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Literature / The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

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Original Illustration by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

"The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" (Ger. Nußknacker und Mausekönig) is a 1816 Fairy Tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, but you probably know it by its shorter title: The Nutcracker (Rus. Щелкунчик, Shchelkunchik) from the frequently staged ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the musical suite derived therefrom, and from that suite's use in Disney's Fantasia. The ballet has also been made into various screen adaptations, mostly animated.

The Stahlbaum children are given a toy nutcracker for Christmas from their godfather Drosselmeier. This nutcracker turns out to be more than he seems; he's really Drosselmeier's nephew transformed by a mouse queen's evil curse. With the help of young Marie Stahlbaum, the nutcracker is eventually able to overcome his foe (the queen's vengeful seven-headed son), regain his true form, and take Marie to the doll kingdom. After taking a grand tour, Marie falls asleep and wakes up in her own bed. When she tries to tell her parents, they think she's dreamed the entire thing and forbid her to speak of it again. However, Marie goes to her nutcracker in the cabinet and vows she would love him if he were real, even if he were ugly. This breaks the curse, and he asks her to marry him. Marie accepts, and in a year he takes her to the doll kingdom, where she is crowned queen.

A fan translation of Hoffmann's original fairy tale can be found here.

The story has been adapted numerous times, including two feature length Animated Adaptations. It was also famously illustrated by Maurice Sendak for a special version translated by Ralph Mannheim. Additionally, there's a Walt Disney Pictures live action film adaptation that also incorporates elements from Tchaikovsky's ballet titled The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. On September 8, 2020, First Second Books released a graphic novel adaptation drawn by Natalie Andrewson.

The book provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – Marine Biology: Dolphins are described as having scales and blowing water through their nostrils. (Dolphins have a single blowhole on the top of their head, and they don't actually blow water out through it.)
  • Author Tract: The story isn't very subtle about its message that beauty and royalty do not equal goodness and virtue.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Ralph Manheim's translation is pretty decent, but he goofs up big time by translating the names of two completely different places into "Candytown." (Specifically, Bonbonshausen and Konfektburg.) And it's not like they were particularly easy to mistake for one another, either.
  • Big Bad: The Mouse King, the mortal enemy of the Nutcracker, who commands an army, soundly defeating his in combat.
  • Break the Cutie: The young, sweet Marie is psychologically tormented by the Mouse King.
  • Bug War: The residents of Candytown (Bonbonshausen) are seen making preparations for an attack from the mosquitoes.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Young Drosselmeier is the king of the Land of the Dolls. He's probably 14 at the most.
  • Curse Escape Clause: Two.
    • Princess Pirlipat could escape her curse of ugliness if a young man who had never shaved nor worn boots cracked the nut Krakatuk between his teeth, presented it to the princess with his eyes closed, and took seven steps backward without stumbling.
    • The curse on the Nutcracker: His curse is broken when Marie announces that she would love him even if he were ugly.
  • The Dreaded: The inhabitants of the Land of Dolls believe in a cruel spirit they call Pastrycook (Konditor), who has total power over mankind. Just mentioning his name will quell any uproar, as everyone would suddenly be preoccupied with pondering man's place in the universe.
  • Duel to the Death: It's not described, but this is how the Mouse King dies once the Nutcracker gets properly armed.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Averted; Hoffman specifically mentions that Marie isn't afraid of mice, though her mother seems to assume she is. (In fact, she's only afraid of one, and for good reason.)
  • Evil Matriarch: The Mouse Queen is the terrifying head of her family.
  • Give Me a Sword: After the Mouse King's third Sadistic Choice offered to Marie, she discusses it with the Nutcracker, and he assures her once armed, he should be quite capable of handling his foe.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: The Mouse Queen is an evil queen since she curses Princess Pirlipat with ugliness and turns Drosselmeyer‘s nephew into a nutcracker.
  • Gold Makes Everything Shiny: Especially flatware and cooking dishes! The dishes are shiny because they're been covered in gold.
  • The Grotesque: Princess Pirlipat and the Nutcracker are both hideously ugly. Subverted a bit with Pirlipat in that, after her ugliness is removed, she turns out to be a Royal Brat.
  • Happily Ever After: In the book, the characters all live happily ever after as the nutcracker’s curse is broken. He ask her to marry him which Marie accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the doll kingdom, where she is crowned queen.
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: The only reasonable way Marie could climb a ladder up her father's coat sleeve is to shrink to the size of a bug...
  • Kid Hero: Marie to an extent (she's seven) and most definitely Nutcracker, who becomes king, leads an army, and defeats the Big Bad mano a mano (he's most likely somewhere around 13-15).
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The dying words of Lady Mouserinks (according to this translation) were:
    Oh, Crackatook, hard nut, now I must die
    Hee hee, pee pee
    Nutcracker, young man, you too will die
    My seven-crowned son will avenge my death
    And take from you your living breath
    Oh, life, so vibrant and red, I - squeak!
  • The Lady's Favor: The doll Clarette offers a ribbon to the Nutcracker as a favor before he goes into battle, but he shows her that Marie has already given him her ribbon.
  • Level Ate: The Land of Dolls, where buildings are made from various sweets.
  • Living Toys: Possibly the oldest example in the book: All of the children's toys are secretly alive.
  • Multiple Head Case: The Mouse King has seven heads.
  • No Name Given: The names of the king, queen, and court astronomer are never given. The nutcracker and Marie's parents are only known by their surnames.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Marzipan Castle was once threatened by a giant named Sweettooth. The people of Candytown (Konfektburg) bought him off by offering him a precinct of the city and a large portion of Marmalade Grove.
  • Pajama-Clad Hero: Marie goes to the Land of Dolls in her nightie.
  • The Power of Love: Marie's love breaks the Nutcracker's curse thus he regains his human form.
  • The Quest: Drosselmeier went on a 15 year journey to find the cure for Princess Pirlipat.
  • Rat King: The Mouse King has seven heads, which suggests that it might have been inspired by stories of Rat Kings. He's changed to the Rat King in many adaptations, since rats are seen as more villainous than mice.
  • Revenge: The Mouse Queen and her family eat almost all the lard intended for the sausage served at a feast. The king almost dies upon eating the sausage, so he traps all her sons and kills them. The Mouse Queen, in return, curses the king's daughter, and later, gets killed while the (future) Nutcracker breaks the curse. After that, It's Personal between her son and the Nutcracker.
  • Replacement Goldfish: At the end of the story, young Drosselmeier replaces all of the sugar dolls the Mouse King ate. Small comfort when you remember that the originals were living beings...
  • Royal Brat: Princess Pirlipat and the king. Especially when they comment on how ugly Drosselmeier‘s nephew become once he was turned into a nutcracker.
  • Rule of Three: The Mouse King visits Marie three times before Nutcracker offs him.
  • Sadistic Choice: The Mouse King makes Marie surrender her beloved candies and toys to him, or else he'll destroy the Nutcracker.
  • Take a Third Option: The Mouse King's aforementioned Sadistic Choice to Marie. The third option? Arm the Nutcracker.
  • Theme Naming: The Drosselmeier family — we have Christian Elias Drosselmeier and Christoph Zechariah Drosselemeier. In other words, Christ(something) (Old Testament prophet) Drosselmeier.
  • Vague Age: Young Drosselmeier. He probably wasn't any older than fourteen when he was transformed into a Nutcracker, given the facts we have to work with. Then when you account for the fact that upward of seven years must have passed before he was given to Marie, he would logically be in his early twenties. But at the end of the story, Drosselmeier refers to him and Marie collectively as "children" and expects them to play together, so apparently he's still quite young.
  • Vile Villain, Saccharine Show: The main villain of a story about dolls, candy, and Christmas? A sadistic seven headed mouse. His tininess really doesn't make him any less horrifying.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: After the Nutcracker kills the Mouse King and they visit the Land of Dolls, Marie tries in vain to convince her parents that it wasn't just a dream. To her credit she actually has evidence to show for it (the Mouse King's crowns), but they still find her story too ridiculous to believe.

Alternative Title(s): The Nutcracker