Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Nutcracker and the King of Mice.

As you all may know, we are all very sophisticated here at Fairy Tale Fandom [sips hot cocoa with pinky out].  After all, you remember our epic three-part ballet special “The Swan Lake Project”.  However, you may be asking yourself “What about the stories of other ballets?  Especially the most iconic ballet of this time of year: The Nutcracker.” 

Well, I will admit that it’s a classic.  In fact, I actually went and watched a production of this a week or two ago.  However, here’s the thing about it: unlike Swan Lake, the story for The Nutcracker was not born for the ballet.  It’s actually based on a children’s story by German fantasy writer E.T.A Hoffmann.

Caricature of E.T.A. Hoffmann
Ah yes, E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Another of those influential writers that most regular joes and janes of the world have never heard of.  Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann was born on January 24, 1776 in Konisberg, Prussia.  The product of a broken home, he was raised by his uncle.  Educated in law, he became an officer for the Prussian bureaucracy in the Polish provinces until the aforementioned bureaucracy was dissolved following Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon.  After this, Hoffmann took to pursuing a creative life, becoming a composer, critic and writer.  As a writer, most of Hoffmann’s stories focus on sinister or supernatural figures that pass into the lives of ordinary people.  The end result is usually the revelation of the dark or tragic sides of ordinary people.  One thing that actually concerned him was the idea of automata and what would happen if an automaton was actually mistaken for a real person.  He actually wrote a couple of stories on this subject and one of his darker automata stories entitled “The Sand-Man” would one day end up being the inspiration for the rather light and frothy ballet Coppelia.  I point these things out so that you know that “Nutcracker and the King of Mice” with its light tone and young audience is actually kind of a rarity among Hoffmann’s works.

So, shall we take a look at this ballet’s source material?  Of course we will!

The story opens on Christmas as little Fritz and Marie Stahlbaum await the coming of their Godpapa Drosselmeier and the chance to open the gifts left for them by the Christ Child.

Okay, here we have two things to talk about.  First of all, the tradition of the ChristChild bringing gifts.  Now, one of the things that I really like about this story is that it references German Christmas traditions that people in other countries might not know about.  Now, I talked about the roots of Santa Claus in the last post I wrote.  However, one thing I did not mention is that not everyone uses the Santa Claus tradition.  In many European countries, the tradition goes that the baby Jesus would come in the form of a little angel and give gifts to good boys and girls.  In some countries, he’s also accompanied by another figure who would carry the gifts and who was tasked with punishing the naughty children.  This may seem strange to Americans who only know the Santa tradition.  However, we have absorbed a bit of it as well.  The name Christ Kindle (or “Christ Child”) has transformed into another name for Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, here in the US.  The other thing worth talking about is the difference between the girl’s name in the story and in the ballet.  I’ll get to that later on, though.

Anyway, the children open their presents and Drosselmeier the clockmaker arrives with his gift for the children.  It’s a big, wind-up castle with little figures that move in and out of the doors.  Marie thinks it’s wonderful but Fritz is unimpressed seeing as it can only do what the machinery lets it do.  Shortly after the castle is put away so that Fritz doesn’t break it, Marie spots something else nearby.  It’s the ugly little figure of a man dressed like one of Fritz’s toy cavalrymen.  Marie’s father explains that it is a nutcracker and meant to be shared by herself, Fritz and Marie’s older sister (who barely shows up in the story).  Seeing this, Fritz goes to try out the nutcracker by putting the biggest, hardest nut in its mouth.  He succeeds in breaking off three of the nutcracker’s teeth.  Marie is very upset and wraps a ribbon around Nutcracker’s jaw and putting him to bed in her doll’s bed.

Now we start getting to part of the story that has been made famous by the ballet.  Marie hangs back to put Nutcracker to bed.  The clock starts to strike and she looks at it to see that instead of an owl sitting at the top, it looks more like her Godpapa Drosselmeier.  Now, this is when the mice start to invade.  This is followed by the nutcracker leading an army of toys, including dolls, figurines and Fritz’s toy soldiers against the army of invading mice.  One of Marie’s dolls, named Miss Clara, shows a great deal of concern for the nutcracker’s safety.

Here’s where we get to that interesting point I mentioned earlier.  In this original story, the little girl is named Marie and she has a doll named Clara.  In the ballet, the little girl is named Clara and there is no doll.  It seems like such a strange, random choice to make with an adaptation.  I can understand wanting to give a nod to Miss Clara considering how she seems so concerned for poor Nutcracker, but it’s ultimately a small part and one that shouldn’t usurp part of Marie’s.  This sort of thing has been done in other cases, though.  I’m reminded of Universal’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein in which Victor Frankenstein is renamed Henry Frankenstein and his best friend Henry Clerval is renamed Victor Moritz.

Anyway, the battle rages on until Marie decides to take a hand, throwing her slipper at one of the Mouse King’s seven heads.  She then passes out and wakes up to find that her parents had found her next to the toy cabinet having cut herself on a broken pane of glass.  As she convalesces, Mr. Drosselmeier returns and tells her the story of how Nutcracker came to be the way he is.  The basic gist is that he was Drosselmeier’s nephew who was called on to save the life of the Princess Pirlipat after she was cursed to look quite nutcracker-like by Dame Mouserink the queen of the mice.  Though he saves Pirlipat, he ends up cursed himself until he can defeat her son.  This is a part of the story where the prose version outpaces the ballet.  There is no back story for the nutcracker in the ballet because it would practically require them to stage another ballet in the middle of the first ballet.

Anyway, after Marie gets better, the Mouse King returns.  He goes to Marie and tells her that if she doesn’t offer up her sweets and toys, he’ll go and chew up Nutcracker.  Marie obliges until his demands get to be too much.  At that point, he tells her to help by getting him a sword.  She manages to do this with Fritz’s help.  This is about where I’m going to leave you.  We’re closing in on the climax and I don’t like giving away endings unless I really, really have to.  You may have some sense of what it’s like if you’ve seen the ballet, though.  You can read an English translation of the story right HERE, though.

Overall, if you like the Nutcracker ballet, I suggest giving E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story a read.  It’s a lot like the story of the ballet but longer and deeper with more background information and detail.  The story is a wonderful piece with a really interesting combination of reality and dream-like whimsy.  Is there any wonder this story has become a holiday classic in some form?


  1. The Australian Ballet did a version of The Nutcracker in which Drosselmeier was a dancer rather than a character role and was trying to save his nephew; in the very last scene he returns to his workshop and finds his nephew back, the spell broken. I think the name Marie is occasionally given to the girl in the ballet.

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing. I'd never heard of E.T.A Hoffman before, but will have a read of his work through the links you've provided.