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Literature / Struwwelpeter

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Der Struwwelpeter (Shaggy-Peter or Shockheaded Peter), written and illustrated by Heinrich Hoffmann, is an 1845 German children's book filled with cautionary tales. These cautionary tales are more grim than others, however — they often end in death or dismemberment for the child. They are a source of plenty of Nightmare Fuel, too.

There are ten stories, each of them rhyming and illustrated. They are:

  • "Shockheaded Peter" ("Struwwelpeter"): Peter doesn't groom himself, until he is universally detested.
  • "The Story of Bad Frederick" ("Die Geschichte vom bösen Friederich"): A mean kid terrorizes adults and animals, until a dog bites him, causing him to lie through a bitter medicine treatment.
  • "The Dreadful Story of Harriet/Pauline and the Matches" ("Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug"): Harriet/Pauline plays with matches and burns to death.
  • "The Story of the Inky Boys" ("Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben"): Three kids who tease a black boy get their just desserts when Nikolaus (or "Agrippa" in at least one translation) dips them into ink.
  • "The Story of the Wild Huntsman" ("Die Geschichte von dem wilden Jäger"): A hare steals a hunter's rifle and eyeglasses and hunts him.
  • "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb" ("Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher"): A boy named Conrad is warned by his mother not to suck his thumbs, but he does anyway. So a tailor appears and snips them off.
  • "The Story of Kaspar who did not have any Soup" ("Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar"): Kaspar (or Augustus, depending on the translation) refuses to eat his soup, so over five days, he slowly wastes away and dies.
  • "The Story of Fidgety Philip" ("Die Geschichte vom Zappel-Philipp"): Philip fidgets too much at the dinner table and spills the food onto the floor.
  • "The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air" ("Die Geschichte von Hans Guck-in-die-Luft"): Johnny doesn't pay attention to where he's walking, so he falls into a river. (He lives, though, unlike some of the other stories.)
  • "The Story of Flying Robert" ("Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert"): Robert goes outside during a storm and the wind picks up his umbrella, carrying him off never to be seen again.

An English translation was done by Mark Twain under the title Slovenly Peter (though that translation was not published before 1935).

The book was adapted into a children's film by film producer Fritz Genschow in 1955. However, the movie- unlike the book- gives almost everyone, even the two children who died, a happy ending after they've confirmed that they've all learned their lessons.

Struwwelpeter was adapted into the opera Shockheaded Peter (premiered in 1998), with music by The Tiger Lillies.

Can be read online here or here.

Struwwelpeter provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: Playing with matches (especially Lucifer matches, which will ignite on almost anything) is downright dangerous, and can lead to severe burns - even death - and material damage.
  • Aesop Collateral Damage: The hare nicks the shotgun of the huntsman. And fires! Grand total damage: a) one wet huntsman who avoided the bullet by jumping into the well, b) one scared huntsman's wife, the bullet hitting her coffeecup instead, c) one hare's leveretnote  burned by hot coffee, d) one Aesop (YMMV).
  • Aesop Enforcer: In "The Story of the Inky Boys", the giant Nikolaus/Agrippa shows up out of nowhere and demands that the three boys stop their racist bullying. When they refuse to change their ways, he dips them in ink.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Here are some things this book discourages; racism, playing with dangerous objects, beating animals, starving yourself... and thumb-sucking.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Frederick terrorizes small animals and a woman named Mary, until he gets bit by a dog and is injured on his leg.
    • The three boys who bully the black boy are dipped in ink, turning them completely black.
  • Black Comedy: The hare seizing the shotgun and shooting at the huntsman and his wife.
  • Color Me Black: "The Story of the Inky Boys". This is a slight variant of the trope as the three boys are not turned into "blackamoors" themselves by the ink, but instead are transformed into solid black silhouettes that hardly look human.
  • Compressed Vice: Kaspar/Augustus starves to death after only five days of refusing to eat.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The tailor cuts a boy's thumbs off for thumbsucking.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Literally in this case. After Frederick whips a dog, the dog bites him back on the leg.
  • Dub Name Change: Common in the best-known English translation. Of the protagonists, Pauline becomes Harriet, Kaspar Augustus, and Hans Johnny. Additionally, the name of the character who punishes the racist boys is changed from Nikolaus to Agrippa, the woman who Frederick attacks, Gretchen, becomes Mary, and the unnamed dog in the same poem is given the name Trey.
  • Either/Or Title: In English, it has the alternate title Merry Stories and Funny Pictures.
  • Enfante Terrible:
    Here is cruel Frederick, see!
    A horrid wicked boy was he;
    He caught the flies, poor little things,
    And then tore off their tiny wings,
    He killed the birds, and broke the chairs,
    And threw the kitten down the stairs;
    And oh! far worse than all beside,
    He whipped his Mary, till she cried.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death:
    • Harriet/Pauline, who played with matches.
    And see! oh, what dreadful thing!
    The fire has caught her apron-string;
    Her apron burns, her arms, her hair?
    She burns all over everywhere.
    • As well as Kaspar, who didn't eat his soup.
    Look at him, now the fourth day's come!
    He scarcely weighs a sugar-plum;
    He's like a little bit of thread,
    And, on the fifth day, he was — dead!
  • Fingore: The child who keeps thumb-sucking gets the thumbs cut off by a tailor with giant scissors.
  • High-Class Glass: Fidgety Philip's Mama wears a lorgnette, perhaps to help her see if Philip can be a little gentleman.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Possibly the great, tall, red-legged tailor, who arrives (with the speed of teleportation) at the house of a thumb-sucker for the express purpose of mutilating the kid's hands and disappearing again.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: A young man who goes out shooting takes a nap; and a hare sneaks up and takes his gun and spectacles, and tries to shoot him.
  • Jerkass:
    • Frederick from "The Story of Bad Frederick". He abuses animals for fun and hits a woman.
    • The three boys who bully the black kid.
  • Kick the Dog: Frederick beats up a dog before being bitten by it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Nikolaus dips the racist kids into a gigantic inkwell for harassing a black boy.
    • The hare turning the tables on the Huntsman.
    • Frederick gets bitten by a dog he was tormenting and is laid up in bed; then to add insult to injury, the dog steals Frederick's supper.
  • Made of Incendium: Harriet/Pauline, who plays with matches. The fire catches her apron string, and then she burns all over, everywhere.
  • Never Found the Body: Flying Robert goes outdoors with his umbrella during a storm. The winds catch his umbrella and lift him into the air, never to be seen again.
    Soon they got to such a height,
    They were nearly out of sight.
    And the hat went up so high,
    That it nearly touched the sky.
    No one ever yet could tell
    Where they stopped, or where they fell:
    Only this one thing is plain,
    Bob was never seen again!
  • Never Trust a Title: The English translation has the Either/Or Title Struwwelpeter, or, Merry Stories and Funny Pictures. Many of the stories are far from merry, and the images may be more frightening than funny.
  • Oral Fixation: A boy who sucks his thumb is ambushed by a man cutting them off as punishment!
  • Page-Turn Surprise:
    • "The Story of the Inky Boys" tells the reader to turn the page, so they shall see how black the inky boys really are.
    • A similar effect is used in "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb". After Suck-a-Thumb's mother has warned him of the consequences of sucking his thumb, the page ends with "the thumb was in, alas, alack!". Turning the page reveals the image of the tailor storming in and cutting off the boy's thumb with a large pair of scissors.
  • Parasol Parachute: Robert flies away after taking an umbrella out during a storm.
  • People Fall Off Chairs: In "The Story of Fidgety Philip", Philip swings on his chair at dinner time; and when his chair falls over, he catches at the table cloth, pulling the cloth and the entire contents of the table with him.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The three boys who bully the black boy. Nikolaus punishes them by dipping them in a gigantic inkwell.
  • Rascally Rabbit: In the "The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting", a huntsman goes hunting hares, but is unaware that a hare is already watching him from a bush, laughing at him and thumbing his nose at him behind his back. When the huntsman then unwisely takes a nap beneath a tree, the hare steals his gun (and dons his spectacles). Cue the hare chasing the huntsman with the gun, and the huntsman screaming for help and finally jumping into a well to save himself while the hare fires a bullet narrowly over him. This is the only story in Struwwelpeter in which the protagonist is not a misbehaving child, thus framing the huntsman's humiliation by the hare as a just punishment.
  • Scare 'Em Straight: The point of the book is to frighten children into avoiding bad habits or dangerous behaviors by showing awful things happening to those who act that way.
  • Shear Menace: The tailor uses lawn shears to cut off the child's thumbs.
  • Smouldering Shoes: Harriet and the matches, who burns to death, "until she had nothing more to lose, except her little scarlet shoes".
  • Space Whale Aesop:
    • Don't be racist or a giant will cover you in ink.
    • Don't suck your thumb or a tailor will pop out of nowhere and cut it off.
  • Talking Animal: The cats who warn Pauline/Harriet of the danger of matches, the hare's daughter, and the fish who mock Hans/Johnny after he falls in the river.
  • Token Adult: Out of all the victims, only one of them is an adult.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Most of the children in the stories. In the 1998 stage musical adaptation, plotlines were altered slightly so everyone dies.
  • Truth in Television: Playing with Lucifer matches really could burn you to death that quickly, though not as cartoonishly. Also, if you stop eating, you'll die (eventually).
  • Wild Hair:
    Just look at him! there he stands,
    With his nasty hair and hands.
    See! his nails are never cut;
    They are grimed as black as soot;
    And the sloven, I declare,
    Never once has combed his hair;
    Anything to me is sweeter
    Than to see Shock-headed Peter.

Alternative Title(s): The Struwwelpeter, Der Struwwelpeter, Slovenly Peter, Shockheaded Peter