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Two long lost fairy tales

A young girl transforms into a lake to escape from a witch, the witch drinks up the entire lake and the girl kills her with a knife when she returns to her original form from within the witch’s belly. This is one of the almost 500 fairy tales, lost for 150 years, which were found in a personal archive in Ragensberg, Germany. The collection was first published in English in 2014, and you can read two of them below.

This collection is the work of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810 – 1886), a German historian, who, in the same time the Grimm brothers traveled the country gathering fairy tales, recorded local customs and traditions. But while the Grimms embellished the stories they listened and added their personal tone, Schönwerth, strictly playing the part of the historian-folklorist, simply wrote down what he heard, presenting us today with a singular view of Bavaria’s 19th century culture. “There is no romanticizing or attempt by Schönwerth to interpret or develop his own style”, says Erika Eichenseer, cultural curator who discovered the collection. This is the reason the narration often, being blunt, becomes incoherent, even incomprehensible, almost surreal; with introductory phrases such as: “One day, the Lord and the Devil were together again and were traveling”, “There was a woman whose child soiled himself and the careless woman cleaned him with bread” or “In his first appearance the lover left a knife on the table”. The phrase “once upon a time”, used in variations across Europe since the 14th century, is not found in these recitations by peasants, workers and servants as Schönwerth recorded them.

In Schönwerth’s narrations we mainly don’t meet girls as the protagonist, as we are used to in our familiar fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow-white, various princesses), but we find that men can be equally troubled by dragons, witches, monsters and various other obstacles. Eichenseer points out that these tales are not addressed exclusively to children: “Their main purpose was to help young adults on their path to adulthood, showing them that dangers and challenges can be overcome through virtue, prudence and courage”.

Schönwerth himself had published three volumes with the material he had gathered through decades of research, which didn’t however attract too much attention and soon sank into oblivion, to be rediscovered in his archive a few years ago. Jacob Grimm had said of him: “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear”. He said to King Maximilian II of Bavaria that Schönwerth was the only one who could replace him and his brother. The collection includes, apart from stories that are not to be found elsewhere, local versions of well-known fairy tales, like Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin. These variations usually make the stories unrecognizable, as Schönwerth’s Cinderella is the daughter of a carpenter who uses golden sandals to save her beloved one from the land-beyond-the-moon-and-the-sun and then cuts the tail of a gigantic cat with an axe in order to release the prince of incantations.

Without further delay:

The Flying Little Box

Lefteris Yakoumakis, 2014
Lefteris Yakoumakis, 2014

A carpenter, who was being kept in a dungeon, sent word to the king that if he would let him live, he would build him a treasure the likes of which no one in this world had yet seen. It was done. The carpenter brought a little box to the king, sat down on it, and it began to roar and lifted off and carried the carpenter out of one window and back into the room through another. The king kept the little box in his treasure room.

The king had a son to whom the servants had ever to bring new toys. Since he broke every one of them and there was nothing else, they brought him the little box. The boy hammered around on it and wanted to make a little wagon for himself from it. The maid brought a rope, attached it, to pull him around in it. Hardly had he sat down firmly, when it lifted off and flew in the direction of the open window and out, no matter how hard the maid pulled on the rope, and disappeared.

It was quite a journey, until the rope got caught in a tree top and the flight was halted. In the tree was an abandoned stork nest, where the boy rested for a while, and he left the little box behind, when he descended from the tree to go to the next town, nearby. He passed a shoemaker who needed an apprentice and entered service with him.

This city had a king who had not been able to have children. It was prophesized he would have a daughter who would bring shame on him when she grew up and took up with a stranger. So when the king eventually did have a daughter, he thought for a long time about what to do and he came up with the idea to build a sky scraper tower with a little room for the princess on top. And thus it was done.

The young shoemaker, who was still wearing his beautiful red shoes from home and had not torn them, heard the story about the princess who lived high above the clouds, and was beautiful to boot, from other shoemaker apprentices. So one day, he took off and went back to the tree with the stork nest, climbed up, sat down on his little box and flew off and into the princess’s tower window. And he did that every day after work, until he was suspected of doing it.

The king became mad about this. He had the window sill covered with birdlime (a heavy glue) in order to catch that “bird man,” and it so happened that a shoe was found glued to the sill. By the king’s orders, the shoe was passed from hand to hand and foot to foot. A high reward was promised to the one who would fit into the shoe. It was never claimed until finally the shoe came to the young shoemaker as old leather. He did not pay attention to the trap, slipped into the shoe and was caught and sent to prison.

The princess, when asked the name of her lover, pretended she did not know and lied, but she gave away her secret when she was told the shoemaker would become her husband and the king was already preparing their wedding bed. However, the king was preparing a funeral pyre on which he planned to burn the couple.

handsPeople ran to see what was happening. A big crowd assembled. All cried and bemoaned the fate of the unhappy young couple. They, however, sat on the wood pile in an embrace and looked cheerful. The moment the wood began to crackle and smoke, the young shoemaker pressed down on his little box under them; it roared up like a horse with wings and flew through the smoke and flames high up into the air. The king and the crowd were left with nothing. When the prince got home to his parents, he married the beautiful princess.

The Turnip Princess

Lefteris Yakoumakis, 2014
Lefteris Yakoumakis, 2014

A young prince lost his way in the forest and came to a cave. He passed the night there, and when he awoke there stood next to him an old woman with a bear and a dog. The old witch seemed very beautiful and wished that the prince would stay with her and marry her. He could not endure her, yet could not leave that place.

One day, the bear was alone with him and spoke to the prince: “Pull the rusty nail from the wall, so that I shall be delivered, and place it beneath a turnip in the field, and in this way you shall have a beautiful wife.” The prince seized the nail so strongly that the cave shook and the nail cracked loudly like a clap of thunder. Behind him a bear stood up from the ground like a man, bearded and with a crown on his head.

“Now I shall find a beautiful maiden,” cried the prince and went forth nimbly. He came to a field of turnips and was about to place the nail beneath one of them when there appeared above him a monster, so that he dropped the nail, pricked his finger on a hedge and bled until he fell down senseless. When he awoke he saw that he was elsewhere and that he had long slumbered, for his smooth chin was now frizzy with a blond beard.

He arose and set off across field and forest and searched through every turnip field but nowhere found what he was looking for. Day passed and night, too, and one evening, he sat down on a ridge beneath a bush, a flowering blackthorn with red blossoms on one branch. He broke off the branch, and because there was before him, amongst the other things on the ground, a large, white turnip, he stuck the blackthorn branch into the turnip and fell asleep.

When he awoke on the morrow, the turnip beside him looked like a large, open shell in which lay the nail, and the wall of the turnip resembled a nut-shell, whose kernel seemed to shape his picture. He saw there the little foot, the thin hand, the whole body, even the fine hair so delicately imprinted, just as the most beautiful girl would have.

The prince stood up and began his search, and came at last to the old cave in the forest, but no one was there. He took out the nail and struck it into the wall of the cave, and at once the old woman and the bear were also there. “Tell me, for you know for certain,” snarled the prince fiercely at the old woman, “where have you put the beautiful girl from the parlor?” The old woman giggled to hear this: “You have me, so why do you scorn me?”

The bear nodded, too, and looked for the nail in the wall. “You are honest, to be sure,” said the prince, “but I shall not be the old woman’s fool again.” “Just pull out the nail,” growled the bear. The prince reached for it and pulled it half out, looked about him and saw the bear as already half man, and the odious old woman almost as a beautiful and kind girl. Thereupon he drew out the nail entirely and flew into her arms for she had been delivered from the spell laid upon her and the nail burnt up like fire, and the young bridal pair traveled with his father, the king, to his kingdom.


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