Nutcracker & the King of Rats

I hope you’ve all been lucky enough to have seen the Nutcracker ballet at least once. It’s an evening filled with Christmas magic. A little girl named Clara is given the gift of a nutcracker doll by her eccentric godfather Drosselmeier. The nutcracker comes to life, battles a pack of mice, transforms into a prince and brings Clara to a magic land of dancing toys, flowers and the sugarplum fairy. The ballet was created by two giants of the ballet world, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. It was first performed at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1892.

But if you’ve ever wondered how the prince got turned into a nutcracker doll in the first place, or why the King of Mice is his enemy, or if you want to know more about the mysterious Drosselmeier, you must go back to 1816 and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story “Nutcracker and the King of Mice.” Here you will learn that the little girl is not named Clara. She is Marie, and her nutcracker doll is not a gift from Drosselmeier. Drosselmeier’s gift is an intricate clockwork castle filled with tiny dancing dolls — which fascinate Marie and her brother Fritz for a short while, then they wander off to play with their new toys. Marie discovers the nutcracker doll, which is apparently a gift from her father, although he says it is a gift from the Christ Child. Drosselmeier is stung by the children’s lack of interest in his castle, and derides the nutcracker as “an ugly little fellow.” Marie’s response is: “Who knows, godpapa, if you were to be dressed the same as my darling Nutcracker, and had on the same shining boots — who knows whether you mightn’t look almost as handsome as he does?”

Clearly this is not the same Drosselmeier we see in the ballet. Onstage, Drosselmeier appears almost omnipotent, sometimes controlling the very movements of the other characters. In the story, there are many things he cannot do, although he does seem to know everything about everyone. There are many parallels between Drosselmeier and the author Hoffmann. Hoffmann, it is said, built a toy castle as a gift for some children when he was living in Berlin. Hoffmann had held posts in the municipal bureaucracies of several cities, while Drosselmeier is a former “Court Clockmaker and Archivist” for the king of Nuremberg. Drosselmeier was banished from Nuremberg, and Hoffmann was forced to leave Warsaw after refusing to sign a loyalty oath to the French after Napoleon took the city.

You probably recall that the Nutcracker is injured by Marie’s brother Fritz, who forces him to crack too many hard nuts. You probably don’t know that Marie is also injured that night. She stays up playing with her toys after the rest of the family has gone to sleep. Suddenly the clock is straining to strike midnight. But a mysterious figure is crouching over the clock, muffling the chimes and uttering a curious rhyme about protecting the Mouse King’s ears. The mysterious figure turns out to be Drosselmeier.

Suddenly the room is invaded by swarms of mice. When the seven-headed Mouse King appears, Marie is so startled she puts her elbow through the glass door of the toy cupboard. The Nutcracker comes to life, commanding Fritz’s soldier toys to repel the mouse army. But the soldiers are outnumbered and many toys are killed. The Nutcracker is about to be captured by the Mouse King when Marie throws her shoe, then passes out on the floor.

It takes a full week for Marie to recover from her injury. In that time, Drosselmeier repairs the Nutcracker’s jaw and tells Marie the “Story of the Hard Nut,” which explains how the Nutcracker came to be. (It is interesting that after Drosselmeier fixes the Nutcracker, his sword is nowhere to be found, leaving the Nutcracker vulnerable to future attacks from the Mouse King. Whether this is another subtle clue that Drosselmeier is on the side of the Mouse King, I will leave for you to decide.)

Briefly, the Story of the Hard Nut is about the feud between the royal family of Nuremberg and Dame Mouserink, the mother of the Mouse King. Mouserink casts a spell on the Princess Pirlipat, turning her into a creature that resembles a nutcracker doll. The king turns to his Court Clockmaker and Arcanist, Christian Elias Drosselmeier, who searches the world for a way to break the spell. Drosselmeier discovers that if the Princess eats a certain fabled nut named Crackatook, after the nut has been broken by the teeth of a young man, she will be restored to her normal state. Above all the young man cannot stumble after cracking the nut. Drosselmeier finds the nut Crackatook in his cousin’s toy shop, and his nephew is given the task of cracking the nut. The king promises the hand of his daughter and his kingdom if Drosselmeier’s nephew can break the spell. The lad successfully cracks the nut and cures the Princess, but stumbles over Dame Mouserink at the last moment, crushing her to death. The nephew is suddenly transformed into the Nutcracker. The Princess is repulsed by his appearance and the king reneges on his promise. Mouserink vows that her son will avenge her death, and the Mouse King becomes the sworn enemy of the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker can only return to normal if he destroys the King of the Mice, and wins the love of a woman in spite of his deformity.

Unfortunately for Marie, the Mouse King is not vanquished in his first encounter, and begins to blackmail her. First he demands all her Christmas candy, then Marie’s collection of figurines made of sugar. Marie lets him take these treasured toys and candy in exchange for the Nutcracker’s safety, but the Nutcracker is savagely bitten and the Mouse King returns with more demands. Astonishingly the Mouse King now wants all Marie’s picture books, and her dresses and laces. Marie realizes the folly of appeasement and asks her brother to provide Nutcracker with a new sword.

The next night the Nutcracker appears in Marie’s room, and presents her with the Mouse King’s seven crowns. He has defeated his enemy, and asks her to accompany him to his kingdom, Toyland.

How do they get to Toyland? By climbing up the sleeve of her father’s fur coat. When Marie looks out through the collar of the coat, she is in Candy Mead, a small meadow outside the capitol city. The Nutcracker brings her through various towns and villages on the outskirts of Toyland. Everywhere he is greeted as the prince. I was a bit disappointed to see no mention of the characters Marzipan, Mother Ginger or the Sugarplum Fairy. After a ride across a lake of rose scented water in a craft pulled by swans, Marie enters a great marzipan castle and meets Nutcracker’s sisters, who prepare a feast for them. During the preparations, a fog arises and Marie awakens in her bed.

Only after the visit to Toyland does Marie declare her love for Nutcracker. Moments later, Drosselmeier is introducing Marie to his nephew, who proposes marriage to her. She agrees, and they become king and queen of Toyland.

The story does leave some unanswered questions. How did the nephew, a toymaker’s son, become prince, and then king of Toyland? How did Marie’s father come upon the Nutcracker and decide to give him as a Christmas gift? But the biggest questions center around Drosselmeier. Why is he not more supportive of his nephew? The Nutcracker becomes bitter and resentful at the mention of his uncle’s name. Drosselmeier is sometimes kind to the Nutcracker, as when he repairs his broken jaw, and other times gives him no help at all, even appearing to side with the Mouse King.

In the final scene of the story, where Drosselmeier introduces Marie to his nephew, his behavior is very kind and there appears to be no tension between them. While this is open to interpretation, I do not see Drosselmeier as an inherently sinister character. His nephew had to be the one to slay the Mouse King, if he was to regain his human form. Drosselmeier could not do this for him. His attempt to cover the chiming clock may have merely been an attempt to bring about a confrontation between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. (But there is that issue of the missing sword …)

Although today this story is his most famous work, E.T.A. Hoffmann did not consider “Nutcracker and the King of Mice” to be a successful story, stating that it would have been better to either have written a children’s story or a symbolic narrative for adults, not both. Interestingly this is very close to what Drosselmeier says when his clockwork castle is ignored. “After all, an ingenious piece of mechanism like this is not a matter for children, who don’t understand it.” But the story is a coming-of-age tale, about a girl who loves her toys and dolls, who must make sacrifices, and grows to become a woman who loves and marries. The great success of the Nutcracker ballet proves that children DO understand it, and its message is also greatly appreciated by adults.

I hope everyone gets a chance to see the Nutcracker ballet this Christmas season, and please seek out and read Hoffmann’s story as well. It really will provide more depth to the ballet. You can find it in a collection of his stories titled “The Best Tales of Hoffmann” and there is also a version illustrated by Maurice Sendak (who wrote Where The Wild Things Are).


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