Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Origin of Struwwelpeter or Shockheaded Peter

This is the start of an occasional series in which I shall discuss ideas on the origin of the stories in STRUWWELPETER or SHOCKHEADED PETER, the nineteenth century book of cautionary tales. There is a lot more on this topic in the rather wonderful Heinrich Hoffmann Museum - a museum dedicated to the life and work of Dr Heinrich Hoffmann the celebrated author of the tales. Here, in a pleasant suburb of Frankfurt near the university, is a collection of very interesting displays, books and papers. But perhaps the best thing about the museum is that it endeavours to carry on the doctor's work by helping mentally ill people reintegrate into the community. It is a fascinating place and I recommend it heartily.

There is another museum called the Struwwelpeter Museum which is tucked behind Frankfurt's main town hall square in part of an art gallery. This museum is dedicated to the book Struwwelpeter and has a good display of the various editions of the book in many different languages and German dialects. It is also well worth a visit.

In nineteenth century Europe there was an advertising campaign for a hair-restorer. Just as women of today would like to believe the myth that there is a potion that you can rub onto your skin that will wipe away the sagging of the years, so men in the nineteenth century thought that there was a potion that could cure baldness (maybe they still do).

Instead of TV commercials there were posters and pictures and in this particular picture (which is French and is called 'Enfant Terrible') a young boy has sneaked into his father’s dressing room and tried his father’s fantastic hair-restoring potion on his head getting a substantial amount on his hands as well. Unfortunately the potion has worked rather too well and so the child stands wailing in great distress with great growths of hair springing from hand and head. It seems a short step to Heinrich Hoffmann's STRUWWELPETER or SHOCKHEADED PETER - long nails replace the hairy hands, and the image is simpler and more appealing, but the similarity is striking.

Incidentally this image occurred again in 1990 in another medium - film. EDWARD SCISSORHAND looks like STRUWWELPETER with his wild unkempt hair but has scissors for hands (which is reminiscent of another tale in the STRUWWELPETER book - THE STORY OF LITTLE SUCKER THUMB which I shall deal with in a later post). I have no idea if TIM BURTON , the writer of this film, was influenced by STRUWWELPETER but I suspect that he was given the writer's interest in children's literature and his background in animation. The film is an unsettling masterpiece in its own right and the strange otherworldliness of the main character has a STRUWWELPETER feel.

But getting back to nineteenth century Frankfurt the term STRUWWELPETER was also a word used locally for scruffy people (or students) who became mixed up in the various revolutionary movements earlier in the century. Hoffmann had a particular interest in this, and maybe identified with the character, since he was a bit of a rebel himself, writing quite risky satirical songs in his youth which could have got him into trouble.

Perhaps both these ideas influenced Heinrich Hoffmann when he was composing his picture book for his son. But the main purposes of the book were to educate and entertain. Each of his cautionary tales has a simple message of the 'Don't do this or this horrendous thing will happen to you' variety - a cautionary tale.

Heinrich Hoffmann was hoping to scare his child (in the most well-intentioned and pleasant way possible) into becoming well-groomed - both for health reasons (long nails trapped dirt, and long hair was thought more likely to harbour nits) and in order to take his or her proper place in the burgeoning bourgeoisie society. This was lesson one of many for young Carl Philipp.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That drawing is quite amazing! I'm curious why cautionary tales got such hilarious. I look forward to read your next lecture.

Sun Aug 28, 01:39:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, you've got another Japanese fan. My friend read your 98 Reasons for Being and found it superb. Hope she'd comment on it by herself.

Sun Aug 28, 02:34:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Montmorency!


Sun Aug 28, 06:32:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It''s quite impressive.

Mon Dec 12, 05:26:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And thank you Drew Regal...

Fri Dec 16, 12:17:00 pm  
Blogger Michael Keane said...

The cautionary tales of "Struwwelpeter" were a part of a Victorian childhood, it would seem. My grandmother gave me "Struwwelpeter" to read when I was quite young - and it scared me to death!

Fri Jan 25, 02:40:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, gradually diminished in popularity since then, Michael. My mother loved it as a child, although it scared her. I guess it was the same pleasurable 'fright' as going on the Big Dipper in a theme park.

Fri Jan 25, 08:05:00 am  

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