A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.
Last year, the Oberpfalz cultural curator Erika Eichenseer published a selection of fairytales from Von Schönwerth’s collection, calling the book Prinz Roßzwifl. This is local dialect for « scarab beetle ». The scarab, also known as the « dung beetle », buries its most valuable possession, its eggs, in dung, which it then rolls into a ball using its back legs. Eichenseer sees this as symbolic for fairytales, which she says hold the most valuable treasure known to man: ancient knowledge and wisdom to do with human development, testing our limits and salvation.
Von Schönwerth spent decades asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth. In 1885, Jacob Grimm said this about him: « Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear. » Grimm went so far as to tell King Maximilian II of Bavaria that the only person who could replace him in his and his brother’s work was Von Schönwerth.
Von Schönwerth compiled his research into a book called Aus der Oberpfalz – Sitten und Sagen, which came out in three volumes in 1857, 1858 and 1859. The book never gained prominence and faded into obscurity.
While sifting through Von Schönwerth’s work, Eichenseer found 500 fairytales, many of which do not appear in other European fairytale collections. For example, there is the tale of a maiden who escapes a witch by transforming herself into a pond. The witch then lies on her stomach and drinks all the water, swallowing the young girl, who uses a knife to cut her way out of the witch. However, the collection also includes local versions of the tales children all over the world have grown up with including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin, and which appear in many different versions across Europe.
Von Schönwerth was a historian and recorded what he heard faithfully, making no attempt to put a literary gloss on it, which is where he differs from the Grimm brothers. However, says Eichenseer, this factual recording adds to the charm and authenticity of the material. What delights her most about the tales is that they are unpolished. « There is no romanticising or attempt by Schönwerth to interpret or develop his own style, » she says.
Eichenseer says the fairytales are not for children alone. « Their main purpose was to help young adults on their path to adulthood, showing them that dangers and challenges can be overcome through virtue, prudence and courage. »
In 2008, Eichenseer helped to found the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society, an interdisciplinary committee devoted to analysing his work and publicising it. She is keen to see the tales available in English, and a Munich-based English translator, Dan Szabo, has already begun work on stories ranging from a miserly farmer and a money-mill to a turnip princess.
« Schönwerth’s legacy counts as the most significant collection in the German-speaking world in the 19th century, » says Daniel Drascek, a member of the society and a professor in the faculty of language, literature and cultural sciences at the University of Regensburg.