‘Little Zaches, Great Zinnober’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann

I was hoping to read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr for GLM4 but as I feared I ran out of time. However, I wanted to squeeze in a Hoffmann review of my own before it ended so I plumped for this tale Little Zaches, Great Zinnober. As far as I know it’s not readily available in English in any published work but a little while ago I found this great translation online by Michael Haldane which can be retrieved from his website here along with some other translations. The original German title is Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober and was originally published in 1819.

The novel is one of his more fantastical pieces in the style of The Golden Pot, The Nutcracker and Mouse King and Master Flea and it involves many of Hoffmann’s favourite themes: fairies, confused identities, magic, Romantic students, strange beings etc. The tale begins with an old peasant woman collapsing by the roadside with a basket full of twigs on her head. She laments her fate and we find out how she gave birth to a strange little child that has ‘spidery little legs, and instead of talking, he growls and miaows, like a cat.’ This is Little Zaches, and he crawls out from the basket that the old woman has been carrying. A more detailed description of Little Zaches follows:

The thing’s head was set deep between its shoulders, it had a pumpkin-like outgrowth in place of a back, and its hazel switch-thin little legs hung down directly beneath its breast, so that the boy resembled a split radish. A dull eye would discover little about the face, but looking more closely, you would become aware of a long, sharp nose jutting out beneath shaggy black hair and a pair of small, darkly flashing eyes that seemed — especially when one considered the otherwise quite old, furrowed facial features — to reveal a small alraun [mandrake root].

So Little Zaches supposedly looks like a mandrake root; these appear in witchcraft and folklore and are supposed to have magical properties. Anyway, along comes Fräulein von Rosenchön, a nun, who takes pity on them both, she picks up Little Zaches, combs his hair then sprinkles holy water over him, then leaves. When the woman wakes up she’s pleased with Zaches’ nicely combed hair and they walk on where they meet the local priest who is so impressed by Little Zaches’ looks and erudition that he offers to raise him as his own.

It turns out that Fräulein von Rosenchön is also known as Rosengrünschön (is there a German pun here?) but is really the Fairy Rosabelverde. Yes, she’s a fairy who escaped the ‘fairy purges’ that were instigated by Paphnutius when he tried to enforce Enlightenment values throughout the land and to get rid of all undesirable elements. Fairies are particularly offensive because of their ‘unbearable police-unfriendly habits’ and for their propensity to ‘drive in the air with harnessed doves, swans’ and ‘even winged horses’. If Hoffmann has a dig here at the expense of the Enlightenment then with the start of chapter Two he has a dig at Romanticism by introducing the student Balthasar, a poet and a student who is in love with his tutor’s beautiful daughter Candida. He likes going for lonely strolls in the forest alone when his friends are all enjoying themselves. Things start to escalate now because Balthasar and his friend see a horse approaching that seems as if it has no rider but is in fact being ridden by Zaches who strikes the students as preposterous. When Zaches appears in town (Kerepes) instead of being laughed at by everyone they thinks he’s wonderful. Zaches, now known as Zinnober, wheedles his way into a plush job as a minister to the Fürst (prince) by taking the credit of several people, including Balthasar, and he even ends up getting betrothed to Candida. Only a few people can see Zinnober as he really is; for most people he is a perfect gentleman, poet, scholar, diplomat and lover.

One day when Balthasar and his friend, Referendarius Pulcher, are walking in the woods they hear a strange musical sound and then see a man dressed like a Chinese man with plumes on his head in a cart that looked as if it was made of sparkling crystal, pulled by two unicorns and driven by a silver pheasant and at the back is a large rose-beetle which is cooling the man by fluttering its wings. It turns out that the man is Doctor Prosper Alpanus. The students get to know him and hope that he will be able to help them in their attempt to break the spell that Zinnober has over the townsfolk.

There are so many wonderful and humorous episodes in this short book such as when Zinnober is awarded the ‘Order of the Green-Spotted Tiger’ and it takes the best minds of the land over a week to determine the best way to fix it to his coat. And there’s Fabian whose coat sleeves end up shrinking and whose coat tail keeps growing until he is threatened with expulsion from the town for his outlandish behaviour. Alpanus flies about on giant dragonflies, Terpin studies why wine doesn’t taste like water and there is even an incident where someone dies by getting stuck in a teapot. This is fun stuff but one of my favourite episodes is when Fräulein (or Sister) Rosenchön visits Alpanus and there’s an incident with the coffee.

Prosper asked if she, as it was still early morning, would perhaps take a cup of coffee; Rosenschön said that a Nun never spurned such things. The coffee was brought, but however hard Prosper tried to pour it out, the cups remained empty, notwithstanding that coffee streamed out of the pot.
“Well, well,” smiled Prosper Alpanus, “this is naughty coffee! Would you, my dear Fraulein, be so good as to pour the coffee yourself?”
“With pleasure,” replied the Fraulein, grasping the pot. But despite the fact that not a single drop poured out of the pot, the cup became fuller and fuller, and the coffee flowed over on to the table, on to the Nun’s dress. She quickly put the pot down; the coffee immediately disappeared without a trace.

They’re using their magical powers to tussle with each other. A few more incidents occur until Alpanus declares that Rosenschön (Rosabelverde) is now in his power and we get this great scene.

  “In your power,” cried the Fraulein, angrily, “in your power, Doctor? Foolish conceit!”
And with these words her silk dress spread itself out, and she floated up to the ceiling as the loveliest Camberwell beauty. But at once Prosper Alpanus was buzzing and rushing after her as a huge stag-beetle. Totally exhausted, the Camberwell beauty fluttered down and ran around the ground as a little mouse. But the stag-beetle sprang after it, miaowing and snorting, as a grey tomcat. The little mouse rose once again as a dazzling hummingbird, when all sorts of strange voices were raised all around the country house, and all sorts of wonderful insects buzzed in, along with strange wood-fowl, and a golden web was spun over the window. Then all at once the Fairy Rosabelverde, radiant in all her splendour and eminence, in a glistening white garment fastened by a sparkling belt of diamonds, white and red roses woven in her dark locks, stood there in the middle of the room. Before her the magus in a gold-embroidered robe, a glittering crown on his head, the cane with the fiery-beaming knob in his hand.
As Rosabelverde strode up to the magus, a golden comb fell out of her hair and shattered, as if it were made of glass, on the marble floor.
“Oh my! Oh my!” cried the Fairy.
Suddenly Sister von Rosenschon was sitting once more in a long black dress at the coffee table, and opposite her sat Doctor Prosper Alpanus.

As it happens the golden comb is quite important but I won’t reveal any more of the plot. Will the students, with Alpanus’s help, manage to break the spell that Zinnober has over the town? Will Balthasar marry Candida? What will happen to Zaches/Zinnober? Will they all live happily ever after? As with many of Hoffmann’s stories this is such a fun read that it’s difficult to resist reading it. Isn’t it?



Filed under Fiction, Hoffmann, E.T.A.

11 responses to “‘Little Zaches, Great Zinnober’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann

  1. This sounds like a delicious send-up of so many things. I shall have to read it. 🙂


    • Jonathan

      Thanks Violet. It’s certainly a fun book. Whenever I read something by Hoffmann I always imagine him chuckling to himself as he was writing.


  2. Vishy

    Wonderful review, Jonathan. This looks like a fairytale for grownups 🙂 I loved all the passages you have quoted, especially the one on coffee. Thanks for giving the link to the story. I will save that link and try to read that. I have read only one Hoffmann story, ‘The Sandman’, and liked it very much. He is such a unique author.


    • Jonathan

      Thanks Vishy. ‘The Sandman’ is probably the best one to start with but few of his stories are quite as dark as that one. I’m always surprised that he’s not more well-known.


  3. Masha

    Grew up reading Hoffmann, he was very decently translated into Russian😊 . Although I got to admit very few people know of him there, as well. He is absolutely magical and lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello, I just wanted to thank you for the link to the translation since finding any other way to read this tale in either English or Spanish has proven to be very difficult. I was beginning to think my only chance was to take a few years to learn German and then give it a try haha Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You might be interested in Lisa Hill’s post today on a Russian novella called ‘Little Zinnobers’, which is a Soviet-era satire on the Hoffman tale you discuss here: https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/06/06/little-zinnobers-by-elena-chizhova-translated-by-carol-ermakova/#comment-128242

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sam

    Tsakhes is the Democrats, and his victim is Trump. Classic always


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