Review: The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth

Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

TurnipPrincessIn 2009, folklorists were delighted to learn of the discovery of a cache of 500 unknown Bavarian fairy tales. Unearthed from a municipal archive by German storyteller and fairy tale expert Erika Eichenseer, the tales had been collected in the 1800s by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, transcribed from his interviews with local Bavarians. By 2010, a portion of the collection, edited by Eichenseer, was published in Germany. This month, Penguin Classics releases The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales in English, the translation by Maria Tatar, Harvard University’s chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology.

Unlike the more familiar Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen collections, Schönwerth’s renditions of oral Bavarian lore are said to be true to the common folks who shared their stories with him, perhaps over mugs of cider or strong homebrew. These tales are unembellished, unconcerned with literary form and style, “earthy, scatological, and unvarnished,” as Tatar describes them in the book’s introduction. “Schönwerth’s collection of tales may lack some of the charm of other nineteenth-century collections,” she wrote, “but it gives us a crystal-clear window into the storytelling culture of its time.”

Some readers might think the time of fairy tales has long past, that they are an archaic notion or that they belong solely to the naïve realm of childhood, but such readers might reconsider. Fairy tales offer adults a variety of goodies, from that window into the storytelling culture of a particular time and place to a momentary escape into fantasy, lessons in morality, consolation, hope. And this particular collection offers a sometimes fascinating contrast to the Grimm Brother’s versions of similar tales.

Consider the Grimms’ “The Frog King,” the story of a selfish young princess whose golden ball is rescued from her pond’s depths by an ugly talking frog, who is, of course, a bewitched prince, hoping to regain his comely form and riches. The bratty princess refuses to honor her commitment to befriend the frog, throwing him against the wall when he tries to crawl into her bed, but the king forces her to do the honorable thing and spoon with the amphibian. The Grimms reward her snittiness with marriage to the prince, returned to his former self.

In Schönwerth’s version of the story, “Follow Me, Jodel!” good-hearted but not-so-swift Jodel is competing with his smarter, not-so-nice older brother Michael for inheritance of the family farm. Jodel finds success with the help of a “less-than-beautiful” toad, who is, inevitably, a bewitched and moneyed maiden of the lovely sort. Jodel wins the girl and her castle because he treats the toad kindly, going right for the spooning, even though she "gave him the creeps." Michael ends up with the leftover farm.

While honoring folklore morphology, The Turnip Princess is a series of such female-male role reversals and spins—sometimes gnarly—on the Grimm tales. Tatar attributes these differences to the brothers’ personal preferences, rather than cultural distinctions: “The divide between passive princesses and dragon-slaying heroes may be little more than a figment of the Grimm imagination.”

The Turnip Princess is a rich resource, comprising seventy-two stories in six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes, and Tales About Nature. The stories are followed by Tatar’s commentary and a motif index by Nicola Schaffler, making the collection both fun to read and a useful academic text.

And for those not convinced that dusty fairy tales have anything to offer a modern audience, consider one of the last stories, “Sir Wind and His Wife.” The two were present at the creation of the world, but they were overweight, a contemporary topic most readers will find familiar.

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Read “King Goldenlocks,” from The Turnip Princess, here.

For more information about Schönwerth and his work, visit the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society (the site is in German).