Throughout the English-speaking world, ETA Hoffmann is best known for what others have made of his life and works. Although available in direct translation from the German, Hoffmann‘s stories tend to come to us via numerous reworkings and transpositions. He provides the raw materials for others: Dumas, Tchaikovsky, Offenbach, Freud. Now, with release of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s been the turn of Disney to repackage what is, alongside Der Sandmann, Hoffmann’s most famous story, Nussknacker und Mauskönig.
There’s an assumption, perhaps understandable, that someone who died almost 200 years ago, having lived a notoriously dissolute life, wrote tales that were too dark for modern-day consumption. Reviews of Disney‘s Nutcracker reference its “dark” origins, albeit without ever going into detail. It’s difficult not to conclude that whatever one might be imagining, Hoffmann’s version is even more disturbing. It’s a common belief about fairy tales in general, whether by that we mean traditional, orally transmitted tales with no named author or the more artfully constructed written narratives of Hoffmann and his Romantic contemporaries. Children of the past gulped down tales of incest, child murder and mutilation (all of which, to be fair, put in an appearance in Hoffmann’s oeuvre); today’s children, or more precisely their parents, wouldn’t stand for it.
Even among the barely appropriate German Romantics, Hoffmann was the bad fairy at the feast. He mainly wrote for adults and was, in the eyes of contemporaries, a negative influence even on them. Goethe described his stories as “the feverish dreams of a sick mind”, while Walter Scott bemoaned the way in which “the sick works of a suffering man” had “infected” healthy souls. Rehabilitation, initially through the championing of French Romantics such as Théophile Gautier and Offenbach‘s opera Contes d’Hoffmann, came long after Hoffmann’s death, although one wonders whether he’d have appreciated it fully.