Works of Frederick Engels, 1839

German Volksbücher

Written: in May-October 1839
First published: in Telegraph für Deutschland Nos. 186 and 188-191, Nov. 1839
Signed: Friedrich Oswald

[German Volksbücher were similar to the English chap-books of the same period, that is, cheap popular books intended for the mass of the people and containing legends, tales, poetry, etc.]

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 186, November 1839

Is it not a great commendation for a book to be a popular book, a book for the German people? Yet this gives us the right to demand a great deal of such a book; it must satisfy all reasonable requirements and its value in every respect must be unquestionable. The popular book has the task of cheering, reviving and entertaining the peasant when he returns home in the evening tired from his hard day’s work, making him forget his toil, transforming his stony field into a fragrant rose garden; it has the task of turning the craftsman’s workshop and the wretched apprentice’s miserable attic into a world of poetry, a golden palace, and showing him his sturdy sweetheart in the guise of a beautiful princess; but it also has the task, together with the Bible, of clarifying his moral sense, making him aware of his strength, his rights, his freedom, and arousing his courage and love for his country.

If, generally speaking, the qualities which can fairly be demanded of a popular book are rich poetic content, robust humour, moral purity, and, for a German popular book, a strong, trusty German spirit, qualities which remain the same at all times, we are also entitled to demand that it should be in keeping with its age, or cease to be a book for the people. If we take a look in particular at the present time, at the struggle for freedom which produces all its manifestations — the development of constitutionalism, the resistance to the pressure of the aristocracy, the fight of the intellect against pietism and of gaiety against the remnants of gloomy asceticism — I fail to see how it can be wrong to demand that the popular book should help the uneducated n and show him the truth and reasonableness of these =s, although, of course, not by direct deduction; but on no account should it encourage servility and toadying to the aristocracy or pietism. It goes without saying, however, that customs of earlier times, which it would be absurd or even wrong to practise today, must have no place in a popular book.

By these principles we should, and must, also judge those books which are now genuinely popular German books and are usually grouped together under this name. They are products in part of medieval German or Romance poetry, in part of popular superstition. Earlier despised and derided by the upper classes, they were, as we know, sought out by the romantics, adapted, even extolled. But romanticism looked at their poetic content alone, and how incapable it was of grasping their significance as popular books is shown by Görres’ work on them [J. Görres, Die teutschen Volksbücher]. Görres, as he has shown but lately, actually versifies all his judgments. Nevertheless, the usual view of these books still rests on his work, and Marbach even refers to it in the announcement of his own publication. The three new revised adaptations of these books, by Marbach in prose, and Simrock in prose and poetry two of which are again intended for the people [29] call for another precise examination of the material adapted here from the point of view of its popular value.

So long as opinions about the poetry of the Middle Ages vary so widely, the assessment of the poetic value of these books must be left to the individual reader; but naturally no one would deny that they really are genuinely poetic. Even if they cannot pass the test as popular books, their poetic content must be accorded full recognition; yes, in Schiller’s words:

What in immortal song shall live forever,
Is doomed to die in life,
[From Schiller’s poem Die Götter Griechenlands]

many a poet may find yet one more reason to save for poetry by means of adaptation what proves impossible to preserve for the people.

There is a very significant difference between the tales of German and Romance origin. The German tales, genuine folk stories, place the man in action in the foreground; the Romance give prominence to the woman, either as one who suffers (Genovefa), or as one who loves, passive towards passion even in her love. There are only two exceptions, Die Haimomkinder and Fortunat, both Romance but also folk legends; while Octavianus, Melusina, etc., are products of court poetry which only reached the people later in prose adaptations. — Of the humorous tales only one, Salomon und Morolf, is not directly of Germanic origin, while Eulenspiegel, Die Schildbürger, etc., are indisputably ours.

If we view all these books in their entirety and judge them by the principles stated at the beginning, it is clear that they satisfy these requirements only in the one respect that they have poetry and humour in rich measure and in a form which is easily understood in general even by the least educated, but in other respects they are far from adequate, some of them a complete contradiction, others only partially acceptable. Since they are the products of the Middle Ages, they naturally fail entirely in the special purpose which the present age might require them to fulfil. Thus in spite of the outward richness of this branch of literature and in spite of the declamations of Tieck and Görres, they still leave much to be desired; whether this gap is ever to be filled is another question which I will not take it upon myself to answer.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 188, November 1839

To proceed now to individual cases, the most important one is undoubtedly the Geschichte vom gehörnten Siegfried. — I like this book; it is a tale which leaves little to be desired; it has the most exuberant poetry written sometimes with the greatest naivety and sometimes with the most beautiful humorous pathos; there is sparkling wit — who does not know the priceless episode of the fight between the two cowards? It has character, a bold, fresh, youthful spirit which every young wandering craftsman can take as an example, even though he no longer has to fight dragons and giants. And once the misprints are corrected, of which the (Cologne) edition in front of me has more than a fair share, and the punctuation is put right, Schwab’s and Marbach’s adaptations will not be able to compare with this genuinely popular style. [30] The people have also shown themselves grateful for it; I have not come across any other popular book as often as this one.

Herzog Heinrich der Löwe. — Unfortunately I have not been able to get hold of an old copy of this book; the new edition printed in Einbeck [31] seems to have replaced it entirely. It starts with the genealogy of the House of Brunswick going back to the year 1735; then follows a historical biography of Herzog Heinrich and the popular legend. It also contains a tale which tells the same story about Godfrey of Bouillon as the popular legend of Heinrich der Löwe, the story of the slave Andronicus ascribed to a Palestinian abbot called Gerasimi with the end substantially altered, and a poem of the new romantic school of which I cannot remember the author, in which the story of the lion is told once more. Thus the legend on which the popular book is based disappears entirely under the trappings with which the munificence of the clever publisher has furnished it. The legend itself is very beautiful, but the rest is of no interest; what do Swabians care about the history of Brunswick? And what room is there for the wordy modern romance after the simple style of the popular book? But that has also disappeared; the adapter, a man of genius, whom I see as a parson or schoolmaster at the end of the last century, writes as follows:

“Thus the goal of the journey was reached, the Holy Land lay before their eyes, they set foot on the soil with which the most significant memories of religious history are linked! The pious simplicity which had looked forward in longing to this moment Changed into fervent devotion here, found complete satisfaction here and became the keenest joy in the Lord.”

Restore the legend in its old language, add other genuine folk legends to make a complete book, send this out among the people, and it would keep the poetic sense alive; but in this form it does not deserve to circulate among the people.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 189, November 1839

Herzog Ernst. — The author of this book was no great poet, for he found all the poetical elements in oriental fairy-tales. The book is well written and very entertaining for the people; but that is all. Nobody will believe any longer in the reality of the fantasies which occur in it; it can therefore be left in the hands of the people without alteration.

I now come to two legends which the German people created and developed, the most profound that the folk poetry of any people has to show. I mean the legends of Faust and of Der ewige Jude. They are inexhaustible; any period can adopt them without altering their essence; and even if the adaptations of the Faust legend after Goethe belong with the Iliads post Homerum, they still always reveal to us new aspects, not to mention the importance of the Ahasucrus legend for the poetry of later times. But how do these legends appear in the popular books! Not as products of the free imagination are they conceived, no, as children of a slavish superstition. The book about the Wandering Jew even demands a religious belief in its contents which it seeks to justify by the Bible and a lot of stale legends; it contains only the most superficial part of the legend itself, but preaches a very lengthy and tedious Christian sermon on the Jew Ahasuerus. The Faust legend is reduced to a common witches’ tale embellished with vulgar sorcerer’s anecdotes; what little poetry is preserved in the popular comedy has almost completely disappeared. These two books are not only incapable of offering any poetical enjoyment, in their present shape they are bound to strengthen and renew old superstitions; or what else is to be expected of such devilish work? The awareness of the legend and its contents seems to be disappearing altogether among the people, too; Faust is thought to be no more than a common sorcerer and Ahasuerus the greatest villain since Judas Iscariot. But should it not be possible to rescue both these legends for the German people, to restore them to their original purity and to express their essence so clearly that the deep meaning does not remain entirely unintelligible even to the less educated? Marbach and Simrock have still to adapt these legends; may they exercise wise judgment in the process!

We have before us yet another series of popular books, namely, the humorous ones, Eulenspiegel, Salomon und Morolf, Der Plaff vom Kalenberge, Die sieben Schwaben, and Die Schildbürger. This is a series such as few other nations have produced. The wit, the natural manner of both arrangement and workmanship, the good-natured humour which always accompanies the biting scorn so that it should not become too malicious, the strikingly comical situations could indeed put a great deal of our literature to shame. What author of the present day has sufficient inventiveness to create a book like Die Schildbürger? How prosaic Mundt’s humour appears compared with that of Die sieben Schwaben! Of course, a quieter time was needed to produce such things than ours which, like a restless businessman, is always talking about the important questions it has to answer before it can think of anything else. — As regards the form of these books, little needs changing, except for removing the odd flat joke and distortions of style. Several editions of Eulenspiegel, marked with the stamp of Prussian censorship, are not quite complete; there is a coarse joke missing right at the beginning which Marbach illustrates in a very good woodcut.

In sharp contrast to these are the stories of Genovefa, Griseldis and Hirlanda, three books of Romance origin, each of which has a woman for heroine, and a suffering woman at that; they illustrate the attitude of the Middle Ages to religion, and very poetically too; only Genovefa and Hirlanda are too conventionally drawn. But, for heaven’s sake, what are the German people to do with them today? One can well imagine the German people as Griseldis, of course, and the princes as Markgraf Walther; but then the comedy would have to end quite differently from the way it does in the popular book; both sides would resent the comparison here and there on good grounds. If Griseldis is to remain a popular book I see it as a petition to the High German Federal Assembly for the emancipation of women. But one knows, here and there, how this kind of romantic petition was received four years ago, which makes me wonder greatly that Marbach was not subsequently counted among the Young Germans. [32] The people have acted Griseldis and Genovefa long enough, let them now play Siegfried and Reinald for a change; but the right way to get them to do so is surely not to praise these old stories of humiliation.

The first half of the book Kaiser Octavianus belongs to the same class, while the second half is more like the love stories proper. The story of Helena is merely an imitation of Octavianus, or perhaps both are different versions of the same legend. The second half of Octavianus is an excellent popular book and one which can be ranked only with Siegfried; the characterisation of Florens and his foster-father Clemens is excellent, and so is that of Claudius; Tieck had it very easy here. [33] But running right through is there not the idea that noble blood is better than common blood? And how often do we not find this idea among the people themselves! If this idea cannot be banished from Octavianus — and I think it is impossible — if I consider that it must first be eradicated where constitutional life is to arise, then let the book be as poetic as you like, censeo Carthaginem esse delendam. [I am of the opinion that Carthage must be destroyed]

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 190, November 1839

In contrast to the tearful tales of suffering and endurance I have mentioned are three others which celebrate love. They are Magelone. Melusina and Tristan. I Like Magelone best as a popular book; Melusina is again full of absurd monstrosities and fantastic exaggerations so that one could almost see it as a kind of Don Quixote tale, and I must ask again: what do the German people want with it? On top of that the story of Tristan and Isolde — I will not dispute its poetic value because I love the wonderful rendering by Gottfried von Strassburg, [34] even if one may find defects here and there in the narrative — but there is no book that it is less desirable to put into the hands of the people than this. Of course, here again there is a close connection with a modern theme, the emancipation of women; a skilful poet would today hardly be able to exclude it from an adaptation of Tristan without falling into a contrived and tedious form of moralising poetry. But in a popular book where this question is out of place the entire narrative is reduced to an apology for adultery and whether that should be left in the hands of the people is highly questionable. In the meanwhile the book has almost disappeared and one only rarely comes across a copy.

Telegraph für Deutschland No. 191, November 1839

Die Haimonskinder and Fortunat, where we again see the man in the centre of the action, are another couple of true popular books. Here the merriest humour with which the son of Fortunat fights all his adventures, there the bold defiance, the unrestrained relish in opposition which in youthful vigour stands up to the absolute, tyrannical power of Charlemagne and is not afraid, even before the eyes of the prince, to take revenge with its own hand for insults it suffered. Such a youthful spirit that allows us to overlook many weaknesses must prevail in the popular book; but where is it to be found in Griseldis and its like?

Last but not least, the Hundertjährige Kalender, a work of genius, the super-clever Traumbuch, the unfailing Glücksrad, and similar progeny of miserable superstition. Anyone who has even glanced at his book, knows with what wretched sophistries Görres made excuses for this rubbish. All these dreary books have been honoured with the Prussian censor’s stamp. They are, of course, neither revolutionary, like Börne’s letters [L. Börne, Briefe aus Paris], nor immoral, as people claim Wally [K. Gutzkow, Wally, die Zweiflerin] is. We can see how wrong are the charges that the Prussian censorship is exceedingly strict. I hardly need waste any more words on whether such rubbish should remain among the people.

Nothing need be said of the rest of the popular books; the stories of Pontus, Fierabras, etc., have long been lost and so no longer deserve the name. But I believe I have shown, even in these few notes, how inadequate this literature appears, when judged according to the interest of the people and not the interest of poetry. What is necessary are adaptations of a strict selection which do not needlessly depart from the old style and are issued in attractive editions for the people. To eradicate forcibly any which cannot stand up to criticism would be neither easy nor advisable; only that which is pure superstition should be denied the stamp of the censor. The others are disappearing as it is; Griseldis is rare, Tristan almost unobtainable. In many areas, in Wuppertal, for example, it is not possible to find a single copy; in other places, Cologne, Bremen, etc., almost every shopkeeper has copies in his windows for the peasants who come into town.

But surely the German people and the best of these books deserve intelligent adaptations? Not everybody is capable of producing such adaptations, of course; I know only two people with sufficient critical acumen and taste to make the selection, and skill to handle the old style; they are the brothers Grimm. But would they have the time and inclination for this work? Marbach’s adaptation is quite unsuitable for the people. What can one hope for when he starts straight away with Griseldis? Not only does he lack all critical sense, but he cannot resist making quite unnecessary omissions; he has also made the style quite flat and insipid — compare the popular version of the Gehörnter Siegfried and all the others with the adaptation. There is nothing but sentences torn apart, and changed word order for which the only justification was Herr Marbach’s mania to appear original here since he lacked all other originality. What else could have driven him to alter the most beautiful passages of the popular book and furnish it with his unnecessary punctuation? For anyone who does not know the popular version, Marbach’s tales are quite good; but as soon as one compares the two, one realises that Marbach’s sole service has been to correct the misprints. His woodcuts vary greatly in value. — Simrock’s adaptation is not yet far enough advanced for judgment to be passed on it; but I trust him more than his rival. His woodcuts are also consistently better than Marbach’s.

These old popular books with their old-fashioned tone, their misprints and their poor woodcuts have for me an extraordinary, poetic charm; they transport me from our artificial modern “conditions, confusions and fine distinctions” into a world which is much closer to nature. But that is not what matters here; Tieck, of course, made this poetic charm his chief argument — but what weight has the authority of Tieck, Görres and all other romantics when reason contradicts it and when it is a question of the German people?