Are you familiar with the Nutcracker story? Check out ETA Hoffmann's other creepy tales!

It’s the season when many of us either watch for the first time a production of the ballet “The Nutcracker”, or remember having seen it at some point, or remember some non-ballet production of the story (I personally still remember seeing some children’s adaptation of it when I was young).

But how many of you have actually read the original story by the German Romantic ETA Hoffmann, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”?

Tales of ETA Hoffmann

ETA Hoffmann, a forgotten writer?

I was reminded of the creepy tales of Hoffmann when this article about him came my way. It suggested that people don’t know about him any more. I don’t know how true that is, but because he is one of my all-time favorite writers, I decided to do my part to help promote the work of this fascinating 19th century writer. He wrote not only amazing fiction, but also wrote on philosophy and music: in particular, as this article notes, he was one of the first critics who welcomed the strange figure of Ludwig van Beethoven when Beethoven came on the scene and freaked everyone out with his revolutionary new music.

First encounter

The first time I heard of ETA Hoffmann was purely a result of hearing a musical excerpt from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, “Les contes d’Hoffmann” (“The tales of Hoffmann”). This was when I was in high school.

OK, I have never watched this opera or listened to it, except for the famous Barcarolle. So basically, I only knew that there was someone whose name was Hoffmann and wrote some “tales” that were used in an opera. That was all.

Second encounter

My second encounter was when I was in college and learning to like the music of Mozart and Beethoven. I came across the book by the late Charles Rosen, “The Classical Style”, and early on in the book, Rosen mentioned this music critic who so loved Mozart that he changed one of his names from “Friedrich” to “Amadeus” (hence our knowing him as ETA Hoffmann rather than ETF Hoffmann)! So that was intriguing. I looked at some of his writing.

A fine English translation of selected stories

As I immersed myself more in the music of the era, I grew increasingly interested in the philosophy developing that would later be called German Romanticism. I began reading Fichte, Schlegel, Jean Paul, Kleist, Hölderlin, Jean Paul, Hegel, Goethe, and other figures of the period. I even took a course in German. And of course I ran into ETA Hoffmann again.

I bought this really good English translation of selected stories of his and was not disappointed.

Tales of ETA Hoffmann

I looked online and there are more recent English translations since my college days.

The stories are really surreal, raising many questions about humanity and reality. And yes, they are pretty disturbing too: I will confess to having had nightmares based on the stories.

If you’ve read Edgar Allan Poe, think of Hoffmann the fiction writer as a much, much superior German analogue.

The Golden Pot

If you read only one story by Hoffmann, I suppose it would have to be “The Golden Pot”. It’s long and vivid, although in the end I could not really make coherent sense of it. It’s a weird fantasy and has a lot of funny elements.

Here’s an English translation online.

The Sandman

The story that really got under my skin, however, was “The Sandman”. Very dark.

Here’s an English translation online.


It was interesting to be reminded of the stories of ETA Hoffmann at this time of year. Check some out if you haven’t read any before. I have to confess they’re not for everyone, and at this point in my life I am less interested in (and more wary of) this kind of Romantic literature, because I consider it “unhealthy”, frankly, along with other aspects of German Romanticism in general, but I can’t deny the guy was a genius.

Questions for you

If you’ve read some of Hoffmann’s stories before, which ones are your favorites? Why? Do you think they’re still as interesting now as when coming out from a mindset of the beginnings of Romanticism in the 19th century, or do they feel dated to you?

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