermann Hesse wrote a story as a birthday present for one of his sisters -- a little fantasy about a crippled boy who is mistreated by his brother, runs away, is adopted by the dwarfs and, many years later, gets a chance to repay his brother -- who is now a wounded army veteran and a beggar. Naturally, he returns good for evil. "No longer need you suffer want," he says, "stay with me," and he brings his brother to live happily ever after with him in a cave whose walls "sparkle with diamonds." The story, preserved by accident and reprinted by Hesse as part of a Christmas story when he was more than 70 years old, helps readers to focus on some of the central concerns in his long career as a writer. It does in miniature what is done on a much larger scale by this whole collection of fantasies spanning the years 1887 to 1951.
"Fantasies" is not quite the right word for these stories, though in the context of this book it is probably as good an equivalent for the German Ma rchen as our language can offer. The problem is that it emphasizes the element of the supernatural (which is pervasive, indeed taken for granted, in most of these stories) at the expense of the moralistic element that is equally notable. Both ingredients are basic in Hesse's juvenile effort, and they remain keynotes throughout his life.
One advantage of a collection like this, spanning almost a whole life's work in a single kind of writing, is the perspective it offers; the opportunity to see the author growing as an artist while he returns again and again to certain themes that are his lifelong concerns. In these stories, as elsewhere in Hesse's work, the recurring figure who is the subject both of fantasy and of moral observations is the Outsider -- the person set apart from society. He appears in many forms -- saint, madman, poet, explorer, philosopher and rebel, to name a few -- and he is not always (though he is most often, predominantly) a figure of goodness. He is often mistaken, and often he learns a lesson in the course of the story.
A good example is the title Ma rchen, "Pictor's Metamorphoses," which Hesse wrote in 1922 while courting the singer Ruth Wenger, a much younger woman to whom he was briefly married. Hesse seemed reluctant to have it published for a mass readership, though he made several copies through the years in his own handwriting and with his own illustrations, and he allowed facsimiles to be published in this form. Such a facsimile, in color, is bound into this edition and serves, in a way, as its focus, both physically and thematically.
The story opens with Pictor (whose name means "painter," a kind of artist with whom Hesse identified closely in that period) entering Paradise, where he is dazzled but not quite at home -- he doesn't really understand the rules. He notices that everything around him is undergoing constant metamorphosis -- from bird to flower to gem, for example. Misled by a serpent, he changes himself into a tree but cannot make any more changes because, unlike all the other creatures in Paradise, he is alone. All his happiness vanishes, and he takes on "that tired, haggard look one can observe in many old trees" and other "life forms that no longer possess the gift of transformation." After years, a young woman comes along, becomes a tree and transforms his life, sharing with him the gift of metamorphosis: "Out of a half he had become a whole . . . He became deer, he became fish, he became human and Serpent; cloud and bird. In each new shape he was whole, was a pair, held moon and sun, man and wife inside him. He flowed as a twin river through the lands, shone as a double star in the firmament."
This is probably the most explicitly autobiographical story in the collection, but all of them share that quality in some degree. These moral fantasies, for those who read the symbolism, are the autobiography of a soul -- more clearly in the early stories where the writer's imperfect craft does not adequately disguise what he is doing, but consistently throughout. Watching the growth of that craft through half a century, beginning with a pretentious and amateurish story written in 1901 and inferior in some ways to his work as a 10-year-old, is one of the delights of this book. The last story, "The Jackdaw," is a masterpiece of ambiguity that must be read as a poem to have any sense -- but read in that way it is beautiful.
It is hardly a story at all but an autobiographical vignette -- a portrait of a bird the author used to see on a bridge he crossed every day -- one small, distinctive, intelligent individual jackdaw amid a flock of gulls who cannot be distinguished from one another. "He is alone, belongs to no tribe, follows no customs, obeys no commands, no laws." He serves humans "as a buffoon or a tightrope walker when it suits him; he makes fun of them and yet cannot get enough of their admiration." Musing on the bird, fantasizing about his life and the prospect of his death, Hesse is clearly seeing himself as the Outsider, crystallized (metamorphosed?) in this unlikely image.
Call it egoism if you will, but one thing poets are supposed to do is find themselves reflected in everything they see. If they are good poets, their vision of themselves will also be a vision of the rest of us -- and when that happens, as it does sometimes with Hesse, we are taken into a cave whose walls sparkle with diamonds, and we are given, at least for a while, the power to become birds, fish, flowing streams or a double star in the firmament.