An Extraordinary New Find? Jack Zipes on the 500 New Fairy Tales

There has been considerable media attention given to the discovery of new folktales by German scholar Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. A selection of Schönwerth’s folktales has been published in German under the title of Prinz Roßwifl (‘Roßwifl’ is a local dialect word for scarab or dung beetle!). One example, ‘The Turnip Princess’, was recently republished in The Guardian. While great claims have been for the value of this new collection of tales, fairy-tale expert and Sussex Centre Advisory Board Member Professor Jack Zipes urges caution. In a piece he has generously sent to the Sussex Centre with permission to publish, Professor Zipes gives a caveat against overestimating the importance of von Schönwerth’s work.

Professor Bill Gray

Director, Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy

10th March 2012

Note on the 500 New Fairy Tales, by Jack Zipes

Franz Xaver von Schönwerth published three volumes of tales titled Aus der Oberpfalz — Sitten und Sagen in 1857, 1858, and 1859. The title in English is: From Oberpfalz — Customs and Legends. Oberpfalz is the northeast region of Bavaria, and Schönwerth, a historian, did an admirable job of combining long historical reports about customs in this region with legends, folk tales, anecdotes, fairy tales, etc. Schönwerth did not single out wonder folk tales or fairy tales in these three volumes.

In discussing Prinz Roßwifl, the new collection of Schönwerth’s folktales, with the journalist Victoria Sussens-Messerer, it appears that Erika Eichenseer, the editor of this volume, has culled the fairy tales or wonder folk tales from manuscripts that she found in some 30 odd boxes in Schönwerth’s archives. I have only read Schönwerth’s tales from the earlier three volumes, and they range from boring to good examples of Bavarian customs. Nothing to get excited about, just as there is nothing to get excited about in the more recent example provided in The Guardian. Thus far, I have yet to read the tales in Prinz Roßwifl, but I have ordered them and am looking forward to do this.

I am presently working on an anthology of 19th-century European folk tales, and there are literally fifty or sixty collections that are more interesting than Schönwerth’s early collection, Aus der Oberpfalz — Sitten und Sagen, one reason why Schönwerth’s tales have not been studied or collected in the twentieth century. On the other hand I can point to some brilliant German collections by Theodor Vernaleken, Johann Wilhelm Wolf, Ignaz and Joseph Zingerele, Heinrich Pröhle, Josef Haltrich, Christian Schneller, Karl Haupt, Hermann Knust, Carl and Theodor Colshorn, etc. etc. and even more brilliant French collections by François-Marie Luzel, Paul Sébillot, Emmanuel Cosquin, Jean-François Bladé, Henry Carnoy, etc. etc. that contain tales fastidiously recorded by these folklorists, who translated them from dialect versions. They also include raw dialect versions with their translations. You can also see this in my and Joseph Russo’s translation of Giuseppe Pitrè’s Sicilian tales, The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitrè (2008). Pitrè’s tales are also raw like Schoenwerth’s, but more fascinating because his ear was better and he wrote them down in dialect. Indeed, we have not yet translated the best European folk-tale collections into English and given them their due recognition, and I would not put Schönwerth’s tales at the top of my list of collections that need more study. We must ask what the significance of Schönwerth’s collection is within the development of oral folk tales during the nineteenth century, and it is too early to do this, whereas some of the other collections are clearly important for understanding how and why the tales were disseminated.

There is also the question of artistic value. Many of the European folklorists like the Grimms, had a great artistic sensibility. The artistic power of the Grimms’ tales and other collections can be experienced when they are read aloud. I believe that the best folklorists always had to “translate” and “adapt” the tales they collected, and they did this while trying to remain true to the spoken word. So, you can praise Schönwerth’s “raw” tales, but those that I have read thus far lack an important element of artistic re-creation. To varying degrees, the best 19th-century European folklorists shaped the raw quality of the takes to make them more effective in print. They also provided notes and provided dialect versions side-by-side with their raw translated versions in high German, French, Italian, etc. The general public is not aware that Schönwerth’s work was just a drop in the bucket of folk-tale collecting in Europe during the nineteenth century. It may turn out that this drop may taste better than other collections. For the time being, it is important to be cautious before we celebrate Schönwerth’s fairy tales and make more out of his work than he himself did.

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11 Responses to An Extraordinary New Find? Jack Zipes on the 500 New Fairy Tales

  1. Victoria Sussens-Messerer says:

    Grimm himself reviewed Volume 1 and 2 of von Schönwerth’s “Sitten und Sagen”, in the “Literarisches Centralblatt für Deutschland”, issue no. 21, page 336 in 1858. This is what he had to say: “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear.” Perhaps the answer to the question, “What is the value of such a collection?” lies in the answer, “Who’s asking?”

  2. Victoria Sussens-Messerer says:

    Jakob Grimm, that is!

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  5. I’m just excited that this discussion is happening. Did this newly discovered collection make news because fairy tales are big in Hollywood at the moment? Because it’s the bicentenary of the Grimm’s first published volume? I don’t know, but it’s wonderful to see them making news. Knowing that more wonderful tales are yet to be translated, be they Schönwerth’s or Luzel’s, is fabulous. Thank you Jack Zipes.

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  7. Helmut Groschwitz says:

    The number of „new“ fairy tales mentioned in the article is a little bit exaggerated. Schönwerth (who studied law in Munich and became a superior offical at the court of Maximilian II) startet collecting around 1854 (being influenced by Grimm’s “Deutsche Mythologie”, 1835), he got his stuff mostly from other collectors living in the Oberpfalz (Upper Palatinate, North-esatern Bavaria) or from people working as “migrant workers” in Munich (Oberpfalz has been a quite poor part of Bavaria). But he never proved, whether these tales were inspired by Grimms fairy tales or other authors. He published some material from 1857 to 1859 (three volumes), but as these were a financial disaster, he stopped the publication of the rest of his collection. So indeed there is still some further stuff, but the number of 500 „new“ fairy tales can’t be hold. The legacy has been looked through three or four times (but never really systematically; this is now done at the University of Regensburg) and there exist a lot of transcripts made in the 1950s at the “Archiv der Deutschen Volkserzählung” (archive of german folktales) in Marburg. These transcripts are the main basis of the book mentioned in the article. Schönwerth collected not only tales and myths (he can be called being part of the “mythological school” and also searched for the pre-middleage roots of recent local culture), but also made notices about alldays live, food, rituals etc. To put it in a nutshell, his legacy is really interesting for folklorists, but is hard to compare to Grimm. And the quotation in the article, only Schönwerth could replace Grimm, is proven nowhere and more part of the nowadays mystification. There has been a symposium in 2010 on occasion of Schönwerth’s 200th birthday (unfortunatly the proceedings are only in German): Drascek, Daniel; Groschwitz, Helmut; Lindig, Erika; Trummer, Manuel (Hg.): Schönwerth – „mit so leisem Gespür gesammelt.“ Neue Perspektiven auf Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810-1886) und seine Forschungen zur Alltagskultur der Oberpfalz. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner 2011.

  8. “Interesting for folklorists” indeed! I hope those symposium proceedings are translated into English (though I do want to learn German!)

    Dear Sussex Centre, are you going to publish Maria Tatar’s New Yorker article as well? It offers another perspective: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/long-lost-fairy-tales.html?mbid=social_retweet

  9. Tatar’s perspective is indeed more to the point. Schönwerth did not take the effort to polish his Märchen texts and why should he have done so when there was no prospect of publishing them? They will be interesting as either examples of the narrators’ creativity, or as examples of the “oral” reception of already published stories. The story mentioned in The Guardian about the maiden escaping from the witch is certainly not unknown, it is a variant of the Magic Flight (ATU 313) which already had a lot of earlier exposure in Germany. The variant itself, however, seems quite original. For more on von Schönwerth, see the website of the Schönwerth Gesellschaft.

  10. Victoria Sussens-Messerer says:

    For an interesting live chat on the tales, in which Maria Tatar and Erika Eichenseer were both guests, Tatar says: “I will be completely honest and admit that I was at first skeptical. There are many 19th century collections of fairy tales, and many are somewhat dull, especially by comparison to Grimm. And then I read “King Goldenlocks,” the first tale in the collection, and I became a convert, a true believer.” Answering the question about how new the tales are, she says: “Nothing new is ever invented so long as it is possible to borrow–as the folklorists tell us . In that sense, I think that there is nothing completely new in the collection, but its brilliance lies in the reconfiguration of characters, plots, motifs, and themes as well as the revelation that there is more out there than the canonical tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm and Perrault.” For the full chat, go to: http://www.timescolonist.com/Live+chat+Fairy+Tales/6327048/story.html?utmsource=feedburner&utmmedium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+canwest%2FF227+(Times+Colonist+-+News)

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