For reasons best known to me at the time – and which I have now completely forgotten – I picked up a collection of ETA Hoffman’s stories. Part of me considers them to be old fashioned German fairy tales, much like those of the Brothers Grimm before the Victorians decided to sanitise everything and change all the endings. As Roald Dahl proved many times, kids like a bit of nasty – but even so, I would baulk at letting a child read Hoffman’s best known story, the Sandman. It made me shudder, and I’ve read the original Grimm stories as well. I have to say very early on that if your only version of the Sandman is from Neil Gaiman’s epic graphic novel of the same name – you may be in for a bit of a shock.
The Sandman of Hoffman’s tale is a supernatural being who comes to children at night and steals their eyes. If we are still looking at Gaiman’s Sandman, I suppose the character he would remind me most of would be the Corinthian, a stunningly handsome creature as long as he kept his sunglasses on. In fact, if my memory serves correctly (and I haven’t read Gaiman’s story for a long time) the Corinthian was always considered the “stuff of nightmares” – which would bring in the sleep/dream element from the Hoffman version. In fact, apart from Gaiman’s Sandman being the keeper of dreams, there isn’t really much that links the two stories at all.
What Hoffman’s version reminds me most of is Coppelia, a ballet first performed in 1870. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Wikipedia claims it is one of the stories the ballet is based on (the other Hoffman story is The Doll, which I haven’t read yet). In turn, the reader is reminded of Pygmalion, Frankenstein and even Pinocchio – which is a creepy enough film as it stands without needing to add this into the mix. In a sense, because Swanhilda is an automaton, she is perhaps the precursor to the robot Maria in Metropolis – which itself created a whole genre of tales about artificial intelligence so lifelike it’s almost human, including Astroboy and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I wonder, actually, if Hoffman also wrote the libretto (do ballets have libretti? I hope so) to The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s world famous Christmas ballet which also features dancing dolls, amongst all the other toys. Let’s face it, from there it’s only a short leap to Chucky and an assortment of gruesome horrors. Why do the brightest things have the darkest shadows?
Anyway – if you get your hands on a copy of this, by all means read it – just don’t expect the Endless to make an appearance in the middle.