The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E. T. A. Hoffmann (St. Simon translation)

Everybody knows that nutcracker soldiers are associated with Christmas time, but who really knows why? Until very recently, I certainly didn’t. I knew The Nutcracker was a ballet and thought that that might have had some influence, but I didn’t realise that there was a piece of prose fiction about it and that that was the original seed from which the ballet and the very idea of nutcrackers being synonymous with Christmas grew.

So what’s it about? Well, funnily enough, I think this might be the origin of the ‘toys coming to life at night’ trope as well. It all starts with a young girl named Marie getting a nutcracker toy for Christmas that she really loves. Then in the middle of the night, she finds it at war (along with several other toys), doing battle against an evil seven-headed mouse king.

Later, you also get a kind of fairy tale backstory for the nutcracker, which explains that he was originally a human being and there’s a long-standing feud with the evil mouse family. It was kind of fun and feels very much in line with the kind of thing you might find in Grimm tale.

The first part of the story was definitely my favourite – especially the scenes with Marie and her brother on the night before Christmas feeling excited about the presents, and then their joy on the day itself. This perfectly captured that beautiful Christmassy feeling that everybody hopes to feel when reading a festive book.

The second part doesn’t have much of a Christmassy feeling, and is just a whimsical and fantastical tale. It wasn’t bad by any means, it just carried less emotion that the earlier parts. Even though the whole thing has a lot of out-of-this-world stuff in it, it was actually the bits that were more grounded in reality that I liked the most. The very ending, which I won’t spoil, was actually a bit too weird for me, but one of my very favourite things was the jolly and mysterious character of Drosselmeyer, Marie’s godfather. He certainly want rooted in reality, but he was great and fit right in in a whimsical Christmas story.

This is a very short book and if you’re a fan of old Christmas stories, you should definitely give it a go. Fans of old fairy tales will probably get a lot out of it too. It could do with a bit more substance, but then that’s something I think about a lot of children’s fiction (though not all) so the criticism may be partially born out of the fact that I am no longer the target audience – overall I don’t want to suggest it was bad, because overall, I had fun with it and am glad I read it.

Rating: 6.4/10

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