In March of 2012, the Guardian announced a major literary and cultural discovery: more than 500 new fairy tales had been unearthed in Germany. The haul of stories was vast, impressively so. It contained in its pages a new world of enchanted animals, magic and romance, legend, otherworldly creatures, parables about nature, and wild exaggeration. But there was something else. These tales had been collecting dust in a bunch of old boxes for more than 150 years. This dating is significant: it confirms that the tales are roughly contemporaneous with those of the Brothers Grimm. To be sure, this was an historic and unprecedented discovery. The woman who made it, a cultural curator and folklorist named Erika Eichenseer, compared the collection to “buried treasure.”
But before Eichenseer found this treasure, before she undertook the truly invaluable work of reading, sorting, and transcribing these tales, she had to discover them in a municipal archive in Regensburg, Germany. And before they were placed in this archive, they were the property of one Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a high-ranking government official and amateur folklorist of the mid-nineteenth century, who, inspired by the Brothers Grimm, took it upon himself to travel around the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, to collect and interview and record the stories he heard from the people there. Schönwerth’s hard work did not go unnoticed. Jacob Grimm, in 1885, declared that “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear.”
The fruits of this labor of love, of Schönwerth’s (and later Eichenseer’s) hard work, have now been expertly translated, introduced, and commented upon by Maria Tatar in a volume titled The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. Today we’re thrilled to debut two never-before-seen fairy tales from this collection, published by Penguin Classics this week.
Excerpt from The Turnip Princess
And Other Newly Discovered Fairly Tales
By Franz Xaver von Schönwerth
Compiled and Edited with a Foreword by Erika Eichenseer
Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Maria Tatar
Illustrations by Engelbert Süss
A wealthy prince was married to a beautiful woman. The two had no children, and that was a source of great sorrow for the prince. As for the princess, she was consumed with envy whenever anyone in the kingdom gave birth to a child.
One day the prince and the princess were visiting a village, and they looked on as a festive group made its way into the local church. A farmer was having his triplets baptized, and everyone in the village had gathered to celebrate. The princess was planning to put a stop to the festivities, but the prince made fun of her, mocking the fact that she was aching to have something that a mere peasant possessed. It was her own fault that she had no children, he added. The princess flew into a rage right then and there and accused the farmer’s wife of infidelity, claiming that a woman could never have more than one child at a time with her husband. When the prince returned home, he held a mirror up to the princess’s face so that she could see how ugly she looked. To her horror, she saw in the mirror the head of a shaggy wolf, red-eyed, baring its teeth.
It turned out that the princess, without knowing it, was actually pregnant at the time. She gave birth to seven boys in seven days, one after another. She remembered what she had said earlier to the farmer’s wife. The prince was not at home, and she decided to send the midwife out to a wolf’s lair, with the seven boys wrapped up in an apron. It happened that the prince was hunting right in that area, and he ran into the midwife. “What are you doing here?” he asked. She immediately owned up to her evil intentions, and the prince rewarded her by running her through with a sword. He had the boys raised by a loyal subject.
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.”
“IN THE JAWS OF THE MERMAN”
There was once a village near a large body of water, and many beautiful girls lived there. The more often they swam in the lake, the more lovely they became. Everyone adored them. Girls living in other places heard about them. They came in from many different regions to swim there. But since many were ugly and couldn’t stay underwater as long as the girls in the village, they did not become prettier. In fact, many of them drowned.
Girls stopped traveling there, but suitors from all four points of the compass came courting. All the girls in the village were married on one day. The morning after, there was an enormous uproar. Everyone was running, and the grooms had grabbed their wives by the hair and were pushing and shoving them to the point of exhaustion, and then they raced away.
It turned out that there was something not quite right with the girls—they had fish scales. A judge appeared on the scene with his officials, took a look at the brides, and ordered all of them to be burned at the stake at once. As the flames were licking the stake, tall waves rose up and washed into the village, and a huge head emerged from the waters. It spewed water like a whale and put out the fire. The brides all walked across an arc of water as if it were a bridge leading from the woodpile back to the water and then into the gatelike jaws of the merman. Since that time girls no longer swim in that lake.
From The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, published on February 24, 2015 by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Selection and foreword copyright by Erika Eichenseer, 2015. Translation, introduction and commentary copyright by Maria Tatar, 2015.