Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen,”Literary Aspects of the Romantic School,”
Essays on German Literature, 3rd ed. [New York 1893], 337–41
After all these youthful vagaries and aimless wanderings between the various literary camps, Tieck seems at last to have found his true self. That enchanted wonder-world which lies glimmering in the old German märchens, ballads, and folk-lore had long beckoned to him from afar, and he was now ready to cast aside all wasteful trifling and obey the call.
Wackenroder had been the first to call his attention to those old, poorly-printed Volksbücher, with the coarse wood-cuts, which had for centuries been circulating among the peasantry, and which may still be picked up at the bookstalls of the Leipsic fairs. But Tieck was then deep in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and had no time to listen to nursery tales. Before long, however, Wackenroder prevailed; his friend began to look more favorably upon the old legends, and after the reading of St. Geneviève and “The Children of Heymon” his enthusiasm broke into full blaze.
Space will not permit me to give even a brief outline of the numerous dramatic and novelistic adaptations of the national legends with which he flooded the market and the stage during the next twenty years. Among the dramas “The Life and Death of St. Genevieve” has been accorded a foremost place, and among his many tales the preference is given to “The Blonde Eckbert,” “Tannhaüser,” “The Faithful Eckart,” and “The Runenberg,” all of which are included in the collection of “Phantasies.”
Tieck’s manner of treating the old stories seems to depend greatly upon the mood in which they happen to find him. Sometimes, as in “The Children of Heymon,” he strives to reproduce in himself that simple primitive credulity for which no absurdity is too startling, no miracle too great for belief. It is the mood in which a nurse with an accompaniment of vivid gestures tells a child about “Jack the Giantkiller,” and “Puss in Boots,” and it presupposes in the child an uncritical acceptance of the most incredible statement.
It was in the childhood of nations that these legends came into being, and it is to the still existing reminiscences of the primitive state that you must appeal for interest in tales of this order. Even the prosiest philistine has some recollection of the startled wonder and delight with which he once gazed into the enchanted world of the “Arabian Nights,” and, if gently and skilfully touched, those tuneless strings may once more be made to vibrate. Tieck was such a magician, who touched the Philistine with his wand and awoke the slumbering echoes.
This primitive method, however, involved great self-abnegation on the author’s part; and just at this time he longed to give vent to the enthusiasm which labored within him. Thus in his next märchen we detect something of the mood with which we have been made familiar in [Tieck’s earlier novels] “Lovell” and “Abdallah;” the tale is now no longer its own object and end — it is merely the vehicle of some individual sentiment, mood, or passion. It is a responsive instrument, through which the poet may give utterance to his sorrow and yearning and doubt.
Most clumsily and inartistically has Tieck done this in his love-story of the beautiful Magelone and the Count Peter of Provence [ed. note: the story of a knight’s love for the beautiful daughter of the king of Naples], where the hero philosophizes over his love in a feeble lyrical strain, loses himself in rapturous contemplations of nature, sings jingling and meaningless love-songs, and strikes tragic attitudes, all in the latest improved Romantic fashion. Much better is the style of “The Runenberg” and “The Blonde Eckbert”; here Tieck is trying to find an embodiment for those unutterable emotions which are too fleeting for words, but still are more or less consciously present with all of us. These “anonymous feelings of the soul,” as Novalis calls them, can be made intelligible only by being brought into action; you cannot explain them except by describing or producing that combination of circumstances which will arouse them.
That mysterious shudder which seizes one in reading these apparently harmless tales, whence does it arise if not from some half-conscious under-current of our being, to which an indefinable element in this author appeals? And here we have at last arrived at the new element in Tieck. Notice, in perusing Heine’s description of these märchen, if you do not feel, as it were, a faint touch of that awe and mysterious intensity of which he speaks.
Although of course the effect must be greatly weakened in translation, we are still conscious that something of the mystery remains. “In these tales there reigns a mysterious intensity,” says Heine,
a strange intimacy with nature, especially with plants and stones. The reader feels as if he were in an enchanted forest; he listens to the melodious rush of subterranean fountains; he imagines many a time amid the whispering of the trees that he hears his own name called; the broad-leaved vines often wind themselves perilously about his feet; strange magic flowers gaze at him with their many-colored, yearning eyes; invisible lips kiss his cheeks with delusive tenderness; tall fungi like golden bells stand ringing at the foot of the trees; large, silent birds sit rocking upon the boughs and nod with their long, wise-looking bills; all is breathing, listening, shudderingly expectant; then suddenly a soft bugle is heard, and upon a white palfrey a beautiful maiden rushes past you, with waving plumes on her hat, and a falcon upon her hand. And this beautiful maiden is so very beautiful, so blond, with eyes like violets, so smiling and still so grave, so true and still so roguish, so chaste and yet so passionate, like the fancy of our excellent Ludwig Tieck. Yes, his fancy is a gracious mediæval maiden who hunts fabulous beasts in a magic forest; hunts, perhaps, that rare unicorn which can be caught only by a pure virgin.
Editor’s note: The classic version of the love story of “beautiful Magelone” and the knight Peter of Provence was translated from the French into German by Veit Warbeck and published in several editions in the early sixteenth century, here: Die schön Magelona. EJn fast lustige vnd kurtzweilige Histori von der schönen Magelona eines Künigs tochter vonn Neaples vnnd einem Ritter genannt Peter mitt den silberin schlüsseln eins Graffen son auß Prouincia durch Magister Veiten Warbeck auß Fantzösischer [sic] sprach in die teütschen verdolmetscht mit einem Sendbrieff Georgij Spalatini (1536).
For that version’s original woodcuts that Boyesen mentions above and which so captured the Romantic imagination, click to open the following gallery: