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Epic Adventures and Trickster Tales

NBG talks to Michael Rosen – poet, broadcaster, children’s author and former children’s laureate – about his love of German books and their role in the development of his own writing.

Michael Rosen was fortunate to grow up in a house where other languages were not considered utterly foreign. His father spoke German and French, and his mother French and Yiddish; and family holidays to Germany and France meant that he heard those languages in everyday use from a young age. The books that accompanied his younger years, and that stay with him still, were consequently taken not only from the pantheon of English literature but have a distinctly international flavour.
Emil and the Detectives (1929) by Erich Kästner was not only one of Rosen’s favourite books as a child, but it also represents a breakthrough in children’s literature: the first ever childdetective story. When young Emil is travelling by train to visit his grandmother in Berlin, he falls asleep and the money that he was to deliver to his grandmother is stolen. Brave Emil follows the thief, and soon comes across city-dweller Gustav and his chums. Together, the young ‘detectives’ set off on the thief’s trail ...
‘The book is one of the first to celebrate the urban. Emil has to go from his countryside home to the city, and instead of it being a dangerous and frightening place, it’s full of companionship and a bunch of jolly mates. In the history of children’s literature that’s quite a breakthrough, because children tend to be associated with the countryside, which in turn signifies innocence; while the city is full of threats and danger. Kästner was one of the first to reverse this trend, since the thief is ultimately defeated by the goodness of the city.’
‘One of my favourite scenes, which I often read out to my students, is about the street-lights coming on and the tram trundling along. It reads like a classic modernist paragraph, celebrating the electricity of the city. It’s so much of the period, and as such it’s an absolute key moment in children’s fiction.’
Emil’s tale is a mini-odyssey, a journey full of adventure, mishap and development; and Rosen considers the epic nature of the story to be characteristic of much great children’s literature: ‘Take Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, for example. There’s a touch of the epic about his little journey into the imagination and back again, where he literally conquers his demons.’
A new edition of <em>Grimms Märchen</em> (Tulipan)
A new edition of Grimms Märchen (Tulipan)
The Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, on the other hand, seem to Rosen to represent the opposite: ‘often quite small and inconsequential in their own right, but very terrifying all the same.’ Rosen is fascinated by these Märchen (folk tales), and what they can tell us about how stories are created and passed on over time and across national boundaries. The Grimms – or the culture that developed around them – are, to a degree, responsible for simplifying the composite and international nature of these tales. The Grimm brothers, Rosen reasons, had a particular job to do, which was ‘to put German on the map’, to cure the Germanic lands of their inferiority complex in the face of French culture. They did so both culturally, through the tales, and linguistically through their studies of the development of the German language and their dictionaries. Consequently, although many of the tales had their origins in French stories, they quickly became nationalised and known as ‘German stories’. ‘It is fascinating to look at these tales,’ says Rosen, ‘to find the common motifs and those that are different across cultures – I’m interested just as much in the migration of stories as in their origins.’
<em>Till Eulenspiegel</em>, Arena Verlag
Till Eulenspiegel, Arena Verlag
The folk tale, and the Grimms in particular, have played an important part in the development of Rosen’s writing, as he has sought to insert a ‘folk idiom’ into some of his works. He describes the early years in a writer’s life as central to their later output: ‘The books that you read between the ages of about five and ten are very influential for any writer – of adult or children’s fiction. Several of the motifs that appeal to you are laid down then, and preferences for detective books, historical fiction or trickster tales will emerge in some way in your later writing.’ In Rosen’s case, it was the ‘trickster tale’ that was of paramount importance to him as a boy, in particular in the form of the German children’s classic Till Eulenspiegel.
Eulenspiegel was at the heart of all the things I enjoyed at that age. I adored the English version I had, and there is a definite influence on my own writing for children – I’m always looking for tricking and trickster ideas.’
It is not just children’s literature that has impacted on Rosen’s writing; the poetry and prose of two giants of twentieth-century German literature, Bertolt Brecht and Günter Grass, also count amongst his influences.
‘I have tried consciously to imitate Brecht’s poetry in some of my adult poems – I once wrote a ballad in a rather Brechtian style about the position-changing of slightly unscrupulous people, those who take one side and then swap to the other. And I did a play for voices, a kind of documentary play, which was like the Brechtian “living newspaper” drama.’ Brecht’s aesthetic in general has been important to Rosen – his concept of ‘alienation’ in poetry, story and film has affected his whole approach to writing.
Günter Grass looms large in Rosen’s world, too. Grass’s novel Cat and Mouse, which follows a group of teenage boys in Germany during the Second World War and, as Rosen puts it, ‘projects part of the history of Germany onto the boys and their friendships’, impacted on Rosen’s writing at the time – influencing in particular his poems about male friendship. Reading Grass also led him to certain conclusions about the way that children’s play functions: ‘I remember thinking that the dramas that kids play out are often microcosmic equivalents of the dramas being played out in society.’
Michael Rosen’s prolific, multifaceted and ever-vibrant oeuvre is clearly the result of engagement with a huge range of cultural forms from several countries, and of a genuine fascination with these texts. And it is the fact that these books, originally in German, made their way into English and into the poet’s hands that has enriched this oeuvre and contributed to the making of one of our finest and most influential writers.