Have you heard the fairy tale about the young girl who escapes the clutches of a witch by turning herself into a pond? The witch drinks all the water, swallowing the girl, but the girl frees herself by cutting her way of the witch’s stomach with a knife. If you’re not familiar with that one, you’re not alone. The last time anyone recorded that fairy tale was in the 19th century, deep in Germany’s Black Forest.
The story of the pond-girl and the witch, and about 500 other fairy tales, were recently re-discovered buried deep in an archive in Regensberg, Germany. The Guardian reported yesterday about the find. All the fairy tales were recorded by the German historian, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810 - 1886), who spent much of the 19th century roaming through Germany’s Black Forest, recording local customs and folklore, and paying close attention to fairy tales. No less a fairy tale collector than Jacob Grimm said of Schönwerth, “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear.”
Schönwerth differed from the Grimm brothers in that his outlook was primarily historical -- he didn’t embellish the stories he heard, he just set them down on paper as they were told. His work, therefore, provides an unparalleled glimpse into Bavarian culture in the 19th century.
Erika Eichenseer, the cultural curator for Oberpflaz in Bavaria, has ignited a recent re-evaluation of Schönwerth’s work. Schönwerth published a three volume collection of his studies in the 1850s, but the work went largely unnoticed, fading quickly from the public eye. (Incidentally, the three volumes, entitled Aus der Oberpfalz - Sitten und Sagen, were printed in 1857, 1858, and 1859. I couldn’t find any copies available online). Eichenseer discovered Schönwerth’s fairy tales in an archive in Regensberg while shifting through his papers. Last year, she published a German selection of tales from the collection. An English translation is now in the works. Eichenseer has also launched a Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society to promote the study of the long forgotten historian.
While Schönwerth’s significant contribution to German history is being restored, I’m looking forward to the illustrated edition of the pond-girl and the witch story.