Der Struwwelpeter

9 11 2011

I couldn’t help but pick up this book of fairytales recently at the supermarket. It’s a classic German storybook by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman, first published in 1845. My particular book is a newer version with a CD. (The drawings are essentially the same as the old ones, but revamped a little bit and the colors are different.)

True to the style of typical German children’s stories, it’s pretty brutal and extreme, with quite graphic illustrations. It’s pretty funny, actually. It’s a way of teaching children morals but in an exaggerated way, making for some pretty fantastic, imaginative stories.

Here are a few of my favorite stories:

Struwwelpeter – which means something like Shaggy Peter – never cut his hair or clipped his fingernails, against his parents’ warnings, and so he ended up looking like the boy on the CD in the middle.

Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher – The story of the thumb-sucker. This one’s about a boy who sucked his thumb too much and his mother warned him not to do that.  She left the house, and he went back to sucking his thumb, and a tailor came and cut off both of his thumbs with a huge pair of scissors.

Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar  – The story of the Soup Kaspar.  A boy named Kaspar suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to eat his soup anymore.  For the next four days, he refuses to eat it and becomes slimmer and slimmer and then, on the 5th day, he dies.

Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug – The Dreadful Story of the Matches. This little girl decides to play with matches while her parents aren’t home. Her cats warn her against it, but she doesn’t listen. She then accidentally catches herself on fire, and she burns down into a pile of dust as her cats mourn her loss.

Why are kids’ stories so often sad ones?

Have you ever read any German fairytales?  Like the original Grimm stories, for example?  I’ve read a few, but it’s been too long – perhaps I’ll read some again if I can find my book.  And it’s not only German stories that are kind of crazy and deal with some pretty tough stuff.

Take this old Disney cartoon I watched as a kid, for example:  The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.

I watched it again recently and, as an adult, it’s a lot sadder than I remembered as a child!  I’m not sure if it was just the general feeling of the time (this was made in 1946, just after WWII).  Or perhaps we’ve made a shift altogether in the way we tell stories to kids. In American movies, there’s almost always a happy ending.  Even if Bambi’s, Nemo’s, Cinderella’s, Ariel’s, Snow White’s, (and more!) mothers and/or parents are dead, there is still some sort of happy ending.

Very strange.  Although with the whale, I suppose you could argue that the narrator “softened the blow” by explaining that the whale continued singing up in heaven. It’s quite a lovely text, actually:

Now Willy will never sing at the Met.  But don’t be too harsh on Tetti Tatti.  He just didn’t understand. You see, Willy’s singing was a miracle.  And people aren’t used to miracles. And you, faithful little friend, don’t be too sad, because miracles never really die. And somewhere, in whatever heaven is reserved for creatures of the deep, Willy is still singing in 100 voices, each more golden than before.  And he’ll go on singing, and there’ll be applause and cheering forever.

Pretty nice ending after all, isn’t it? Kids have that wonderful capacity to believe in miracles. That’s something that I’d like to keep on believing as an adult.

On a related note, my best friend Peter wrote a really thoughtful analysis of the movie Babe a while back. If that sounds like your cup of tea, go here and check it out!


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