Fairy tales get a bad rap. They’re often thought of as stories used to tuck in small children, or the Disney movies these same small children would rather be watching. There’s a presumption that they lack complexity, and the tropes are well known: damsel in distress, knight in shining armor, evil witch/stepmother, happy endings. These themes have become so entrenched, that when we read a fairy tale, we often expect the cliche. Fortunately for the reader, The Turnip Princess has other plans.
Inspired by Jacob Grimm’s book on Germanic Mythology Deutsche Mythologie, in 1854 Franz Xaver von Schönwerth set out to research Bavarian folklore and tradition of people living the Upper Palatinate region. Though at first the locals were skeptical of Schönwerth and his intentions, they began to trust him once they saw how he treated their culture with respect. Instead of embellishing the stories with improvements to plot and language, he dutifully transcribed the tales as they were told to him. What resulted were a collection of stories that break the traditional mold of the fairy tale. Stories that trade in the standard “Once upon a time,” for first lines like “An innkeeper lost his wife,” and “There was a couple, and they worked hard to make ends meet.” Stories served straight no chaser.
The effect of Schönwerth’s unembellished transcriptions can at first take some getting used to. Things are rarely explained, instead they just happen. Monsters will appear and then suddenly vanish. Characters will want one thing, become obsessed with something else, and then often desire a combination of both. However, the sacrifices made to structure and plot are not made in vain, and in fact make each story come alive.Each tale transports the reader to a world where anything can happen. Animals will sing, mermaids will steal newborns in the dead of night, and the moon itself will hire a tailor. Gardens will be “awash in bright sunlight, full of flowers and branches with leaves of gold and silver, and fruits made of precious stones.” A dung beetle will transform into a prince.
There’s a reason behind the uniqueness of these tales: they’ve been lost for over 150 years and were only recently discovered in 2009 by Erika Eichenseer. Eichenseer (a retired school teacher with a passion for fairy tales) dedicated the next 5 years to transcribing, editing, and compiling over 30,000 pages of Schönwerth’s writings. Now for the first time, we have access to an English translation of stories that force readers to rethink their conception of the fairytale.
Tonally these tales are darker. They don’t feel the need to explain themselves or provide endings with closure. The story “ Twelve Tortoises” ends “And if they have not died, they are still living happily today.” “Three Flowers” concludes “but it was always empty and remained gloomy, with just a cricket chirping beneath the hearthstone.” In fact the endings don’t read like endings at all. Like the stories themselves, they are haunting and at times disorienting. However, if the reader allows themselves to embrace the fog, they won’t want to leave.
The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales is published by Penguin Books and retails for $17.00.