In 2012, in the municipal archive of Regensburg, Germany, scholar Erika Eichenseer discovered 30 boxes containing more than 500 hitherto unknown fairy tales. A high-ranking civil servant named Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810-1886) had spent much of his spare time collecting the oral and traditional stories of Bavaria. This unexpected find rocked the fairy-tale establishment.
Maria Tatar, chair of the program in folklore and mythology at Harvard, explains why in the introduction to her English translation of “The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales.” Schönwerth’s narratives, she tells us, exhibited “a compositional fierceness and energy rarely seen in stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, collectors who gave us relatively tame versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and ‘Rapunzel.’ Schönwerth gives us a harsher reality.” While the Grimms polished their transcriptions to an almost Gallic brilliance, Schönwerth preserved more fully the rough vigor and even crudeness of the oral originals. What’s more, as Tatar points out, the genre’s best-known classics — including the four stories just mentioned — typically focus on girls, but Schönwerth granted equal prominence to boys.
At their best, fairy tales strip out everything but a narrative’s essentials, leaving only our primal anxieties and desires. Characters are utterly generic and one-dimensional — the golden-haired princess, the wicked stepmother, the lucky third son. While reading or listening, we are constantly hurried without pause from one marvel to the next, as if unheard voices were relentlessly asking, “And then?” or, “What next?” Above all, certain conventions are rigorously observed: Characters who show kindness to animals will always find love and happiness. Appearances are deceiving. Goodness finally does triumph over the schemes of the wicked.
What is most charming about the “wonder tale” — to many scholars a better term than fairy tale — is its matter-of-fact tone: “Not much later,” writes Schönwerth near the beginning of “King Goldenlocks,” “the king became ill, and word was put out that the only way to heal him was with apples from paradise. Everyone left to search for the apples.” Why of course they did, as if fruit from Eden were only a little more difficult to procure than a prescription from Rite-Aid or CVS. But, naturally, only our hero is successful in this quest. And why him? Because he is helped by a friendly giant. And why is he helped? Because years earlier, as a young boy, he had freed the giant from a cage. In fairy tales, all actions, even the least considered — especially the least considered — have unexpected consequences.
Those who trust and show faith also triumph. In “Follow me, Jodel!” an ugly toad aids our hero in performing two difficult tasks. The third — tasks always come in threes — is to bring home a lovely bride. With some reluctance, Jodel follows the amphibian to a strange house in the woods, which they enter. “Listen carefully,” the toad orders, “and do everything that I tell you! Wash me, put me in bed, and then lie down next to me!” So Jodel obeys and soon falls asleep.
Anyone above the age of 3 will know what happens next. “When Jodel awoke in the morning, a lovely maiden was next to him in bed.” The two marry and “if they have not yet died, then they are still living happily today.” This story is obviously a variant of “The Frog King,” albeit with the sexes reversed. Other more or less familiar tales in “The Turnip Princess” include the Cinderella-like “Ashfeathers” and “Seven With One Blow!,” a version of “The Brave Little Tailor.”
In general, Schönwerth’s narratives open with a simple statement of the facts: “An evil witch kidnapped three princesses and would not set them free.” The next sentence or two introduces a crucial plot element: “While they were in captivity, the girls learned a few magic tricks from the witch.” Immediately after, the action begins in earnest: “One day a young prince lost his way in the woods, and the two-faced witch welcomed him warmly, but she was actually plotting to kill him that night.” Who could stop reading or listening at this point?
According to the source notes, this story, “Tricking the Witch,” is an example of “The Magic Flight,” a tale type probably best known from the Russian classic about the fearsome Baba Yaga. In this case the youngest of the three royal captives, Reinhilda, flees with the prince. The pair must transform themselves into various objects to escape recapture. But the witch is relentless in her pursuit. When things look darkest, Reinhilda borrows the prince’s sword, then changes herself into a pond and her lover into a duck. “Just stay in the middle of the pond,” she tells him, “no matter how much the old woman tries to lure you to come on shore.” Frustrated by the duck’s refusal to paddle to land, “the old woman climbed to the top of a dam in the pond and drank every drop of water in sight. The princess was now in the belly of the witch. She turned back into a human and cut the witch open from inside with the sword the prince had given to her.”
While Schönwerth’s tales nearly always begin and end well, their middles sometimes seem to leave out key details or make assertions contrary to evidence. In “Prince Dung Beetle,” for instance, a bug is transformed back into a handsome young man because, we are told, the story’s whiny heroine took pity on him. Really? Barbara’s only concern is for a sick mother and her own sprained ankle. It is the beetle who shows pity.
While Schönwerth’s style is generally austere, it does occasionally admit poetic phrases and flourishes. Freid, in “Woud and Freid,” is so beautiful that if she “leaned over to scoop water into her hand from the stream, her hair would sparkle in the sunlight, and her arm looked like pure snow.” The hero of “Woodpecker” is nothing less than “a master of the art of laziness.” In “The Iron Shoes,” Hans — who has acquired a pair of seven-league boots — is speedily running along when “he noticed that a little man was running right next to him. It was the wind, and it had to be in the next town within the hour so that it could dry the freshly washed clothes of a princess, who was planning to get married that day.” Hans ends up putting a leash on the wind and, needless to say, weds the princess himself.
This Penguin edition of “The Turnip Princess” organizes 72 gems from the Schönwerth archive into various categories, such as “Tales of Magic and Romance” and “Enchanted Animals.” Tatar’s commentary provides useful, if sometimes obvious, notes about each story, while Nicola Schäffler adds a scholarly appendix on “sources and tale types.” Throughout there are attractive chapter ornaments by artist Engelbert Süss. In short, here is real treasure. Just watch out for the witch.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.
THE TURNIP PRINCESS
And Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
By Franz Xaver von Schönwerth
Compiled and edited by Erika Eichenseer
Translated from the German by Maria Tatar
Penguin. 264 pp. Paperback, $17