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Ludwig Bechstein
Ludwig Bechstein (1801-60)

In Germany, Ludwig Bechstein (1801-60) was a successful poet and editor of folktales and legends. His real name: Louis Clairant Hubert Bechstein (Uther 1997-2:303). His fairy-tales and legends became more popular than those of the Grimm Brothers. A writer in the footsteps of the Grimm Brothers, he too was translated into English. A selection of his fairy-tales was first translated in 1854.

About Bechstein's Two Fairy-tale Books. Bechstein's Deutsches Märchenbuch (German Fairy-Tale Book), first published in 1845, had reached its seventieth impression by 1929. By 1922 his Neues Deutsches Märchenbuch (New German Fairytale Book), first published in 1856, was in its 105th impression. By comparison the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen had only reached its twenty-third impression by 1890.

Bechstein could make use of what pioneers of folktale scholarship had accomplished already, and used many published sources. He also collected many tales that are not in the Grimms' collection, and made the tales somewhat lighter for young readers.

Bechstein's life and works in brief. Ludwig Bechstein was born in Weimar in the wooded and mountainous province of Thuringia as the illegitimate son of Johanna Dorothea Bechstein and a French emigrant, Louis Hubert Dupontreau. He writes:

The first eight years of my life are like a bad dream that one would willingly forget. I was a poor child, I had no father, and my mother, however, reluctantly, left me to the care of hirelings when I was very young. (Bell 1967:203)

When he was nine he was taken into the household of his uncle, Johann Matthäus Bechstein. His uncle was the principal of the local school of forestry, and was noted for studying plant life and birds too. In his uncle's home near Meiningen the young Ludwig found some happiness as part of the family circle of his foster parents.

Ludwig accompanied his foster parent on nature rambles, and he was helped to observe wonders and be awake to the joys of nature, he wrote later in life.

At school Ludwig came near the top of his class, even though he ws not a hard-working pupil at all. Much changed in his life when a coachman told him a Thuringian tale. It gave the boy a passion for reading, and after reading a lot he tried to write tales himself.

The young Bechstein studied how to prepare and dispense drugs - that is, pharmacy - in Arnstadt, Thuringia, but his interests took other turns. His writings made the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen notice and enable him to study philosophy, history and literature at the University of Leipzig, and then appointed him librarian of his ducal library in 1832.

Bechstein had by then published four of his own tales as Thüringische Volksmährchen (Thuringian Folktales) in 1823. And from the late 1820s and for the rest of his life a series of literary, historical and folkloristic works flowed from his pen. He married twice and died in 1860.

He was no field collector. Bechstein is still known for his work as a collector and editor of folktales and legends. However, he was not a field collector. He took his material from many sources - printed works of many kinds and periods, editions of medieval poems, single folktales published in scholarly journals, Volksbücher (chapbooks) and what he refers to in his notes to individual tales as "oral" sources. Modern scholarship tends to assume that Bechstein by that meant a story was orally current rather than that he had personally noted it down. Be that as it may, part of his work consists of adapted and revised older texts, and some of his tales are reworked versions of tales published by the Grimms. He retold and embellished them to suit the taste and norms of Germany's educated classes, and changed some of the diction, explains Jack Zipes (2002:49-50)

Reworked editions. Like Wilhelm Grimm, Bechstein reworked and revised his material. The latest edition of the Deutsches Märchenbuch that was published in his lifetime was the thirteenth edition of 1857; at that time containing eighty tales. The original edition of 1845 had contained another nineteen tales that were left out of the twelfth edition of 1853.

The 1853 edition also has considerably reworked versions of four of the original tales: "Das Märchen von den sieben Schwaben" (The Fairytale of the Seven Swabians), "Die verzauberte Prinzessin" (The Enchanted Princess), "Die Königskinde" (The Royal Children) and "Die drei dummen Teufel" (The Three Stupid Devils).

Bechstein's Neues Deutsches Märchenbuch provided a further fifty tales that are quite different from those Bechstein had previously published.

Bechstein thus had 149 tales while the Grimms had 211 in their last edition, after twenty-nine tales from earlier editions had been edited out. [WP, "Grimms' Fairy Tales > No longer included in last edition"]

What marks Bechstein's fairy-tales? Bechstein's folktales are literary achievements, book-tales, and he reworked his tales stylistically. Bechstein gently pokes fun at the adult world, but his tales are socially conservative all the same, finds Jack Zipes (2002). Donald Haase thinks Bechstein's heroes and heroines (protagonists) distinguish themselves by modesty and diligence and only very little hardheartedness or pride. His heroes and heroines have to accomplish fewer impossible tasks the heroes or heroines of the Grimms. And there are fewer witches, giants, or dwarves as opponents from the next world. Evil adversaries, malevolent antagonists, are not severely punished but instead are spared, writes Haase.

What is more, Jack Zipes finds that in Bechstein tales - as compared to Grimm tales -

  • Stepmothers are not uniformy wicked in his world of tales.
  • Bechstein's mothers typically survive to the happy ending in his stories, an ending that is marked by joyously reunited families.
  • Brothers and sisters love and help one another.
  • His child heroes and heroines exhibit self-reliance, imagining solutions to their problems and often implementing them independently.
  • Work is handled as an effort that will lead to rewards here and now.
  • Woods and forests are seldom seen as dangerous in and of themselves.
  • Girls and women are not silenced and hardly blamed.
  • Initiative is rewarded.
  • Gruesomely violent conclusions are seldom found.
  • Prohibitions designed to test obedience, are avoided.
  • Descriptions of violence are rarely very crass.
  • Courting is a frequent theme.
  • The bride is rarely abducted in Bechstein's tales, and rescues rarely happen.
  • There is no task to find the right suitor.

In America they were published numerous times for the children of German immigrants, says Jack Zipes. However, at the end of the 1800s, criticism arose to the end that Bechstein's tales are less known today than they deserve.

The Old Story-Teller - an English translation of 56 Bechstein tales (1854). A selection of his tales was translated into English and published in 1854 by Addey and Co as The Old Story-Teller: Popular German Tales, collected by Ludwig Bechstein (1854). The Old Story-Teller does not name its translators. They made versions of fifty-six tales from the Deutsches Märchenbuch, using the 1853 edition. The tales were accompanied by one hundred illustrations by the German artist Ludwig Richter.

What tales were included in the only English translation of Bechstein to be made in the 1800s? Of the fifty-six items:

  • Eight were taken from medieval texts.
  • Ten came from an early printed book usually known as the Buch der Beispiele der alten Weisen (Book of Exempla from the Wise Ancients), which Bechstein knew in its last popular edition of 1592. This is a German version of the famous Oriental collection known in English as The Fables of Pilpay, which is the Panchatantra. At Bechstein's time the latest edition had appeared in 1818. His fables from the Buch der Beispiele are chiefly moral tales - animal fables.

  • Two other tales - "Hop o' my Thumb" and "Bluebeard" - are closely derived from Perrault.

What marks the English translations of 1854 and 1872? In his German originals Bechstein allows himself occasional asides; these were removed or modified by the English translators.

The sequence of tales as printed in The Old Story-Teller is only loosely related to that of the German original.

Occasional mistranslations generally concern details and tend not to affect the broad outline of the story.

It opens with "The Man without a Heart", which reads smoothly but contains some translation blemishes.

The sequence of tales as printed in The Old Story-Teller is only loosely related to that of the German original.

Occasional mistranslations generally concern details and tend not to affect the broad outline of the story.

Elsewhere there are deliberate changes, as in "The Two Bones of Contention" ("Der Zornbraten").

The German original contains several word-plays and allusions that were omitted or made less specific in English translation.

German makes frequent and casual reference to the Devil, but the English translation omits all such allusions.

A less discreet problem occurs with "Der Hasenhüter und die Königstochter" ("The Hare-Keeper"), where a king tries to buy a hare from a shepherd boy, who will sell the hare only if the king kisses a donkey "under its tail". The English translator changes the king's task to kissing the donkey's tail, something less humiliating.

The 1872 Reissue: As Pretty as Seven

Bechstein's fairytales contains a number of versions that are only slightly different from the tale-types known from the Grimms.

The tales in The Old Story-Teller were reissued by John Camden Hotten in 1872 with the new title As Pretty as Seven and Other Popular German Tales. The Bechstein volume of 1872 also included nine more tales by the Grimms, taken from a previous Addey and Company's edition.

Bechstein tales in other works

A few individual tales of Bechstein's were included in some of Andrew Lang's fairytale collections. "The Three Musicians" and "The Three Dogs" were incorporated in The Green Fairy Book (1892), though they sailed under the name of the Grimms. "The Man without a Heart" was slipped into The Pink Fairy Book (1897). All three were new versions of Bechstein, somewhat freer translations than those in The Old Story-Teller.

Five other tales - "Millet-Thief", "The Seven Ravens", "The Little Cup of Tears", "The Three Gifts" and "The Man in the Moon" - were included by Benjamin Thorpe in Yule-Tide Stories. A Collection of Scandinavian and North German Popular Tales and Traditions (London and New York: George Bell and Sons, 1892). They were credited to Bechstein and translated afresh.

Versions of two other tales - "Gold Maria and Pitch Maria" and "The Lost Crown" - were included by Zoe Dana Underhill in her collection of "fairy tales from all nations" entitled The Dwarf's Tailor and Others (London: Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., 1897). These two new translations of tales had already appeared in The Old Story-Teller. "The Lost Crown" was there called "Golden Hair", and it was taken over by Bechstein from a tale originally written by Justinus Kerner and published in 1813. Neither of them is credited to Bechstein by Underhill; each is simply called an "old German tale" by her.

With those anthologised stories British back-up of Bechstein stories dwindled.

Translations of Bechstein tales in the 1900s. A mini-book of three plain and homely Bechstein tales was translated by the American poet Randall Jarrell (1914-65) and first published by Macmillan in 1962.

A Bechstein translation of thirty tales was issued in the 1960s: Fairy tales of Ludwig Bechstein, translated by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Irene Schreiber (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1967 - originally published as Bechsteins Märchen, (Bayreuth: Loewes, 1966).

Translation approaches from "narrow" to "wide"

There are several ways of transferring a story into another language, depending on how liberal the approach is. And what is hinted at here, are much like spans on a gliding scale, really. The second approach is a sensible choice for many sorts of material, if strictness of terms does not call for the first approach, which tends to be literal and perhaps tedious.

  1. TRANSLATED LITERALLY. Many footnotes may be needed to make literal translations workable for old or foreign matter, due to differences in customs, outlooks, attitudes, laws, language uses and so on. The alternative to the narrow translation is reformulation in some way or other (next approach).

  2. TRANSLATED LIBERALLY, TRANSFERRED. A so-called liberal translation is more focused on transferring (well interpreted) meanings than phrases, and turn them into plain(er) English. The term "dynamic equivalence" is used for the clarifying, rephrasing approach. (Nida and Taber 1974)

  3. EDITED OR RENDERED. Another form of liberal take transfers or transposes ideas and descriptions so that they can be assimilated in the receiving culture without many explanations. If it feels all right, one may for example peel away awkward or improper terms, sentences or paragraphs, or cut some wordiness short, if deemed appropriate, or convert and paraphrase sentences if that seems to be a good choice. One may call it the edited approach, and the history of folktales is full of it - The Grimms, Bechstein, Asbjornsen and Moe and others have used it a lot - and tellers of tales before them too, as a lot of tale variants indicate.

  4. RETOLD. A fourth way is to recreate and relate - to retell. Such an approach is fit if the material is considered considerably flawed, but "has something in it" all the same, for example good contents among verbiage. It may also work for other material, as when the fairy tale teller finds things of interests in poems, and render them in prose. Bechstein did! Also, one may add things for the sake of improving the story, for example for the sake of clarity or more satisfying development of themes than in fragments handed over. Bechstein tried that too, Hans-Jörg Uther documents (1997, Vols 1 and 2, "Quellen und Anmerkungen").

    A retelling approach could be more challenging or risky, though, depending on how "local" or culturally limited in time the retelling gets, among other things. Bechsteins fairy tales became rather obsolete around 1900 because of the German middle class values he fed into some tales. If they do little to get the central meanings of a tale through, such moral may be removed. I have at least tried to. And the key meanings of folk tales - their themes and motifs, which point to what they are about beneath flows of words, is signified by their AT numbers.

I would prefer the third approach for fairy tales for reasons such as: Conditions have changed; many sides to the good life are not as brutal on the surface; many tales of old were meant for grown-ups and children sitting together and not going to bed in the dark alone afterwards either. Customs and conditions were different than in an urban environment today, which means that much of the content in various old tales may not be related to the personal, immediate experiences any longer, if they ever were. In short, reshaped folk tales could benefit today's children to understand much more in them.


The AT numbers put at the end of most of the Bechstein tales here, come from Hans-Jörg Uther's Anmerkungen, notes (1997).


Fairy tales of Ludwig Bechstein, German tales by Bechstein, Literature  

Bell, Anthea, tr. Fairy Tales of Ludwig Bechstein. Ill. Irene Schreiber. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1967.

Blamires, David. Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Children's Books 1780–1918. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2009, p. 205-21.

Haase, Donald, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Vol. 1. London: Greenwood Press, 2008:110.

Hotten, John C. As Pretty as Seven and Other Popular German Tales Collected by Ludwig Bechstein. With One Hundred Illustrations by Richter. London: John Camden Hotten, 1872.

Jarrell, Randall, tr. The Rabbit Catcher and Other Fairy Tales. Ill. Ugo Fontana. Whitefish, MT: Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011. (1st ed. MacMillan, 1962.)

Nida, Eugene, and Charles Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Brill, 1974.

Uther, Hans-Jörg, ed. Ludwig Bechstein Märchen. Bd. 1 und 2. München: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1997.

Zipes, Jack, ed. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Paperback ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 49-50.

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