Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Hoffmann, E T A

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(1776-1822) German composer, lawyer and writer; he changed his third given name, originally Wilhelm, to Amadeus in 1813 in homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), but signed himself E T A Hoffmann as early as 1804. As a composer he was most active in the decade before 1809, when he began to publish fiction with "Ritter Gluck" in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, a tale in which the composer Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) appears as a Ghost. Much of ETAH's own music is of merit, and some of it – like his last opera, Undine (1816) – is relevant to fantasy. Also, a number of later composers have based ballets and Operas on ETAH's fiction; best-known is probably The Tales of Hoffmann (1881) by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).

It is for his many short stories, novellas and two full-length novels that ETAH is of greatest fantasy interest. Almost all the tales which have been translated, sometimes several times (often badly), appear in various ETAH collections, including: Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier ["Fantasy Pieces in the Style of Callot"] (coll 1814 4 vols; rev 1819), among the contents of which are "Ritter Gluck" and (occupying the whole of vol 3) Der Goldne Topf: Ein Märchen aus der neuen Zeit (1814; trans Thomas Carlyle as "The Golden Pot" in German Romance: Specimens of its Chief Authors coll 1827 UK); Nachtstücke ["Night Pieces"] (coll 1816-1817 2 vols), which contains "Der Sandmann" and others; the tales assembled within a Frame Story (see Club Story) as Die Serapions-Brüder (coll 1819-1821 4 vols; trans Alexander Ewing as The Serapion Brethren 1886 and 1892 2 vols UK), which contains "Nussknacker unde Mausekönig" (1816; trans in Nutcracker and Mouse King, and The Educated Cat coll trans Ascott R Hope 1892 US; separately vt Nutcracker 1985 UK), "Die Automate" (1817), "Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober" (1819), "Die Königsbraut" (1821; trans as The King's Bride 1959 chap UK), and many more; and Die Letzten Erzählungen ["The Last Tales"] (coll 1825 2 vols).

The tales of most fantasy interest are of two kinds. The Literary Fairytales are perhaps the more popular, though not always the most deeply reflective of ETAH's profound sensitivity to stress and abnormal psychology. This category does, however, include what may be his finest single piece of fiction, "The Golden Pot: A Modern Fairy Tale", whose protagonist, Anselmus, lives on two levels of Reality – mundane and fairytale – which Crosshatch with dreamlike liquidity. Dresden and Atlantis intersect constantly, an interaction ETAH conveys through a constant flicker of Trompe-L'oeil moments. Gradually Anselmus's bourgeois life is swallowed by Atlantis, though he must undergo a Night Journey in preparation for his bliss, after a moment of doubt causes his Bondage in a glass bottle, which seals him from Paradise until he is forgiven by the presiding Magus – who is a salamander from the morning of the world, and with whose daughter (who flickeringly appears as a Serpent) Anselmus falls in love.

Other tales of this sort include: "The Nutcracker", whose young heroine enters a miniature Otherworld where she defends the eponymous prince; "Little Zaches Called Cinnabar", whose protagonist lives under a fairy Spell until, fatally, it is shattered; and Princess Brambilla: Ein Capriccio nach Jakob Callot ["Princess Brambilla: A Caprice in the Manner of Jakob Callot"] (dated 1821 but 1820), set at Carnival time in Rome, where the story is told of a prince and princess so blind to their true nature that they must see themselves in a magic Mirror, where each is confronted by the denied Double aspect of selfhood necessary for a whole life.

Not fully distinguished from this, but generally more problematical about Reality as seen (or projected) by their protagonists, are tales like "The Sandman", whose protagonist's love for two women who occupy differing realities has a grimmer outcome than Anselmus's, for this time the other is an automaton, and has possibly been foisted on him by the Devil. The eponymous monster who psychically tortures an innocent man in "Ignaz Denner" (1817) has gained his supernatural venom through drinking an Elixir of Life derived from the blood of children. And "Die Bergwerke zu Falun" (from The Serapion Brethren; normally trans as "The Mines of Falun") once again features a personality split between two worlds, and follows him downwards into the mine where his artistic (and perhaps insane) Perception gives him what turns out in the end to be a fatal Vision. Rarely in ETAH's serious work does the artist manage to live whole: either the world takes him or he dies into something other.

ETAH wrote two long novels of genre interest. Die Elixiere Des Teufels (1815-1816; trans R P Gillies as The Devil's Elixir 1824 UK; preferred trans Ronald Taylor as The Devil's Elixirs 1963 UK) explores with savagery and depth the theme of the double or Doppelgänger through the hyperbolically conflicted life of Medardus, a monk and sensualist whose dance of identity with his double – whom he kills, who returns, who kills his bride-to-be (whose brother and stepmother Medardus has already murdered) – is a remarkably sophisticated and haunted vision of the gnawed Romantic self. Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kriesler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (1820-1821; trans Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight as The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, Including a Fragmentary Biography of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kriesler on Miscellaneous Pieces of Scrap Paper, vol 2 of their Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann coll 1969 US) is rather milder, though its mockery of the confessional mode exemplified by Goethe's The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister (1796) is pointed (see Parody): Kater Murr, after all, is a Cat. The structure of the book is markedly complex. Murr (as "editor", ETAH, explains) has written his own rather philistine confession upon the sole existing copy of a biography of Kriesler; the two texts jostle together contradictingly in a manner that forecasts 20th-century plays on textuality – the wording of the title makes reference to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne (1713-1768).

For a century or so after his death, ETAH tended to be thought of as an unwholesome eccentric whose fiction was uncontrolled and whose use of the supernatural detracted from his serious intentions. He is now recognized as a skilled and conscious creator, some of whose visions prefigure the darker dreams of this century. [JC]

Other translations (selective): Hoffmann's Strange Stories (coll trans anon 1855 US), unreliable; Hoffmann's Fairy Tales (coll trans L Burnham 1857 US), from French translations; Weird Tales (coll trans T J Bealy 1885 UK), unidiomatic; Stories (coll trans 1908) ed Arthur Ransome, whose intro reappears in The Tales of Hoffmann (coll with old trans 1943 US); Tales of Hoffmann: Retold from Offenbach's Opera (coll trans Cyril Falls 1913 UK); Tales of Hoffmann (coll trans James Kirkup 1966 UK); The Best Tales of Hoffmann (coll with some new trans 1967) ed E F Bleiler; Three Märchen (coll trans 1971 US).

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.