The Dastardly (and Delicious) Spell of Struwwelpeter
By LIZ HAGER
Note: June 13 marked the 200th anniversary of author Heinrich Hoffman’s birth.
Struwwelpeter cover (courtesy Frederick Warne & Co, now Penguin).
In 1844, unable to find suitable instructional material for his young son, Heinrich Hoffman penned Struwwelpeter and presented it to the three year old as a Christmas gift.
In 1962, perhaps for the same reason, my grandmother gave my youngest brother, then five, the English edition of Struwwelpeter, also as a Christmas gift.
I was 9 at the time, dutifully trudging through rather bland books like Mary Poppins, while attempting more challenging reads like The Phantom Tollbooth (this one with the interpretive help of my father). The Tollbooth notwithstanding (it was after all a fable), I took no interest Struwwelpeter at first. Wherever I was in the lexicon of children’s lit, I knew that I was beyond “fairy tales.”
Nevertheless, Struwwelpeter quietly and permanently cast its spell upon me.
Eventually, curiosity pushed me to purloin the book from my defenseless brother. (Dastardly fun!) The cover telegraphed that these were no garden-variety fairy tales. Once inside, I honed in on the charming cartoon-like illustrations, which transported me to a era not altogether unfamiliar to me, surrounded as we were by items passed down through generations of family.
Cartoon depicting Heinrich Hoffmann’s jubilee celebration with caption “Papa, we congratulate you.”
The verses were another matter. They were dark, much darker than even the grimmest Grimm tale. The stories may have started in a playful mode, but they invariably ended badly, as a child paid the Draconian consequences for disregarding parental advice. Some of the outcomes were cruel, others gruesomely violent. Whatever the case, they were altogether unlike the tales of “normal” childhood that were being served up to me by mid-20th-century authors. No, the Struwwelpeter stories were truly scary, because the things that happened to these children—e.g. severed fingers, dog bites, burning hair, wasting away, drowning—conceivably could befall a careless 20th-century child.
Below: “Cruel Frederick” from Struwwelpeter (courtesy Frederick Warne & Co, now Penguin). Click to enlarge images.
And yet, those über-didactic tales were fascinating. I not-so secretly laughed in the naughty antics of those children and the punishments that befell them. As the oldest child, I was adjusting to sharing the limelight with my closest sibling, yet another brother, and the first son of the family. Imagine my glee upon finding his eponymous story in the collection! For a moment, I reveled in the possibility that my brother Frederick might too someday be bitten by a dog and end up miserably in bed. That he too would be visited by a doctor bearing further unpleasantries—
The Doctor came, and shook his head,
And made a very great to-do,
And gives him nasty physic (i.e. medicine) too.
I’m guessing that I was not alone in my glee, that generations of children received their first lessons in Schadenfreude from the Struwwelpeter stories.
A 19th century “reward of merit” for a well-learned lesson.
Are the tales sadistically cruel or humorously entertaining? On the one hand, Dr. Hoffmann earned a reputation as a caring and humane psychiatrist. Further, the German subtitle translates to “amusing stories and droll pictures,” indicating perhaps a more humorous intent. But 19th-century society possessed very different notions than we about childhood and child development; children were considered little more than savage creatures, who required strict guidance in order to behave as adults. Few allowances were made for unruly behavior; beatings were acceptable and routine. A particularly thorough discussion of the question appears in Barbara Smith Chalou’s—Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror.
In any case, the Germans were not alone in producing tales of horror—19th-century English and American children’s books often made use of violent cruelty. (See Original Poems for Infant Minds for particularly gruesome examples.) Further, Struwwelpeter‘s success has not been limited to Germany. To date, some 30 million-plus copies of the book have been sold worldwide. The book has inspired contemporary spin-offs—a “junk” opera (see clip below), an NPR show, Bob Shaake’s updated illustrated tale (link below) and even a parody, Struwwelhitler (also below).
The charming Struwwelpeter illustrations will always inspire the better angels of my (aesthetic) nature. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve really left its verse-inspired Schadenfreude completely in my childhood. . .
Disclosure: I still have the purloined book. Just for the record, I’m never giving it back.
Struwwelpeter (English)—Project Gutenberg version
Struwwelpeter Museum, Frankfort
Shockheaded Peter (The Junk Opera)
Above: Wyld Stallyon’s animation of Bob Staake’s Struwwelpeter (Tom Waits soundtrack particularly effective)
“Struwwelhitler” from Struwwelpeter: Fearful Stories & Vile Pictures