Unexpected discoveries are the stuff of fairy tales: the story of The Turnip Princess’s metamorphosis from dusty manuscript to Penguin Classic is almost one in itself. Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–86) spent a number of years cataloguing tales told in the forests of eastern Bavaria, in order to preserve the area’s long-standing oral storytelling tradition. From the Upper Palatinate: Customs and Legends, which was published in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, comprised a synthesis of selected highlights. In 2009, the scholar Erika Eichenseer discovered the full extent of Schönwerth’s research in a municipal archive in Regensburg – the bibliophile equivalent of spinning straw into gold, suggests Maria Tatar, a Harvard folklore professor and the tales’ translator, in her introduction to this new selection.
Schönwerth’s project was not unique: many such collections of folk tales from all over Europe exist untranslated, all dwarfed by the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (published between 1812 and 1857) of the Brothers Grimm, which remains by far the best-known example of the genre. Many of Schönwerth’s story patterns are recognisable from the Grimm collection: kindness tends to be rewarded and greed punished; youngest brothers outwit older ones; tales that start with widowers remarrying generally encompass dire consequences for the stepchildren. Jacob Grimm wrote of his contemporary that ‘no-one in Germany has gathered tales so thoughtfully and thoroughly and with such finesse’, but the