Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) was a German poet and writer of the Romantic school, best known today for his märchen, a word usually translated as “fairy tales” — generally implied to be for children. In Hauff’s case the description “folkloric tales” might be more appropriate, since some of his stories seem too dark for children’s literature. Perhaps that’s why his name and works are less well known to Anglophone readers today than, say, the work of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. This is a shame; the tales I’ve read are delightful, and like the work of Hans Christian Andersen, are as readable–or even more readable–for adults as for children.
Hauff published his Märchen over the period of 1825-1827 as three Märchen-Almanach (yearly keepsake volumes): Die Karawane (The Caravan) (1825), Der Scheik von Alessandria und seine Sklaven (The Sheik of Alexandria and his Slaves) (1826) and Das Wirtshaus im Spessart (The Inn in the Spessart) (1827). Each collection is in the form of a story-cycle, with a framing narrative whose characters tell the individual tales, either to pass the time or to relate a part of their personal history. As you might guess from the titles, the first two collections are Orientalist fantasies patterned after the Arabian Nights. That’s well and good, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it, so instead I read The Inn in the Spessart, a tale of intrigue, impersonation, and highway robbers set in the forest of the Spessart region of Bavaria and Hesse.
The framing story feels like a fairy-tale, though not magical, and it’s stronger than framing stories tend to be. Several travelers are staying the night at an inn in the Spessart forest, and come to believe that the innkeepers are in league with a band of highway robbers. Being afraid to fall asleep, they tell each other stories in order to pass the night. One of the travelers is a young goldsmith who is on a quest, of a sort; he’s the tale’s protagonist, and wins himself a karmic, happily-ever-after kind of ending. It’s an easy to guess ending, but still a satisfying conclusion to a suspenseful narrative.
Die Sage vom Hirschgulden (The Story of the Stag Florin) has the structure of a fairy tale, with hints of magic but no overt supernatural elements. The narrative is properly karmic, but it’s also a bit of a downer.
Das kalte Herz (known in English variously as “The Cold Heart,” “The Marble Heart,” or “The Stone Heart”) was one of Hauff’s most popular tales, appearing in several English translations, often aimed at adults. The tale resonates well in today’s contemporary conversations about the one percent and the indifference of the corporate world to ordinary people. Proving, unfortunately, the universality and timelessness of the problem….
The Inn in the Spessart splits “The Cold Heart” into two parts: the first part told at the inn, and the second part in the robbers’ encampment. The scholar David Blamires identifies the second half as derived from Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker (from Tales of a Traveller, 1824). The first half is a variation on the folktale Billy Duff and the Devil. Hauff blends motifs from both source stories to create the figures of Little Glass-Man and Dutch Michael, making them appear to be genuine Black Forest legend.
Saids Schicksale (Said’s Adventure) is an Arabian Nights style fairy tale. It’s fun and adventureful, and though I hadn’t been in the mood for Orientalist fantasy, this was still an enjoyable read.
Die Höhle von Steenfoll (The Cavern of Steenfoll) is a scene-for-scene retelling of R. P. Gillies’ “The Nikkur Holl”, from Tales of a Traveler (1826)–also a story-cycle. This is a great, atmospheric and eerie ghost-story that I wrote about on my Dark Tales Sleuth blog; Hauff’s version is also quite good, shorter and faster-paced than Gillies’ original. You can compare both versions over at Dark Tales Sleuth (with links to both stories).
The versions I shared are from an 1886 translation, Tales by Wilhelm Hauff, by S. Mendel. It was one of the earliest complete translations of Hauff’s märchen into English, and also one of the better translations that I’ve found. As David Blamires points out, this edition was probably aimed at adults, as the volume has no illustrations. I also found an almost-complete 1905 translation by Sybil Thesiger (it’s missing “The Haunted Ship,” from The Caravan), with lovely illustrations by Dorothy Morris; and a complete 1881 translation by Edward Stowell, which is readable, but not as good as Mendel’s. It may however, be the first; Blamires gives that credit to Mendel, apparently not being aware of Stowell’s.
In 1826 Hauff published the historical romance Lichtenstein, a well-received work that drew comparisons to Sir Walter Scott. He was at work on a second historical novel when he died of typhoid fever at the age of 24.
It’s hard to say where his work may have gone, had he lived, or whether we would remember it today. But at least he was able to leave these wonderful märchen to the world, for us to enjoy.
Featured image: Illustration for Steenfoll Cave by Dorothy Morris, for Sybil Thesiger’s 1905 translation.
Illustration for The Inn at the Spessart by Dorothy Morris, for Sybil Thesiger’s 1905 translation.
Blamires, David, “The Fairytales of Wilhelm Hauff,” chapter from Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Children’s Books 1780-1918 (2009). [JSTOR link (open access)]