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
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.