Review of the Day: Dwarf Nose by Wilhelm Hauff
It seems so funny to me that for all that our culture loves and adores fairytales, scant attention is paid to the ones that can rightfully be called both awesome and obscure. There is a perception out there that there are only so many fairytales out there that people really need to know. But for every Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty you run into, there’s a Tatterhood or Riquet with the Tuft lurking on the sidelines. Thirty or forty years ago you’d sometimes see these books given a life of their own front and center with imaginative picture book retellings. No longer. Folktales and fairytales are widely viewed by book publishers as a dying breed. A great gaping hole exists, and into it the smaller publishers of the world have sought to fulfill this need. Generally speaking they do a very good job of bringing world folktales to the American marketplace. Obscure European fairytales, however, are rare beasts. How thrilled I was then to discover the republication of Wilhelm Hauff and Lisbeth Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose. Originally released in America in 1995 by North-South books, the book has long been out-of-print. Now the publisher minedition has brought it back and what a beauty it is. Strange and sad and oddly uplifting, this tale has all the trappings of the fairytales you know and love, but somehow remains entirely unexpected just the same.
For there once was a boy who lived with his two adoring parents. His father was a cobbler and his mother sold vegetables and herbs in the market. One day the boy was assisting his mother when a very strange old woman came to them and starting digging her dirty old hands through their wares. Incensed, the boy insulted the old woman, which as you may imagine didn’t go down very well. When the boy is made to help carry the woman’s purchases back to her home he is turned almost immediately into a squirrel and made to work for seven years in her kitchen. After that time he awakes, as if in a dream, only to find seven years have passed and his body has been transformed. Now he has no neck to speak of, a short frame, a hunched back, and a extraordinarily long nose. Sad that his parents refuse to acknowledge him as their son, he sets forth to become the king’s cook. And all would have gone without incident had he not picked up that enchanted goose in the market one day. Written in 1827 this tale is famous in Germany but remains relatively obscure in the United States today.
I go back and forth when I consider why this fairytale isn’t all that famous to Americans. There are a variety of reasons. There are some depressing elements to it (kid is unrecognizable to parents, loses seven years of his life, etc.) sure. There aren’t any beautiful princesses (except possibly the goose). The bad guy doesn’t even appear in the second act. Still, it’s the peculiarities that give it its flavor. We’ve heard of plenty of stories where the heroes are transformed by the villains, but how many villains give those same heroes a useful occupation in the process? It’s Dwarf Nose’s practicalities that are so interesting, as are the nitty gritty elements of the tale. I love the use of herbs particularly. Whether the story is talking about Sneezewell or Bellyheal, you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to someone who knows what they’re talking about. Plus there are tiny rodent servants. That’s a plus.
We like it when our fairytales give us nice clear-cut morals. Be clever, be kind, be good. This may be another reason why Dwarf Nose never really took off in the States. At first glance one would assume that the moral would be about not judging by appearances. Dwarf Nose’s parents cannot comprehend that their beautiful boy is now ugly, and so they throw him out. He gets a job as a chef but does not search out a remedy until the goose he rescues gives him some hope. I was fully prepared for him to remain under his spell for the rest of his life without regrets, but of course that doesn’t happen. He’s restored to his previous beauty, he returns to his parents who welcome him with open arms, and he doesn’t even marry the goose girl. Hauff ends with a brief mention of a silly war that occurred thanks to Dwarf Nose’s disappearance ending with the sentence, “Small causes, as we see, often have great consequences, and this is the story of Dwarf Nose.” That right there would be your moral then. Not an admonishment to avoid judging the outward appearance of a thing (though Dwarf Nose’s talents drill that one home pretty clearly) but instead that a little thing can lead to a great big thing.
When this version of Dwarf Nose was originally released in the States in 1994 the reviews were puzzled by its length. Booklist said it was “somewhat verbose to modern listeners” and School Library Journal noted the “grotesque tenor of the book”. Fascinatingly this is not the only incarnation of this tale you might find in America. In 1960 Doris Orgel translated a version of “Dwarf Long-Nose” which was subsequently illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The School Library Journal review of Zwerger’s version in 1994 suggested that the Sendak book was infinitely more kid-friendly than hers. I think that’s true to a certain extent. You get a lot more pictures with the Sendak and the book itself is a much smaller format. While Zwerger excels in infinitely beautiful watercolors, Sendak’s pen and inks with just the slightest hint of orange for color are almost cartoonish in comparison. What I would argue then is that the intended age of the audience is different. Sure the text is remarkably similar, but in Zwerger’s hands this becomes a fairytale for kids comfortable with Narnia and Hogwarts. I remember as a tween sitting down with my family’s copy of World Tales by Idries Shah as well as other collected fairytales. Whether a readaloud for a fourth grade class, an individual tale for the kid obsessed with the fantastical, or bedtime reading for older ages, Dwarf Nose doesn’t go for the easy audience, but it does go for an existing one.
Lisbeth Zwerger is a fascinating illustrator with worldwide acclaim everywhere except, perhaps, America. It’s not that her art feels too “foreign” for U.S. palates, necessarily. I suspect that as with the concerns with the length of Dwarf Nose, Zwerger’s art is usually seen as too interstitial for this amount of text. We want more art! More Zwerger! I’ve read a fair number of her books over the years, so I was unprepared for some of the more surreal elements of this one. In one example the witch Herbwise is described as tottering in a peculiar fashion. “…it was as if she had wheels on her legs, and might tumble over any moment and fall flat on her face on the paving stones.” For this, Zwerger takes Hauff literally. Her witch is more puppet than woman, with legs like bicycle wheels and a face like a Venetian plague doctor. We have the slightly unnerving sensation that the book we are reading is, in fact, a performance put on for our enjoyment. That’s not a bad thing, but it is unexpected.
When Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose came out in 1994 it was entering a market where folktales were on the outs. Still, libraries bought it widely. A search on WorldCat reveals that more than 500 libraries currently house in on their shelves after all these years. And while folktale sections of children’s rooms do have a tendency to fall into disuse, it is possible that the book has been reaching its audience consistently over the years. It may even be time for an upgrade. Though it won’t slot neatly into our general understanding of what a fairytale consists of, Dwarf Nose will find its home with like-minded fellows. Oddly touching.
On shelves April 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Misc: Check out this fantastic review of the same book by 32 pages.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network