The Real Nutcracker

It’s the time of year when many people like to watch Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. But did you know that in the story on which it is based, the evil mouse king is in fact not defeated by Marie’s shoe, but comes back to threaten her with all his seven evil heads? And wouldn’t you like to know why this seven-headed rodent and the nutcracker are at war in the first place? (Hint: it has something to do with a cursed princess, a very hard nut, and sausages.) A young lady in our first cohort of Classical Ed students wisely said that knowing the ballet but not the original is like knowing Disney’s Pinocchio but not Collodi’s.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann was a major figure in late German Romanticism and one of the greatest fantasy writers. His 1816 novella is a multilayered tale with a story-within-a-story and a complex plot structure. It also features what likely is the first instance in children’s literature of a passageway through a wardrobe into a magical land beyond. Tchaikovsky was forced to base his ballet on a simplified version of Alexandre Dumas’ already rather bland retelling, a version, in Maurice Sendak’s words, “utterly devoid […] of the weird, dark qualities that make [the original] something of a masterpiece”. Reading Hoffmann’s novella opens our ears to the mystery, darkness, and depth of the story to an extent impossible without knowing the original.

Be sure to get one of these beautifully illustrated and unabridged versions (abridged and adapted editions abound!):

  • Italian illustrator Roberto Innocenti draws readers of all ages into the story through his incredible amount of realistic detail and interesting use of perspective.
  • Russian illustrator Gennady Spirin’s gorgeous illustrations are reminiscent of the best of Renaissance masters as well as medieval miniature painting.
  • Austrian illustrator Robert Ingpen has illustrated many children’s classics and received the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal for his contribution to children’s book illustrations in 1986. His soft, dream-like illustrations emphasize the fantastical aspects of the story.
  • Maurice Sendak created the sets for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s acclaimed 1983 Christmas production of the “The Nutcracker” in Seattle. His book includes images of these sets as well as new pictures in typical Sendak style (and even has one of his “Wild Things” reappear!)

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