Some Penguin Classics are themselves every bit as fascinating a tale as anything they reprint. It doesn’t often happen that more provenance will furnish a story worth telling – certainly it doesn’t happen often in the Penguin Classics line, where the typical sequence of events goes something like this: Henry James finishes a nice lunch (soup, of course), boxes up the definitive, can’t-get-any-more-gassy edition of his latest 600-page opus about a well-dressed young woman changing her mind about somethng, hands the box to a trusted (young, comely, male) courier, and shortly thereafter receives a cable from his publisher announcing the safe arrival of the manuscript. It’s then printed without any emendations, duly impresses Edmund Wilson, and is eventually indoctrinated into the Library of the America James abandoned in order to save a few dollars on his taxes. That edition then swims contentedly from Penguin Classic to Penguin Classic, reprint to reprint, sometimes with a John Singer Sargent cover, other times with a J. M. W. Turner cover. For generations of readers (voluntary or in), whatever thrill that edition has will come from James doing his thing for page after page after page. Nobody will be interested in the courier, or the box.
Not so some Penguins, however! Some Penguins feature manuscripts etched in prison darkness or on the surging main, scribbled on clammy beds as a final illness gathers strength, or hammered out on an old typewriter with the sound of warfare on the near horizon. Some books, in other words, come with their own thrilling biographies of chances nearly missed (think of that one surviving copy of Catullus escaping Christian bonfires in a Verona library) or discoveries aided only by the thinnest of serendipities. These volumes elicit an extra sigh of gratitude no work of Henry James will ever hear.
One of the newest Penguin Classics is just such a volume: a collection called The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairly Tales, a group of “new” fairy tales assiduously collected by an amateur folklorist (and fan of the Brothers Grimm) named Franz Xaver von Schonwerth in the 19th century and then found, much later, by a heroically beetling bibliophile named Erika Eichenseer, who found von Schonwerth’s labors locked away in a municipal archive in Regensburg, Germany. She read them, sorted them, organized them, and presented them to the world in a 2010 selection called Prinz Rofzwifl (which translates to Prince Dung Beetle and instantly raises the question of why on Earth the folks at Penguin didn’t go with that absolutely stellar title for this volume).
That collection is now a Penguin Classic: The Turnip Princess here presents seventy-odd items from von Schonwerth’s vast treasure-trove of tales (this book could easily have been three times its present size, which raises another question about its current incarnation), giving fairy tale fans a huge mass of the stuff they like best. It’s like walking into a bookstore and finding an extra volume of Hans Christian Anderson that you’ve never seen before; it’s like a third volume of Homer, suddenly Fed-Exed from Regensburg.
They come with intriguing titles like “Seven With One Blow!” “Learning How to Steal” “What the Moon Tried to Wear” “In the Jaws of the Merman” and yes, “Prince Dung Beetle.” And most of them are intensely reminiscent of the brutal, insanely irrational, merrily bloodthirsty world of the more familiar fairy tales before Disney gets its hands on them. Take as just one example the story “The Wolves,” in which a princess hides from her prince the fact that she’s given birth to a veritable litter of baby boys (she’s worried that he’ll believe he’s been serially cuckolded). She orders her handmaid to dump the babies at the nearest wolf’s lair, but the prince, out hunting, intercepts the woman and has the boys raised with a trusted subject. And then:
Eighteen years went by, and the prince was planning a grand feast. Seven boys with long hair, all equally handsome and dressed alike, appeared at the feast. The princess could feel her heart pounding when she set eyes on the boys, and she began to tremble.
During the meal the prince jokingly asked how to punish a mother who throws her sons to the wolves. “She should dance to death in red-hot iron shoes,” was the answer. And so the princess condemned herself to that very punishment. The prince acknowledged the boys as his legitimate children, and they became known as “the wolves.”
Such a cheery little ditty! And the darkest detail goes unsaid: it was, of course, the boys themselves who suggested the gruesome punishment – a punishment meted out two decades after the original offense, an offense where no harm at all was done. The Grimm Brothers would have been proud.
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