Book Review – The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann

books, reviews

Rating: 3 out of 5.

So, yet again, my Christmas reading hasn’t gone to plan. It’s my own fault really because who has time for much reading at the moment? I just always seem to have something to do. Meaning all of the books that are over 200 or so pages just seem super long. To get something finished for today’s post, I decided to pick up another short one. I don’t think I’ve ever read the original version of The Nutcracker by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Although, I’ve had this gorgeous illustrated copy for years. I figured it was worth finally checking it out.

There are so many versions of this story out there that it’s easy to forget how dark the original tale is. There are some gruesome images during the battle between the Nutcracker and the seven-headed Mouse King. However, the story has stayed, more or less, the same over the years. On Christmas Eve, Marie is given a Nutcracker by her father. When her brother, Fritz, breaks the toy, Marie is heartbroken and vows to nurse him back to health. This sets her off on a fantastical journey into a magical world where toys come to life. Marie’s godfather, Drosselmeier is an inventor who can fix the Nutcracker. He also tells her the story of why the Nutcracker looks so strange. He used to be a human boy but was cursed for killing the Mouse Queen.

As well as being turned into the toy, the Nutcracker is being pursued by the Mouse Queen’s seven-headed child, the Mouse King. Marie and Fritz’s toys come to life and help the Nutcracker fight the mouse army but it is only with Marie’s help that the hero can be saved. Marie vows to protect her toy from the Mouse King and, over the next few nights, does whatever it takes to keep the Mouse King happy. But can she actually help get rid of the Mouse King completely and maybe turn the Nutcracker back into his old self?

It’s not that this story isn’t well-written or interesting. It makes some interesting points about imagination and the rational world we live in. Marie is held back in her own world and is dismissed by family. She lives in a regimented world but she dislikes the rigid rules she has to follow. So, she embraces the Nutcracker’s world as she sees the freedom it offers her. Drosselmeier is unable to create the toy that she asked him for because his creativity is restricted but, in the Nutcracker’s kingdom, Marie can build it herself. The book suggests that letting your imagination run free is both a positive and a negative. Marie gets to see all sorts of wonderful things but she has to choose to leave her own world and family behind forever.

There are some fantastic themes here and the worlds that are created are fantastic. The only problem is, the story has really odd pacing. It wastes so much time setting everything up but rushes all of the really interesting parts. When Marie finally heads to the Nutcracker’s kingdom, we only get a brief glimpse of the delights that exist in a world free of rules. It just seemed odd. We’re so used to the events of this story happening over the space of one night. Here, the action is split up over a few days. This means there are a lot of moments when Marie faints and winds up having to rest for a while. It does slow the pace a lot and makes the whole thing seem a bit less fraught. After all, what kind of evil villain waits until a young girl recovers before trying to kill his greatest foe?

Still, this is a weird and wonderful story that is worth a read. Especially this edition which features some beautiful illustrations by Sanna Annukka. They are stunning and have a real folksy feel to them. It definitely helps the story to jump off the page and give you a real sense of wonder about it all. Otherwise, I fear this would have been a rather flat tale. You can, perhaps, understand why the ballet was based on the retelling by Alexandre Dumas instead.

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