Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


18 thoughts on “Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

  1. I have been an on and off reader of Hesse for more than forty years. I agree strongly that there is a fairy tale element in much of his work. I would like to reread The Glass Bead Game. I greatly enjoyed your post and have entered in a subscription for your blog.


  2. I love Hermann Hesse’s novels including the Glass Bead Game.

    I have never read any of his short stories. I have not previously heard much about them so they have not been on my radar.

    This collection sounds super. Thanks for posting about it.


  3. I am reading Hesse for the Back to the Classics Challenge translation category as well! Only I have a copy of Siddhartha, which will be my first foray in to Hesse’s writing. I didn’t know he also wrote fairy tales. You make these sound wonderful, I will have to keep an eye out for them.


  4. That is a beautiful passage you quoted! It really resonated with me. I’m not familiar with Hesse’s tales, but I want to read them now – I love all kinds of fairy tales, and it would be interesting to see what makes his unique. Great review!


    1. It’s in some ways an oddly assorted bunch of stories, but it was always fascinating to see how he worked with traditional symbols and themes at the dawn of the twentieth century.


  5. I have long wanted to read this collection, although I know little about Herman Hesse, so I enjoyed your review. Although of course now I am even keener to read it! I wonder how his tales compare to Andersen’s and Wilde’s, writing not so very much earlier (most of the literary fairy tales I’ve read are rather older than that) but pre-Freud.


  6. I went through a period of reading Hesse, and remember The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha and the novella Journey to the East but seem to have missed Steppenwolf, Demian and some of his other famous novels, despite my wife having copies. I read a collection of his short stories once (I remember one tale about a dream of Ulysses on the Island of Women) which I fancy must have been Strange News from Another Star. Heaven knows what happened to my copy. This fairy tale collection you’ve drawn attention to sounds a must, especially with Zipes as translator.


    1. The Ulysses one wasn’t in this collection, but apparently there were some copyright issues and a few stories couldn’t be included. Zipes’s introduction was very illuminating.


  7. I really like your description of what makes a fairy tale style: “the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage.” I always have trouble describing what makes a book feel like a fairy tale to me 🙂


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