Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: The Nutcracker and the King of Mice

We finally arrive at Hoffmann's best-known tale; in fact, you may be wondering why I'm bothering to review it, as nearly everyone knows it. But's worth a closer look.

"The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" opens on Christmas Eve, with the Stahlbaum family eagerly awaiting the arrival of Godpapa Drosselmeier, who always brings the best presents. Drosselmeier, a master of clockworks who wears a glass wig (!), always brings complicated clockwork toys, and this year is no exception. Young Fritz is enchanted with a clockwork castle at first, but then grows bored with it, while his sister Marie is taken with the famous Nutcracker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Drosselmeier.

Marie puts the Nutcracker with her dolls, noticing that it appears to make horrible faces when she mentions Drosselmeier. Then things get weird, in a wonderfully surreal scene. A carved owl on top of the grandfather clock turns into Drosselmeier, a horde of mice arrive, and then the Nutcracker, the dolls, and Fritz's toy soldiers come to life. As in the ballet, Marie throws her slipper at the seven-headed King of the Mice, but in this story, she lacerates her arm on a glass cabinet door and passes out before she discovers the result of her actions.

Marie is laid up for a few days due to blood loss, and it's unclear if any of this really happened or if it was merely a vivid dream by an imaginative girl. Drosselmeier visits, and after singing her a weird, unsettling song, he tells her the tale of Princess Pirlipat, who was turned into a nutcracker from a curse by the witch-queen of the mice, and how the court Arcanist and Clockmaker, Drosselmeier himself, found a cure for the curse, which could only be effected by Drosselmeier's nephew. He manages to life the curse, but due to the intervention of the mouse queen, is turned into a Nutcracker himself (although it costs the queen her life), and he is then spurned by the princess and the court.

Marie recovers, and Drosselmeier tells Marie a few things that clue you in that he's fully aware of what's going on, and even may be the driving force behind this. The Mouse King harasses Marie at night, until finally she goes to the Nutcracker, who vows love and slays the king himself.

Then is one of my favorite bits in the story: The Nutcracker opens the doors of a wardrobe, climbs up and pulls the tassel on a fox-fur coat, which causes a ladder to fall from the sleeve. He and Marie climb the ladder, and find themselves on a meadow. From here the Nutcracker takes her on a tour of his realm, the Kingdom of Toys, with rivers of lemonade and people made of sugar. It's a pleasantly surreal journey, with some dabs of what seems to have been political commentary. Then suddenly Marie wakes; again, was it all a dream?

Drosselmeier arrives...and brings his nephew, newly arrived from Nuremberg. Marie and the nephew fall in love, are married a year later....and he takes her off to live in a marzipan castle.

The story is actually darker than the ballet, and while there's a lot of kid-friendly stuff in it, it's also creepy and unsettling at times. Drosselmeier is an ambiguous character at first, sometimes seeming more like a villain. He turns out to be good; was this a sign of the story needing some touching up?

There's no dancing Sugar Plum Fairy, and there's some fairly gruesome bits, like when the mouse queen dies when she's stepped on, and sometimes people are cruel and heartless. Fritz can be an awful bastard, and Marie can seem like a naive drip, but also sentimental and steadfast in her loyalty. And the descriptions of clockwork toys, and Marie's dolls, and of the candies and other facets of an 18th century German Christmas celebration, make this a nicely sentimental and cozy read for the holiday season.

And what about that bit where they enter another world through a wardrobe? Did C. S. Lewis read this?

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