Monday, November 25, 2019

"Nutcracker and Mouse King" by ETA Hoffmann AND "The Tale of the Nutcracker" by Alexandre Dumas

I'm reviewing these together because The Tale of the Nutcracker is Alexandre Dumas' French translation of the German story Nutcracker and Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann.  And the edition I read has them both together, translated into English by Joachim Neugroschel.

I'd never read either of these before -- my knowledge of the Nutcracker story comes from the ballet by Mikhail Baryshnikov that we watched on PBS every winter when I was a kid, and which I now watch on DVD with my own kids.  It was interesting to see the differences not only between these two versions of the story, but between them and the ballet!



E.T.A. Hoffman's is the original, and it has this very bold, brash feel to it.  And it's kinda dark.  Very German-winter-near-the-old-and-scary-forest sort of vibe.  It's all about a little girl named Marie who has a somewhat creepy godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, as well as a bratty brother named Fritz and a snobby sister named Luise.  They get a huge number of fabulous presents for Christmas, including a mechanical castle made by Drosselmeier, who is a Chief Justice, but seems to spend most of his time making fantastical toys and fixing clocks.  He also gives the family a very ugly nutcracker. 

Marie loves the Nutcracker.  She stays up late playing with him, gets attacked by lots of mice led by a seven-headed Mouse King, the Nutcracker and all of Fritz's toy soldiers come to life and have a battle with the mice, and Marie gets injured in the fray, but saves Nutcracker from the ravages of the Mouse King by throwing her shoe at him.  She faints from blood loss, and has to spend a week in bed recovering.

While she's stuck in bed, Herr Drosselmeier comes to visit.  No one in her family believes Marie's story of how she hurt her arm, but Drosselmeier seems to.  He tells her a long story about a princess named Pirlipat, some wicked mice, and a brave young man who tried to save the princess from the mice, only to get turned into a nutcracker.  Marie is convinced this story is about her new Nutcracker, especially when she gets visited by the Mouse King for several nights running.  Mouse King demands she sacrifice all her candies and cookies and marzipan treats to him, or else he'll gnaw on Nutcracker.  Marie tearfully complies, until all her goodies are gone.  But then Nutcracker comes back to life, defeats the Mouse King once and for all, and takes Marie on a journey to the Land of Sweets, which he rules.

After seeing many delightful things there, Marie falls asleep, and wakes up back at home in bed.  Her whole family laughs at her when she tells them about her journey.  But then Herr Drossellmeier returns, with his handsome nephew who has just returned from a long journey, and who obviously is the Nutcracker released from the enchantment for good.

Marie, though only 7, accepts this nephew's offer of marriage.  One year later, they get married, and live happily ever after in the Land of Sweets.

Um, yes.  Child bride and all that.  Hmmmmmmmm.  It's a weird, wacky story, obviously not meant to be taken seriously, so I guess we're just supposed to shrug and be cool with it.

Alexandre Dumas' translation is fairly similar, but he takes out a lot of the scary or weird parts, or tames them down.  Yes, the same Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers tried to make a more-child-friendly version of the story when he translated it.  Which amuses me.  Basically the same things happen, except the mice are way less icky and the whole thing has a more sparkly, bright feel.

I definitely preferred Dumas' version because it was more whimsical, yet a little less nonsensical.

Overall, the story reminded me of a blend of The Wizard of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland, plus the game Candy Land.



You know how, in the ballet, about half the time is taken up with the girl and the prince watching his subjects dance while in his magical kingdom?  That's like one paragraph in this story.  Which also cracks me up.

One thing I like better about both of these than the ballet (at least the Baryshnikov version, which is the only one I've seen) is that they make it clear that the Nutcracker really DOES come to life, and the girl DOES get to marry him and live happily ever after.  I don't always hate the "it was all a dream" kind of ending, as it does work for some stories, but I've never liked its use in the ballet.  So I shall imagine the ballet ends this way from now on.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG for some scary/creepy stuff involving mice gnawing on, or threatening to gnaw on, people.



This is my first entry into the Literary Christmas challenge and my 38th for my second go-'round with the Classics Club.


10 comments:

  1. Perfect "Christmas-y" story!

    I have to read a version of this at some point. I think I'd like to try Dumas'. My girls perform in the NK (this is the 4th year) with their dance studio, and that is all I know of the story, from the ballet. "Clara" (Marie) is usually a teenager in our ballet, but this year she is 10, which is a little better than 7!

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    1. Ruth, yes, it was! I definitely recommend Dumas' version over Hoffmann's.

      How cool that your girls get to be in the Nutcracker every year!

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  2. I had heard about the Dumas version around the time I read The Count of Monte Cristo, and I've been curious about it since then. Great review! I'll definitely think about reading it.

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    1. Pioneer Girl, it's definitely worth a read, especially if you like Dumas. It's so different from his swashbucklers... and yet, not so different, as there's a whole battle and everything.

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  3. I love certain aspects of this story. I really want to write mt own version.

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    1. Skye, I'd love to see what you do with it! This story definitely would lend itself to retelling.

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  4. What a fabulous review! I feel more "educated" on the topic of The Nutcracker story now. And... I also feel like I should read the same two stories, back-to-back. Sounds like an intriguing experiment to see how they differ. :)

    Merry Christmas!

    Tarissa
    http://inthebookcase.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks, Tarissa! Reading them back-to-back definitely was nifty, as the original was so fresh in my head.

      Merry Christmas!

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  5. I only read Hoffman's version...well, someone's (besides Dumas') translation...but it was a delight. I have only very vague memories of watching the ballet on TV, so I was pretty well free from expectations. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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    1. Joseph, yeah, obviously I didn't read either of them in the original German or French ;-) I liked the Dumas version better -- he intrigues me as a translator, because he "improves" on things. I've got (an English translation of) his translation of Hamlet in book form finally, after having tried reading it online and giving up -- he changes quite a few things in it, especially the ending, and I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well!

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