Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Fairytales of Hermann Hesse

Once upon a time I thought my fairytale game was strong. Then I moved into a new flat - with a new flatmate - and discovered I was oh so wrong; I fortuitously stumbled upon a home filled with collections of fairy tales I might never have known about, along with bookshelves brimming with titles and authors that have been on my 'to be read' list for years, and now sit before me, inviting, waiting.

One of these glorious finds is The Fairytales of Hermann Hesse, translated and with an introduction by the one and only Jack Zipes.

The Fairytales of Hermann Hesse
Hesse is one of those authors I have 'been meaning to get to' for at least ten years now, ever since my dad started sharing the titles of books that made a lasting impression on him when he was in his teens and twenties. I was poised to open Steppenwolf or Siddhartha - but then The Fairytales manifested before me. Bitesized stories, small in stature but so broad in nature; is there really a better way to get to the crux of a writer and their sense of the world than through fairytales? 

As Zipes points out in his introduction, the tales address modern 'obstacles like materialism, war, alienation, philistinism', themes that are as present and relevant today as they were when Hesse was writing in the post-war era. We gain insight into Hesse's understanding and experiences of these issues, and must examine our own at the same time. 

Zipes continues to say that '...even though many of his narratives are tragic, they leave us with a sense of longing, intended to arouse us so that we might contemplate changing those conditions that bring about the degradation of humanity'. Many of Hesse's characters navigate their estrangement from society only to die at the end of their journey; they gain some knowledge of 'the truth' but the price they pay is time to actually live it. But death is just part of the cycle: birth, death, rebirth. The old self - the old beliefs - have how shall we rebirth ourselves to positively address our/humanity's obstacles? 

The protagonists' methods and attempts usually fail. They seek to dominate and reconstruct their realities with the power of cognitive thought, but this is not an act of mindfulness that can bring peace to themselves or others. Particularly in Augustus we see these characters positioned in contrast to a general population that embraces the wholeness of reality, that manages to find its happiness and accept pain and suffering at the same time. Perhaps these stories are about idealism vs dualism, or realism.

He was amazed each day to see how much misery there was in the world and yet how content people could be, and he found it splendid and inspiring to experience over and over again how sorrow could soon be followed by joyous laughter; a death knell by the song of children; every predicament and mean act, by simple kindness, a joke, a comforting word, or a smile (97/8)

Hermann Hesse

The collection contains a broad spectrum of genres; some stories read like more 'traditional' tales (The Dwarf, or The Three Linden Trees, for example) while most others deviate into other literary realms. Zipes lists science fiction, the grotesque and macabre, romantic realism and dream-time stream of consciousness, which create a fascinating mix and make it much more interesting to read because we are being challenged to think and visualise in a different way with each tale.

It took me a few weeks to get through this (relatively short) book. The stories couldn't be rushed, and each needed to be digested before moving on to the next. Fairytales are magical in their ability to hold a mirror up to society, and they endure because the reflections are pertinent beyond the time of their creation. I felt Hesse's fairytales held a mirror up directly in front of me, not just society, and I wonder how transformative this will prove to be...