book cover imageThe Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
by Franz Xaver Schönwerth,
translated with an introduction and commentary by Maria Tatar.
Penguin Classics, 2015.
Paperback, 288 pages, $17.

In 2012, in Regensburg, Germany, Erica Eichenseer, a cultural curator for Eastern Bavaria, opened “thirty dusty cardboard boxes” and discovered Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s collection of five hundred Bavarian fairytales. Von Schönwerth, a high government official in Bavaria in the early nineteenth century, had been inspired by the Brothers Grimm, and set about his own task of collecting oral Bavarian tales in Munich and its surroundingarea. Unlike the Grimms, who were interested in recovering a global folklore, von Schönwerth focused intensely on his homeland. Paraphrasing the translator, Maria Tatar, these tales have a rough-hewn quality, lacking in literary flourishes but abounding in raw energy: “Oral narratives famously neglect psychology for plot, and these tales move with warp speed out of the castle and into the woods, generating multiple encounters with ogres, dragons, witches, and other villains, leaving almost no room for expressive asides or details explaining how or why things happen. The driving question is always ‘And then?’”

This attempt to get back to the stripped-down oral original also characterized Jack Zipes’s recent translation of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm folk and fairy tales, reviewed here in Winter 2015. It was not until later editions of their tales that the Brothers Grimm—mainly Wilhelm—revised them to be more palatable to a middle-class audience. I suspect this was not only due to the violent and sexually potent content of the tales, but also because the public had, by the nineteenth century, become so comfortable with novelistic narrative style that fairy tales seemed simplistic. However, where nineteenth-century readers may have found an impoverished lack of detail (alleviated somewhat by Wilhelm), listeners in an oral culture found an unrestricted arena of imaginative play. The question these tales pose to contemporary readers is whether we can drop our novelistic expectations and let the stories engage our imaginations.

“The Turnip Princess” is the first story in the collection and its bizarreness provides a good taste of the collection as a whole. A prince loses his way in a wood and finds shelter in a cave. Upon awaking he sees an old woman and her pet bear; by methods undisclosed, the prince is prevented from leaving the cave. One day when the prince and bear are alone, the bear tells him to pull a rusty nail from the wall and to put it under a turnip to be rewarded with a beautiful wife. The prince pulls the nail. At this point, a kaleidoscopic series of events enfold: thunder rolls and shakes the cave, the bear turns into a man with a crown on his head, and the prince sprints out of the cave with the nail to find a turnip. Just as the turnip is found a monster appears, the prince loses the nail, and he is then enveloped by a thorny hedge. He goes to sleep and wakes up with a beard. He finds a shrub with a red blossom, and then a white turnip; he breaks the branch with the blossom off the shrub and sticks it into the turnip (what else would one do?), resulting in a gardening miracle: the turnip turns into a giant bowl containing a beautiful maiden. The prince leaves the maiden (?) to look for the cave. He finds the cave, the rusty nail, the old woman, and the bear. He sticks the nail back into the wall and removes it, lifting a curse and turning the old woman into a beautiful maiden. Mission accomplished, they find the prince’s father and are married to live a long and happy life. What happened to the bear that had changed into a man? What about the maiden in the turnip bowl? Don’t ask.

“The Turnip Princess” has enough going on for two or three fairy tales, and many of the stories in the collection have this one thing after another structure, as if oral improvisation was used just to keep the story lasting a bit longer for the pleasure of the audience. Fairy godmothers do not abound in Bavaria. The protagonists of these stories are helped by talking cows, toads, dung beetles, wood sprites, and crows who donate feathers to be used as pens. Ice giants become allies who give the heroine golden apples and eventually marry her daughters; heroes are sometimes attacked by hordes of cats and three-legged goats. Witches are a problem. Curses are lifted by obeying strange directions but persist whenstrange directions, usually from wives to husbands, are not obeyed, ending many a happy marriage. The world is strange and requires one to do strange things, so it is often the fool of the family, invariably a younger brother, who makes out in the end.

One of the charms of this collection is its earthiness. No magic wands but rather nails, turnips, and crow feathers. Enchanted animals there are aplenty, but never far from the barnyard. It is the coexistence of otherworldly strangeness with the mundane world of farms, forests, and commerce that gives many fairy tales their power, and that is especially true of this collection.

The book contains a very nice section of commentary by Maria Tatar with a short discussion of each fairy tale. These are usually a paragraph or two long, and do not provide explanation or interpretation so much as conversation. “Pulling a rusty nail from the wall of a cave seems an odd, somewhat surreal means of lifting a curse, but that is the action that leads to the final disenchantment of the old woman and the bear.” Indeed. It is reassuring to have an equally bewildered companion in fairy-land, and Tatar is easygoing about bewilderment, which makes her better company than a horde of explainers.  

Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno. His books are The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, and Perfection in Bad Axe, a collection of short stories.