THE CASTLE OF TRUTH and other revolutionary tales

Hermynia Zur Mühlen Translated and edited by Jack Zipes  ISBN 978-0-691-20125-2  Princeton  £16.99

reviewed by Alan Dent


Hermynia Zur Mühlen was born Hermine Isabella Maria Folliot de Crenneville in Vienna in 1883. Raised in material luxury and emotional impoverishment by a self-obsessed mother and a distant, authoritarian father, she discovered some comfort in her grandmother and a favourite, eccentric uncle. Imaginative and spirited, she rebelled against the aristocratic roots, setting up a political cub at the age of eleven with the aim of bringing down the aristocracy. Her radicalism went further, however: she embraced the rising socialism of the age, a viewpoint she never abandoned. Inevitably, being feminine, she ran into serious difficulties in trying to live the kind of life she favoured. In a bid for independence from her family she married Viktor von Zur Mühlen in 1905; a mistake. They were opposites in their political and social perspectives. She spent nine years on her husband’s estate where there was no intellectual or artistic life, the peasants lived in dismal poverty and she became tubercular. The latter misfortune she never recovered from, but it did take her to a sanatorium in Davos where she met the much more congenial Stefan Klein. She divorced and moved with Klein to Frankfurt am Main where they spent fourteen years trying to change the world by writing. Members of the German Communist Party they were excited by the Bolshevik Revolution and had high hopes for the Soviet Union – like many others who found them dashed by Stalinism. Zur Mühlen was an excellent and prolific translator, but it is arguably in the arena of the fairy tale that her greatest achievement lies. In 1921 she published Was Peterchens Freunde erzhälen (What Little Peter’s Friends Told Him) which incorporated criticism of the exploitation of the workers into the simple fairy tale form. The notion of the exploitation of the employee by the employer has been driven out of popular consciousness, but at the time the idea was still alive that the relation itself was exploitative. Today, the term has declined to the notion of an extreme: the relation is accepted as self-justifying. In Zur Mülhen’s writing, the rebellion of the workers against the very nature of employment is depicted as the shape of a new world. Her work has more of a revolutionary than reformist edge.


She wasn’t alone in giving new life to the fairy tale with a radical edge: Erich Kästner, Berta Lask, Kurt Schwitters and others were engaged in the same kind of enterprise. She was forced to flee Germany, of course, and later Vienna and found refuge, of sorts, in England where she lived till her death in 1951. Disillusioned with Stalinism and the Communist Party, she shifted her faith to religion, a change evident in her work. She had some great successes. Her 1929 memoir was a best-seller and the mystery novels she wrote under the pen-name of Lawrence Desberry were popular. All the same, she struggled to place some of her work and she and Klein were no strangers to the perils and pitfalls of a writer’s life.


Jack Zipes has chosen mainly stories from the Weimar years when she was deliberately seeking to raise consciousness about the condition of working people and the possibilities for change. The Castle of Truth appeared in 1924. At its heart is the idea that truth endures and is indestructible. The wealthiest man in town, admired and respected for his money, builds a magnificent palace above which stands the dilapidated castle of truth. A poor girl who marries into wealth decides to climb the mountain and discover truth. The rich man has the castle torn down, but its debris conveys the truth to everyone it touches. The tale works well and is written in Zur Mülhen’s characteristic clear and direct style. It is well chosen as the title story. Of course the form has its limits: a tendency to Manichean oppositions, absence of depth in characterisation and therefore a tilt towards stereotypes, a willingness to allow the desired message to prevail over complexity. These make the tales less appealing to adults, of course, than to children. Yet as a complement to the canon of fairy tales, these stories which bring a perspective often absent are a valuable addition. Zur Mülhen deserves to be much better known among English readers and children can find here not just the charm of simple stories well told, but also a view of the world not often encountered in the literature aimed at them or in the education system.