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The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Anthea Bell

Nutcracker

My mum was a huge ballet fan, and it was a much-anticipated Christmas treat to be taken to London to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, preferably at the Royal Opera House for a grander experience and better tree (see below). It was my favourite of the Christmas ballets; although I got to see bigger ballet stars in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty in other years, I loved The Nutcracker the best.

I had two favourite bits - The Russian Dance in Act II for the music and dancing, but for the real WOW! moment – it’s got to be when everyone’s gone to bed except Clara and Drosselmeier, and the Christmas tree grows.

See this clip from the 2008 production at the ROH – That’s how to do the tree properly!

I was thinking of this as I read the original story of The Nutcracker this Christmas, another classic fairy tale by German Romantic author ETA Hoffmann, whom I discovered a couple of weeks ago for the first time when I read The Sandman, (reviewed here).  Needless to say the ballet is based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père), and Hoffmann’s original is much darker.

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys.

Legal Councillor Drosselmeier ws not a handsome man; he was small and thin, with a wrinkled face, and he had a big black patch over his right eye. He was bald, so he wore a very fine white wig made of glass, a most ingenious piece of work. Councillor Drosselmeier was a very ingenious man himself. He knew all about clocks, and could even make them. So if one of the fine clocks in the Stahmbaums’ house went wrong, and its chimes failed to ring out, Godfather Drosselmeier came to call, took off his glass wig, removed his yellow coat, tied a blue apron around his waist and poked at the insides of the clockwork with various pointed instruments. …

When Councillor Drosselmeier came visiting he always had something pretty for the children in his bag, sometimes a little manikin that could roll its eyes and bow – that was a comical sight – sometimes a box with a little bird that hopped out of it, sometimes another toy. But at Christmas he had always made them something that was particularly elaborate and had meant a great deal of work for him, and once he had given it to the children their parents put it away and took care of it.

Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King saving him.

She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night the Mouse King returns and together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann obviously had an interest about mechanical toys and automata – indeed the brief notes at the end of the volume confirm this . Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares (especially in films like Magic and the ones with that Chucky doll in). I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It was perfect Christmas reading.

This edition from Pushkin Press paired The Nutcracker with a lesser known tale from Hoffmann – The Strange Child. This is the tale of two children who live in the country and have a wonderful life running wild in the woods. One day their rich relatives come to visit from the city, bringing gifts of toys. and tell their parents that they will send a schoolmaster for the children.  Meanwhile, the children abandon their new toys in the woods, preferring natural pursuits, when they meet a strange child who becomes their new playmate.  When their new evil tutor arrives, the children are banned from the woods, confining them to the stuffy schoolroom and the tutor scares them stiff, buzzing around them like a fly. I won’t say how it ends, except that it’s suitably Gothic and moralistic.

I adored the Nutcracker, and enjoyed the much darker Strange Child too, my reading enhanced by the lovely quality of the Pushkin Press edition.  I’m going to get some more tales of Hoffmann, and revisit some of his contemporaries, notably the Brothers Grimm, too to compare the style.

So another Hit from Hoffmann! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nutcracker The Strange Child (Pushkin Collection) by ETA Hoffmann, Pushkin Press 2010 translated by Anthea Bell, 206 pages.

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