Friday, January 22, 2016

Tales of Hoffmann: A Twofer

I'm overdue, I know. I've had a few crazy weeks and haven't been able to concentrate. But now I'm housebound by the expected blizzard, so I'm sitting down to get updated and all...

For this episode of "Tales of Hoffmann," I read two stories....

First, "Tobias Martin, Master Cooper" is entertaining enough, but also kind of annoying. It's a story of a cooper (barrel-maker) who has a gorgeous daughter whom he refuses to marry off until she finds a cooper of sufficient skill to impress him. Several young men apprentice themselves to Dad, work hard, and eventually one of them is chosen by the daughter and they marry.

That's it.

Seriously, that's it. No magic, no mystery, nothing macabre or outre at all. Hoffmann may have been a Romantic writer, and there is something here about how great and clean it is to work with one's hands, and a bit of German nationalism, but that's it. This is the most mundane Hoffmann story I've read so far. It was part of his 1818 collection "The Serapion Brethren" and one almost suspects it is filler.

The other story...

In "The Mines of Falun," we have young sailor, Elis, who is depressed as he went to sea to support his family, but returned home to find them all dead. He meets an old miner who talks of the glories of the underground world, and even talks of a Queen of the underground, whom he has sworn devotion to. Elis, enchanted, follows a miner to the mines of Falun (a real-life copper mining district of Sweden, and the photo above is from the mines). He is initially horrified by the reality of the mines, but is convinced by the miners' good spirits and sense of community to start working. He meets the head honcho Pehrson and his lovely daughter Ulla, and soon falls for the latter.

But one day Elis is in the mine and meets the old miner again, who mocks him for his love for Ulla and tells him he must give his devotion to the Queen of the Underworld. He finds out later that this old miner is a ghost, Torbern, who was devoted to the mines and the underground world, and who vanished in a cave-in a century before.

Elis is tormented by his love both for Ulla and for the underground world. He is ready to marry Ulla but on an impulse, just before his wedding, he goes down into the mines to fetch a rare mineral for her wedding present...and he vanishes in a cave-in.

Fifty years later, Elis' body is found in the mines, in a perfect state of preservation. He is brought to the surface, where an old lady approaches. It is Ulla, who has lived alone and is now half-mad. She embraces the preserved body as it crumbles to dust, and then she collapses, dead.

Now THIS is macabre!

It's got some themes you'll start to recognize in Hoffmann, of being torn between the mundane everyday world and a world of dreams and magic. (We saw this in "The Golden Flower Pot.") There's dark, morbid stuff, and not just with the ghost....we're left to wonder if Elis wasn't some sort of arranged sacrifice to the Queen of the Underworld? And there's a bit of Romanticism in its praise of being a regular working guy and thinking what you do is beautiful. It's hard to decide of Elis had stumbled into this or if he had been lead into a trap by Torbern's ghost. This isn't Hoffmann at his best, but he is close to the peak of his power, and this is from the same collection that the previous story was in.

Another macabre twist is that it's based (somewhat) on a real incident. In 1719, miners at the Falun mines came across a corpse in a disused passage, in perfect preservation. Brought to the surface, he was identified as Mats Israelsson (or Fet-Mats, as he was commonly known) by his former fiancee; he had vanished 42 years earlier, in 1677. When he was brought into the air, his body dried and became stonelike. Touted as a "petrified man," he was put on display, where the naturalist Linnaeus saw him and said he wasn't petrified, but covered in vitriol, and would decompose when it evaporated. That proved to be true, and he was buried under a church floor in 1749, then dug up during renovations in 1860 and put on display again, until finally reinterred in 1930. Fet-Mats' story was famous and he was written about by many of the Romantics, but Hoffmann's story is the one that has endured. There was almost an opera based on the story, to have been bombastically composed by Wagner, but it never came to be.

So. One story not all that great, but the other packs a real whallop, especially when you learn of the back story. "The Mines of Falun" is very much worth checking out, and feel free to skip "Tobias Martin, Master Cooper."

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