“Struwwelpeter”: fusion of humour and horror in the world’s most successful cautionary tales

Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter” (1845) was to Germans what Carroll’s “Alice in wonderland” was to British or Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking” has become to Swedish a hundred years later – a national literary treasure whose fame had quickly spread beyond the areas of its origin, whose popularity had outlived its creators and shows no sign of decline to date.

“Struwwelpeter” is the most widely published German children’s book after Grimms’ Fairy Tales. 30 million copies of the German version alone have been sold just in recent years![1] It has been  widely translated into foreign languages, its worldwide sales since 1845 are probably inestimable.

“Struwwelpeter” came about as a Christmas present for Hoffman’s son after an unsuccessful search for a decent book, to Hoffmann’s liking, amongst those available at the time. Widely published, “Struwwelpeter” has also become one of the mostly challenged and controversial early picture books. Children, more often than not, instantly relate to the  book’s rebellious characters, their bad behaviours and quickly  comprehend the morale implied. Adults, however, continue to debate the place and ethical value of the violent ends and consequences that Hoffman had his characters experience for those bad behaviours.

Highly exaggerated some of these consequences verge on hilariously absurd. Harriett burns herself to death while playing with matches, the final picture in the story showing a pile of ash and her sleepers being all that’s left of her. Augustus, a chubby boy, stubbornly refuses to eat his soup, his figure thinning out day by day until he perishes altogether from starvation. The last picture has no trace of Augustus but his graveyard. Another stubborn child, Conrad, won’t stop sucking his thumb even when warned that a tailor with big scissors will have it cut off. Conrad takes no notice and sure enough has both (!) his thumbs cut off, blood graphically dripping from his hands in the concluding picture.

Personally, I’ve seen no child fainting on seeing what happened to Harriett or Augustus or on seeing the image of bleeding Conrad. Kids instantly feel that the absurd exaggeration aims to drive the point home as opposed to encourages violence. Whilst adults debate the appropriateness of death consequences in a children’s book, my 4 year old wondered ‘just how come Harriett’s slippers haven’t  burnt too’ (what a sensible question, isn’t it!?) Whereas my friend’s toddler struggled to comprehend Augustus’s rebellion over such an insignificant thing as eating soup. There sure are better things to get stubborn over, consequently, “pick your battles” was this child’s (hilarious) take out of Augustus’s death; one that not even Hoffman himself might have anticipated.

"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials

Despite the controversy and debate around its content, many scholars agree that “Struwwelpeter” ranks among the most influential children’s books of the 19th century.  As proposed by Eva-Maria Metcalf:

“Struwwelpeter” marks the beginning of the modern picture book design through its interplay of picture and text.” ²

It was said to have influenced a number of 20th century children’s authors and illustrators including such giants as Rohald Dahl , Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak. The latter, in a 1978 interview, acknowledged the effect it had on him as a developing artist and called it graphically “one of the most beautiful books in the world”.[3]  Whereas the researcher Sarah Gates, writing for Dickens Studies Annual, went as far as suggesting that the story of Fidgety Philip from “Struwwelpeter” had influence over Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”.  In the article titled “Let me see if Philip can/ Be a little gentleman” (first 2 lines from Fidgety Philip), Sarah Gates wrote:

“Struwwelpeter” is an ambivalent text, for its desired result of civilizing children seems hollowed out by the negative portrait of parenting that emerges in it. Tracing the instabilities created by this ambivalence in Struwwelpeter, reveals a corresponding ambivalence and perplexity in the novel’s [Great Expectations] treatment of its fundamental themes (becoming a gentleman, raising children, raising gentlemen)—issues Dickens faced himself as the son of disappointing parents and the father of disappointing children.”[4]

In conclusion, I think that attitudes to the style and form of “Struwwelpeter” stories would be largely conditioned by individual reader’s psyche, sense of humour and life experience, including exposure to certain types of literature, poetry and books from an early age. Some frown upon it, others choose to have fun with it. Regardless of what anyone thinks it is certainly one book that a child is not likely to easily forget!

Reproduced below are four out of ten stories of the book (click on the “continue reading” link to expand it), all the four that were mentioned in the discussion above. What do you think of those – is it more humour than horror or the other way around,  are they appropriate, inappropriate, would you read it to your child? Feel free to leave your comments below the post.

For other reviews of my favorite illustrated poetry books click here.

"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials
"Struwwelpeter": fusion of humour and horror in the world's most successful cautionary tales Illustrated Poetry, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials

[1] Benjamin Rosendahl in “Everybody and his ‘Struwwelpeter’ ” in Jerusalem Post as published on Dec 29, 2008 at  https://www.jpost.com/Features/Everybody-and-his-Struwwelpeter.

[2] Eva Maria Metcalf in “Civilizing Manners and Mocking Mortality: Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter”, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1996,  vol. 20, pp 201-216.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sarah Gates in “Let me see if Philip can/ Be a little gentleman”L Parenting and Class in “Struwwelpeter” and “Great Expectations” in Dickens Studies Annual, Penn State University Press, Vol. 41, 2010, pp. 281-297.

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Adele
Adele
3 months ago

I made rewrites of some of these tales. Am I ashamed? No, I am not.

Adele
Adele
3 months ago
Adele
Adele
3 months ago

Thank you for all the wonderful compliments- I feel so honored.

Adele
Adele
1 month ago

They’ve finally been published and are now available on Amazon as “Dapper Peter and His Friends”.

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