Fairy Tales from Brentano, told in English by Kate Freiligrath Kroeker and pictured by F. Carruthers Gould. London: T. Fish Unwin, 1885. 252 pages. Free to read at Google Books here.
Honor; or, The Story of the Brave Caspar and the Fair Annerl. Translated by T.W. Chappell. London: John Chapman, 1842. 74 pages. Free to read at Google Books here.
One of the animating ideas behind this site is that the term “classic” is a loaded, historically-determined term. Literary works that are considered a “classic” at the time of publication may fulfill some arbitrary ideal of what readers are supposed to want, but this often comes at the cost ignoring works with virtues contemporary critics don’t value in the way readers and critics might today. The consequence of this is that works of literature that go against the grain of the prevailing aesthetic ideals—Moby Dick being a famous example—end up being dismissed and largely forgotten. This is true in the genre of fairy tales: the most recognizable fairy tales to have come down to us are those of the Brothers Grimm—meticulously researched, expertly compiled stories from folk sources; these stories have the sui generis plots and internal coherence of tales refined over time. Tradition hallows them. Children, we are told, should read them.
Frontis from Kroeker’s 1885 translation of the Fairy Tales
The fairy tales of Clemens Brentano, on the other hand, have not enjoyed as much renown and their author is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world; only two of his works have appeared in English, the novella The Brave Caspar and Honest Annerl, and a very fragmentary selection of his fairy tales translated by Kate Freiligrath Kroeker in 1885. Of these, Caspar and Annerl has been repeatedly anthologized, but the fairy tales seem to have been largely neglected. Their author, for his part—a second-generation German Romantic who late in life abandoned writing, became a committed Catholic, and retired to live a secluded life in a monastery—only begrudgingly allowed his fairy tales to be published posthumously, and insisted all proceeds go to children’s charities. Without having read altogether too much into the author’s background, my own loose interpretation from what I’ve read about the author’s career is that he spent a fair portion of his life trying to live down an early reputation for being a bit “verwildert”—a wild, untameable spirit, to quote the subtitle of his 1803 novel Godwi.
A certain mixture of privilege, imagination, and emotional instability seems to be the ideal recipe to produce a Romantic writer. Brentano was born in Ehrenbreitstein in 1778 and, like Percy Shelley and Byron, he came from money: Brentano’s father, Peter Anton Brentano, was a diplomat and one of the most successful Frankfurt businessmen of his day. Per Brentano had a total of twenty children from three marriages, and probably felt secure in the knowledge that heirs could be found among them to carry on his business empire, but young Clemens and his sister Bettina were two children in which a very different familial heritage predominated: the elder Brentano had married Maximiliane von La Roche, the forbidden lover who inspired Lotte in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Her mother (Clemens and Bettina’s grandmother), Sophie von La Roche, was the editor of Germany’s first women’s magazine and one of the first women to make an independent living as novelist; so there was an impetus towards literary ambition baked into the Brentano bloodline, and so while their elder siblings lived pretty conventionally as members of Germany’s nouveau riche, it quickly becomes clear in reading the writings of Clemens and Bettina Brentano that these two were strange, wonderful exceptions.
Clemens was brought out of his studies to join the family business in Frankfurt, but like Shelley, he had a volatile, whimsical nature, as explained by his translator Kroeker:
[In Frankfurt] he began a series of freaks and vagaries, prompted by the very spirit of mischief and detestation of business, which, when discovered by his strict father, led to his being sent away in disgrace to Langenzalza. Copying letters in verse, writing out bills of lading in the most absurd rhymes, and ornamenting margins with caricatures, were among the most common of his whims and fancies. This continued some little while longer, until his father, perceiving the hopelessness of his son’s career as a merchant, took him away from Langenzalza, and he was allowed to follow his own devices.
Whether old Brentano proved so sensible or merely kicked the bucket (he died in 1797), Clemens finally was able to abandon what he wasn’t suited for and allowed to decamp to the University of Jena, then the center of German Romanticism, where Brentano engaged in a friendly rivalry with the Schlegel brothers and with Ludwig von Tieck, writing poems and plays in mockery of these older poets. It was here he first met and formed an admiration of Goethe, the greatest writer of the age, and formed a friendship with fellow Romantic, Ludwig Achim von Arnim (later husband of Bettina), with whom he co-edited The Boys’ Wonderbook, a collection of old German poems roughly analogous to what Bishop Percy’s Reliques are to English literature. The adherents of this group, which was to center its activities in the southern German town of Heidelberg, contrasted themselves with the first generation of Romantics by seeking to revive Germany’s medieval history and folklore. Notably, Brentano and Arnim’s journal would be the first venue to publish the work of the Brothers Grimm. Another member of this group was Friedrich Carl von Savigny, who married another of Clemens’s sisters and became the most influential German jurist of the early 19th century. Brentano, for his part, wrote plays, novellas, and poems though the fairy tales translated by Kroeker come from the earliest part of his association with Savigny, and were written for the children of the Savigny family.
The defining trait of Brentano’s fairy tales is their explosive, transgressive silliness; the type of silliness you would find in stories written by a man who pens bank notes in verse. Certainly fairy tales in general are fantastical—they do not obey the laws of reality—but most fairy tales we are familiar with make some effort to follow a sort of internal consistency, a logic of the fairy world; a story for children needs to be logical in this way, otherwise children may get confused about what’s going on. But as Kroeker notes in her preface, Clemens Brentano’s fairy tales aren’t always the most kid-friendly: like Pixar on an acid trip, these stories follow the sharp twists and turns of the whimsical poet, who careens down crazy narrative pathways just because they feel good, just because they tickle his own (and perhaps the reader’s) funny bone.
Some of the jokes and proto-Surrealist hijinks—one character drives right into a sky-wall, like in The Truman Show—will go right over the heads of the little ones, but for those who like funny noises, Brentano proffers a profusion of excessive puns, list upon list of rhyming and chiming, jingling-and-jangling puns; one of these stories features a city filled with bells called Jingle Jangle, which is ruled by King Ding Dong, and all of the character names in these stories are equally ridiculous: so, for example, the five sons of the strict schoolmaster Wackemhard (heh) in the story “Wackemhard and his Five Sons,” are named Grips Graps (who becomes a thief), Piff Paff (who becomes an archer), Clink Clank (who becomes an apothecary), Splash Dash (who becomes a ferry-man), and Trill Trall (whose lengthy story involves going off into the woods to learn the Bird Language and meeting up with a tree-dwelling hermit who happens to be a “Professor of the Languages of Birds”; the two become friends with these birds, which sets up some poignant scenes of bird-human relations that are just too wacky to spoil.) Two of the stories revolve around the adventures of princesses, who (for vague moral purposes) are named Dear-My-Soul and Princess I-Want-To-Know, the latter of whose follies sorely try the abilities of her father, King Keep-Your-Word. There are talking animals, an ogre, and a giant—although there is also the villain Sootica, a shallow racist stereotype whose presence irredeemably mars the story “Dear-My-Soul” and made me not unhappy (as Kroeker professes to be) that the story was left unfinished; a sour fruit on a nonetheless remarkably fresh tree, for Brentano’s imagination shows the sort of delightful Rabelaisian weirdness one finds today in, to toss off some names, Valente, Vandermeer, and Mieville.
The second work of Clemens Brentano that I have been able to find in English translation is his Story of Brave Caspar and Fair Annerl, a rather chivalric tale in which a series of bad circumstances and narrow misses results in an ever deepening tragedy. Initially we are given a frame story in which the narrator comes upon a destitute and seemingly homeless old woman who, in her sadness, refused to be helped by anyone. As night comes on, the old woman opens up and tells the story of her son Caspar, a soldier, and his love for Anerl, and the sad events leading up to the moment in which the old woman is now speaking. What is unexpected is how the frame story suddenly transforms into the immediate, actual story; the woman asks Caspar to petition the duke of the town, though for what and what the outcome of this is is so unexpected and beautifully developed that I won’t spoil it. The story starts slowly, but the ending is nervy and thrilling—on a level, almost, with Kleist’s masterpiece Michael Kohlhaas for sheer climactic effect. Having encountered this fragmentary of the author’s mature abilities, it is a shame to find no other of the works of his mature era (including poems, novels, and plays) have been yet translated, which underscores the immense labor translators put in when we do get extensive translations of a foreign author.
Post-Script: I have also been reading the correspondence of Bettina Brentano, a tremendous writer in her own right, and I am ordering a book of Achim von Arnim’s novellas so I can more fully read this remarkable group of Romantic Germans.