Otfried Preussler, Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1971)
My second German Literature month pick was a classic fantasy from the splendid-as-always New York Review Children’s Collection. I found it a fascinating and highly skillful variation on the themes of traditional folklore, playing with motifs of power, entrapment, love, sacrifice, and freedom.
Krabat is an urchin plucked out of a miserable life to become a miller’s apprentice. At first he’s delighted with his new home — he has to work hard but gets plenty to eat, and finds new friends among the journeymen — but soon he begins to learn disquieting things about his master and the mill. Who is the mysterious client who comes on the night of every new moon, and what is he grinding? Why are there unmarked graves in a nearby field? What does it mean for him to swear eternal service to his strange master? As Krabat starts to unravel some disquieting answers, he starts to wonder whether there can be a happier end to the story for him than for his unfortunate predecessors.
Though it’s enacted within a fairy-tale world of transformation and magic, Krabat’s dilemma is also a very familiar one. We can all become trapped in delusive dreams of power and selfish comfort, only to find that the end of such a path is spiritual death. Preussler tells his fabulous story quite plainly, letting events and images speak for themselves, but it’s all the more powerful for that. A compelling, chilling, and ultimately redemptive tale, perfect for long winter nights.