Maurice Sendak said that it was ‘graphically the most beautiful book in the world’. Not the Lindisfarne Gospels, but…
Well, how do you pronounce it to start with?
Most people here say ‘strewel’ (to rhyme with ‘crewel’) and then plain ‘Peter’; but it really needs to be given a rich German pronunciation as it were: Shtruvelpeter, with a guttural ‘r’ and a strong short first ‘e’ in ‘Peter’.
What does it mean?
The usual translation is ‘Shock-headed Peter’ but (as you may guess) ‘Struwwel’ has more force to it than that, implying hair tangled up like barbed wire. The word refers to the figure who usually appears on the cover and the first page of the book: Peter, standing on a plinth and glowering at us from under his hair. His finger-nails are a foot or so longer than those of even the most fashionable of today’s teenagers.
Who wrote it, and when?
Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894), a physician in Frankfurt a.m., didn’t care for the heavy moralism and the over-realistic illustration of contemporary children’s books. His original manuscript was concocted in 1844 for the enjoyment of some friends and as a Christmas present for his 3-year-old son Carl. One of the friends was a publisher (who also published Marx and Engels’s Die Heilige Familie !) and he and Hoffmann organised publication of the first edition of what was then called Lustige Geschichten und Drollige Bilder for Christmas 1845: six stories occupying fifteen pages, illustrated and decorated by Hoffmann himself, with the text printed letterpress and the pictures lithographed and then coloured by hand. The book was an immediate success and with publication of the fifth edition in 1847 it attained its canonic form: ten stories on 24 pages, with the title now changed to Der Struwwelpeter , and with the youth himself no longer at the back of the book but presiding over everything immediately after the title-page.
When did it come to England?
In 1848 under the title The English Struwwelpeter; or pretty stories and funny pictures for little children. After the Sixth Edition of the celebrated German work . Since it was printed for Hoffmann’s publisher, who sold it through agents, it naturally followed the German sequence of stories and used the author’s illustrations, which were now printed from wood-blocks with hand-colouring. No one knows who translated the verses, but whoever it was did a very passable job and his text is still found in current editions. These are merely the latest reprints of a work which has appeared in uncountable numbers in this country (often with several publishers putting out editions at one and the same time), which has been translated into at least thirty languages, and which must hold a world record as the most widely-disseminated text to have been consistently accompanied by versions of its author’s original illustrations.
What is pretty about the stories?
Well may you ask. Most of them have to do with foolish, stroppy or unbiddable children who meet various comeuppances: Bullyboy Frederick, bitten by a dog; Harriet, playing with matches and burning herself to ashes; three yobbos who taunt a black boy and get dunked in a large inkwell by tall Agrippa; and – most famously – Conrad Suck-a-Thumb who is de-digitized by the Red-legg’d Scissor-man. One story has no children in it and concerns a hunter after hares who falls asleep and is then chased and shot at by his quarry. Opinions differ about all this, with doubts expressed (especially by congenital thumb-suckers) over Hoffmann’s motives, and with nods and winks at the fact that he was German.
A case for the defence.
Sky-larking, m’lud. The whole thing was conceived as a joke and a send-up of the moralités inflicted on child readers (then, as now) and Hoffmann relishes his chance to have a go at stupidity and pomposity. There is too the graphic beauty admired by Sendak. This has nothing to do with the surface gloss of fashionable painter-illustrators, but stems from Dr Hoffmann’s wonderful versatility in giving visual life to his various texts – the more powerful perhaps because of its very amateurishness. Struwwelpeter makes play with half a dozen graphic devices never before found together in so short a book: strip cartoons, sequential events in a single picture, personified objects, symbolic decorations etc. all cleverly patterned around each page of text.
An inspiration to plagiarists and parodists.
Simple in structure and widely popular among generations of readers Struwwelpeter has proved a rich source for imitators and satirists. The former are usually hopeless, proving Hoffmann’s naive surrealism to be inimitable, but the latter can turn his cautionary episodes to good, if transient, effect (see for instance The Political Struwwelpeter , 1899; Swollen-headed [Kaiser] William , 1914; Struwwelhitler , 1941; and Tricky Dick [Nixon] and his Pals , 1974. Musical settings have also been made, the most recent of which, Shockheaded Peter: a junk opera , with music by The Tiger Lillies, is still touring around and is not to be missed.
The illustrations and cover are from the Dragon’s World edition of 1995, reissued by Belitha Press in 1997 (1 85561 770 6, £9.99).
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books History Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times .
A conference to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first American printing of Struwwelpeter is to be held during November at the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University, where Brian Alderson will be one of the speakers.