From Folklore to Literature: The Märchen and the German Romantic Movement
When the early German Romantic writers and critics, a group that included Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich von Hardenberg (known by the pen name Novalis), and Ludwig Tieck, began taking stock of the new literary approach they were creating, it is little wonder that they saw themselves at the forefront of a movement which had the potential to change not only literature, but learning, society, and the individual forever.1 Die Welt muss romantisiert werden (The world must be romanticized), wrote Novalis.2 Guided by a potent vision born out of the deliberate rejection of Rationalism and Neoclassicism, the Romantics envisioned a literature of the heart instead of the head, a literature that would celebrate Nature and the Spirit and above all else the Imagination. In the climate of the French Revolution; of the Idealism of Kant and Fichte that seemed to bring Rationalism to its knees; the rise of German nationalism; and a literary world dominated by pre-Weimar Goethe, the Romantics believed they were destined to usher in a poetic Golden Age, where science and religion, art and philosophy, society and the individual, would all be reconciled in a poetic synthesis based on the alchemy of the imagination.3 Calling themselves Romantics in honor of the great medieval legends written in the vernacular,4 it is no surprise that the “märchen” (the German equivalent of “fairy tale”) came to be adopted as their special literary form. Gordon Birrell, in his introduction to German Literary Fairy Tales, writes:
It was not until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, in the context of German Romanticism, that the folk fairy tale was first acknowledged as oral literature of the highest order. Significantly, the endorsement of the folk tale went hand in hand with the creation of a new and far more ambitious variety of literary fairy tale, a narrative invention of such extraordinary appeal that it became, for a brief period, the very centerpiece of Romantic literary theory.5
The German Romantic Movement was both a product and an expression of the interest in Teutonic folk culture that went hand in hand with a new sense of German Nationalism among the intellectual classes of the German-speaking nations as the eighteenth century drew to a close and the nineteenth century dawned. Beginning in 1806, Romantic poets Clemens Brentano and Ludwig Achim von Arnim began publishing a collection of traditional German folksongs and legends entitled, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Motivated by the work of Arnim and Brentano,6 in 1812 the ethnologic linguists Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm published the first of their groundbreaking collections of traditional German fairy tales. Arnim, Brentano and the other Romantics recognized in the fairy tale a truly national idiom that gave allowance for the imagination to rule supreme.
George Friedrich von Hardenberg, writing under the name Novalis, was a visionary young man who espoused an aesthetic philosophy that he called “Magic Idealism.” He believed that poetry was a kind of “key” to a new way of perceiving reality, and wrote “poetry” in both prose and verse. The pinnacle of Novalis’ fiction is his unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which follows a young man through an imaginary Middle Ages as he searches for the spirit of poetry. The novel—in its incomplete form—ends with a dense, allegorical fairy tale about the triumph of poetry and wisdom over skepticism. Although filled with complex personal symbolism drawn from alchemy and other “hermetic” sources,7 this fairy tale which concludes Novalis’ novel can be enjoyed apart from its allegorical meaning, which few have been able to fully unravel. The world that Novalis creates is full of grandeur, humor and passion. The hero of the story, a roguish, clever toddler named Fabel (Fable), delights the reader with her combination of wisdom and mischief. Her sublime song that ends the tale is a vision of the ideal world of the Early Romantics. Novalis’ influence was to last much longer than his short life of twenty-eight years: among those who acknowledged a debt to him in their own fairy tale-laden works were George MacDonald, C .S. Lewis, and Hermann Hesse.8
Novalis’ decision to explore the philosophical concepts closest to his heart in the form of a fairy tale was most likely influenced by Goethe’s own allegorical fairy tale, usually translated into English as The Fairy Tale or The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. Although found in anthologies of Romantic-period fairy tales, The Fairy Tale contains both Neoclassical and Romantic elements, and, like Goethe himself, transcends both tendencies. Combining traditional German and French fairy tale elements with classical mythology, the story of the self-sacrificing green snake and the enchanted princess Lily is both a delightful tale and a deep philosophical meditation.
To understand the extent to which writers of the Romantic Movement transformed the traditional fairy tale into a unique and separate literary form it is helpful to look at a few outstanding examples of their work in this genre.
One of the masterpieces of Romantic literature is Ludwig Teick’s Der Blond Eckbert (The Fair Eckbert). Using traditional fairy tale elements such as the love of a noble knight for his lady, a poor girl who is adopted by a witch, and magical animals, Teick tells a story that slowly descends into madness and horror as the world of faere is revealed to be a projection of the unconscious guilt that the knight Eckbert feels for his wife’s theft of a magic bird, their shared crime of incest, and the murder he commits to cover it up. Teick seems to suggest that fairy tales are both a source, and a product, of psychological repression, a mirror of the potential darkness that lies in all of us, and this is what makes his story so shattering to the reader. “Gott im Himmel! in welcher entsetzlichen Einsamkeit hab ich dann mein Leben hingebracht!”9 (“God in heaven, in what horrible solitude have I been living!”), Eckbert exclaims in terror as everyone and everything in life is revealed to be a series of illusions, of fictions—everything except the crimes that he and his wife have committed.10
In contrast to the dark, psychological nature of Der Blond Eckbert, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s late Romantic fairy tale Klein Zaches, Genannt Zinnobar (Small Zaches, Called Zinnober) is a broad and lively satire on the kind of Rationalism that rejects fantasy, magic and other products of the imagination. A tiny principality has decided to reorganize itself along Enlightenment lines, expelling the fairies that have made it a paradise. Only one fairy remains, Rosabelverde, who has disguised herself as a respectable nun. She gives a pathetic changeling, the child of a poor woman, a dangerous gift, the ability to take credit for other people’s beauty, talent, work and eloquence. As all of these achievements appear to belong to him, he becomes successful and popular, but ruins the lives of others in the process. It is only by the intervention of a powerful sorcerer that things are set right, shaking the foundations of the Enlightened state. As in Hoffmann’s masterpiece Der Goldene Topf (The Golden Pot); when poetry, magic, and the imagination touch the lives of staid, bourgeois, respectable citizens, chaos ensues.11 But Hoffmann is on the side of the poets.
Other Romantic märchen of note that are widely available in English are Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine, Josef von Eichendorff’s Das Marmorbild (The Marble Statue), Clemens Brentano’s Geschichte vom braven Kasperl und dem schönen Annerl (The Tale of Honest Casper and Fair Anne), and his Das Märchen von dem Myrtenfräulei (The Tale of the Myrtle-Girl).
In a class all by itself is the long-lost masterpiece Das Leben der Hochgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns, which has been masterfully translated into English by Lisa Ohm with the title The Life of High Countess Gritta von Ratsinourhouse.12 It was the work of two singularly talented women: Bettina (or Bettine) von Arnim, who was the wife of Ludwig Achim von Arnim, the sister of Clemens Brentano, Beethoven’s “immortal beloved,” and a singer, writer, and social activist; and her teenage daughter, Gisela von Arnim (Grimm), who would go on to become a writer of fairy tales for children, an advocate for women writers, intimate friend of Hans Christian Anderson and the daughter-in-law of Wilhelm Grimm. Together they created a märchen with a warmer and more human message than the abstract philosophy or literary theory underlying many other Romantic fairy tales: the right of girls to follow their dreams without societal restraints, and the right of all children to grow up without abuse by authority figures. In this fairy tale one girl marries a prince, but others become artists and musicians and herbalists and master artisans, forming a unique and utopian women’s community. The girls learn to defend themselves from those who would exploit them or steal their dreams, and are befriended by elves and talking animals who give them magical powers. Das Leben der Hochgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns was not published in its authors’ lifetimes, appearing in an incomplete version in 1906 and in its entirety only in 1986.13 Without in any way losing the charm, the enchantment and the simplicity of the traditional fairy tale, this unique novel has all the elements of a literary masterpiece: fascinating plot, indelible characters, elegant writing and a timeless message.
In the end, however, it is neither powerful social and psychological themes nor Idealist philosophical underpinnings that make the märchen of the Romantic period as much a joy to read today as when they were written. Their true strengths, and the source of their timelessness, are a result of pure storytelling and pure imagination—those qualities that allow us to feel magic and wonder every time we open their pages.
1Novalis, Fragmente des Jahres 1798, Gesammelte Werke, No. 807, vol. III (Zurich: Bühl-Verlag, 1946), pp. 22-23.
2Novalis, Fragmente des Jahres 1798, Gesammelte Werke, No. 879, vol. III (Zurich: Bühl-Verlag, 1946), p. 38.
3Friedrich Schlegel, Athenäum Fragment, No. 116, Kritische Ausgabe, vol. II, Charakteristiken und Kritiken (Munich-Padeborn-Vienna: Schöningh, 1967), pp. 182-3.
4August Wilhelm Schlegel, Vorlesungen überdramatische Kunst und Literatur, Kritische Schriften und Briefe, vol. v, Die Kunstlehre (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966), p. 21.
5German Literary Fairy Tales, Frank G. Rider and Robert M. Browning, eds. (New York: Continuum, 1983), p. xiii.
6Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Grimms’ Bad Girls & Bold Boys (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 4.
7Bruce Haywood, Novalis: The Veil of Imagery (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 113.
8Ralph Freedman, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 83.
9Ludwig Teick, Novellen Dritte Reiche: Märchen (Leipzig: Berlegt bei & Haberland, 1920), p. 132.
10See “German Romanticism and the Fairy Tale,” the introduction to Carol Tully’s Romantic Fairy Tales (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p. xvii, for an in-depth discussion of psychological themes in Der Blonde Eckbert.
11E. T. A. Hoffmann, Der Goldene Topf, Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier, Sämtliche poetischen Werke, vol. I (Sonderausgabe, Emil Vollmer, Tempel-Klassiker, No Date), pp. 181-255.
12Bettine von Arnim and Gisela von Arnim Grimm, The Life of High Countess Gritta von Ratsinourhouse, trans. and with an introduction by Lisa Ohm (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
13Lisa Ohm, p. xii.
Charles Haddox has published poetry, fiction, articles and essays in a number of journals including Commonweal, The Christian Century, Cultural Survival and Folio. He is currently working on a book-length study of Novalis’ philosophy and poetics. His interest in folklore and fairy tales has been inspired by working for twenty-five years with folk artisans around the world through the Fair Trade Movement.
Image: Illustration from Mein erstes Märchenbuch, Verlag Wilh. Effenberger, Stuttgart, 19th century.