One of Hoffmann’s most common motifs – the hallmark of his fiction – is the theme of parallelism. His fantasies are unlike typical fairy tales in that they don’t depict wondrous things happening in a wondrous world (where, for instance, witches, dragons, and gnomes are treated as a matter of course), but rather depict the parallel universe of wonder invading its drab, realistic twin. In this sense his fiction is tremendously surreal and often reads like a fairly straight-forward dream: regular peoples’ virtues and vices are caricatured to grotesque dimensions, hidden natures are exposed, neglected abilities and insights are transformed into magical powers, and repressed emotions are amplified into acts of shocking violence. “The Stranger Child” is one of Hoffmann’s seven fairy tales, but is set in the dreary Prussian countryside rather than a world of charms and curses.
And yet he immediately alerts us that things are not what they seem: the Baron von Brakel, father to our protagonists, calls his home a “castle” although it is a humble farmstead – instead of intimidating walls and clammy drafts it has friendly birch trees and crackling fires. Hoffmann encourages us to find peace and contentment in the power of imagination. What is better than a fierce, drafty castle? A cozy, little cottage that you imagine to be your castle. Throughout the story the characters are confronted by evil Doppelgängers and transcendental twins: their simple, happy father is contrasted with his medal-wearing, coach driving cousin – an ambitious and arrogant court official; they encounter an androgynous child spirit – the literal Spirit of Childhood – in whom both brother and sister project themselves and see their idealized Selves; their bulbous, grotesque tutor – sent from the Baron’s cousin to educate and civilize his imaginative children – is revealed to be a sadistic gnome king in disguise, and so on. It is a story that emphasizes the importance of imagination, condemns the cynicism of adulthood, and warns against the smother the child within us all.
The tale reads like a novel by Roald Dahl: two impoverished children live with their loving parents – financially ruined nobles – who offer them an idyllic childhood of rural simplicity, but this is threatened by the intrusion of sinister outer forces from the adult world. The two children – Felix and his sister Christlieb (whose names mean “happy” and “Christ’s love,” respectively) enjoy their simplistic lifestyle despite the concerns of their aristocratic relatives, and it seems that their lives will continue to flourish away from the corruption of industrialism, materialism, and court intrigue which their parents left behind. One Christmas, however, their little Eden is disquieted by a visit from their vain aunt and uncle, who bring their robotic children, Hermann and Adelgunda, in tow. Compared to their cousins – who are dressed and behave like a doll and a toy soldier, respectively – Felix and Christlieb’s misbehavior
After they leave, Felix and Christlieb collect the toys which their relatives had brought and run off to the woods to play with them. At first enchanted, they gradually realize just how dull and lifeless they all are, and they calmly dump them into a woodland lake. The next morning they return to the woods to play – uninhibited by materialist restrictions – and are startled when they encounter the titular character: an otherworldly child spirit who seems to embody spiritual innocence and purity. The Stranger Child is androgynous (Felix thinks it to be a boy, Christlieb a girl), and revels in its lack of definition. It teaches them to exult in the spiritual beauty of all things natural, inspiring them with love and euphoria. Uninspired by their relative’s fancy toys, they now find a wealth of imaginative thrills in the flowers, stones, trees, birds, and animals of the forest. Nature, they realize, is an authentic universe while the world of civilization is a deceitful masquerade.
However, the Stranger Child is not without its own miseries: it tells them how it was banished from its fairy kingdom when an evil gnome taking the form of a giant housefly – King Pepser – chased him from his rightful throne, dousing all the most beautiful aspects of the fairy world in an oily, black fluid, deadening their loveliness and distorting their spiritual reality with a patina of ugly uniformity. Felix and Christlieb are astonished to hear this story because it reminds them of a recent development in their own lives: disturbed by the children’s lack of discipline, their aunt and uncle had sent a tedious tutor to train and discipline them. Grotesquely misshapen as only a Hoffmann villain can be – block-headed with bulging eyes, a proboscis-like nose, a bulging abdomen, stumpy limbs and a long coat that seems to hide something growing out off his back (in short, an anthropomorphic housefly) – the cruel and perverse Mr. Ink, has been steadily darkening their lives with his soul-crushing lessons in conformity.
As Tutor Ink begins overtaking the entire family, forcing the children and their parents alike into the mold of social conformity, the children run away to the forest where the Stranger Child confirms that the gnome Pepser who banished it from its fairy kingdom has now invaded the human world. At first content to besiege them with his soulless lessons, Tutor Ink eventually draws on his supernatural powers by resurrecting the broken toys from the lake during a raging storm. The reanimated toys crawl out of the woods and threaten Felix and Christlieb for having rejected them. Terrified of the demonic toys prowling the woods, the children are now prevented from accessing the restorative kingdom of nature, and their fate seems to be sealed.
Determined to save them from its fate, the Stranger Child bids them a somber farewell and transforms into a star, seemingly abandoning the children. But by restoring itself to its genuine, spiritual form, it exposes Tutor Ink, who is now changed into a grotesque, human-sized fly. With Ink unmasked as the evil Pepser, the Stranger Child morphs from a star to an avenging bird of light, pecking the gnome -- so the children claim -- to death. Already exhausted by Ink’s tyrannical reign, the children’s father gladly chases Ink (who emerges from the forest in his human form, but obviously traumatized by something) out of the house with a strip of fly-paper, while the gnome king flies off into the night never to return. Forced to acknowledge what has actually been going on in his household, the father finally has a conversation with his children and learns of their relationship with the Stranger Child. He is stunned because he suddenly remembers the Stranger Child from his own youth. As the memories rush over him, he reconciles himself to an authentic life and utterly rejects his relatives’ interference, encouraging his children to be themselves. Always in poor health, he dies soon after, but does so happily, and his family continue to flourish in their cottage by keeping the memory of the Stranger Child alive in their hearts.
While “The Stranger Child” is not a particularly strong story, plot-wise – with its meandering and seeming spontaneous plot twists – it is shocking in its use of imagination. In a world before “Frankenstein,” “Rip Van Winkle,” or the Tales of Poe had appeared on bookshelves, Hoffmann’s seamless blending of realism with fantasy was tremendously unsettling. Whereas the fairy tales of Perrault and the Grimms occurred in ostensibly magical universes were such things could be expected, and the Gothic novels of the previous century were set in exotic locales during remote time periods, Hoffmann’s choice to intrude his grotesque caricatures into the familiar, bourgeois world of Napoleonic Europe brought a nightmarish realism to his stories. He makes certain that we understand that the Baron von Brakel lives in a rural homestead rather than a fairy tale citadel, and that his children scarf their food sloppily, embarrass him in front of guests, and angrily destroy toys that fail to please them.
Hardly Hansel and Gretel – for all of their sappy “darlings,” “dearests,” and “lovelies” – these complex characters don’t quite fit the mold of the fairy tale universe that we expect them to inhabit. They fail to live up to the expectations of the perfect children we know from the Grimms: they are spoiled, bratty, rude, and uncultured. And yet Hoffmann emphasizes the way this has preserved them from turning into the even more unbearable, creepily perfect brats exemplified by Hermann and Adelgunda. Overly polished, elaborately dressed, and emotionally stunted, these two Doppelgängers of the country-bred siblings are intentionally compared to the other toys being trucked in by their judgmental relative: with his fake sword and fancy coat Hermann is more toy soldier than living boy, and with her strange features and overabundant ribbons, Adelgunda is more doll than girl.
This, Hoffmann warns us, is the peril of forcing compliance in children. Enter Ink. Sent by the Baron’s disapproving cousin, Tutor Ink acts as an agent of pain, unhappiness, and disappointment: his mission is to destroy the children’s imaginations, deaden their Edenic lack of self-awareness, and subjugate their willfulness. It is uncanny that Tutor Ink looks so inhuman while in the human universe, yet seems to pass with adults. Children see the goblin in him – as do readers – but adults have their vision clouded by a lack – or loss – of imagination. Contrasted with the Stranger Child – a timeless spirit of youth and imagination who has manifested to their child-like father (a man who seems to die once he realizes that he has grown up and lives in a world without patience for unambitious, financially illiterate men of leisure) – Ink represents the gruesome vulgarity of adulthood. His sole task seems to be causing the children to forget their androgynous playmate – to drive the innocence from their hearts – and he is nearly successful.
When the discarded toys – gifts from their aristocratic cousin who sponsored Ink and presumably approves of his diabolical mission – come to life and taunt the Brakel children like corpses rising from their graves, we are reminded that even something as innocent-seeming as a fancy toy can hide a darker purpose. The children initially “shy” their toys into the brush and pond of the forest when they realize that – like Hermann and Adelgunda – they are pretty but unsubtantial: they break easily, are out of tune, and prove to have thin coats of paint which barely conceal their hypocrisy. Like Ink, they are emissaries of the Enemy – devilish spies sent to challenge the siblings’ rural happiness by sowing discontent in their hearts. “The Stranger Child” is not Hoffmann’s most horrifying tale by a long shot, but its nightmarish imagery, blurring of fantasy and reality, and themes of imperiled children make it a memorable story and a disturbing fairy tale.