In 'Hiddensee,' Gregory Maguire Gets Under The Shell Of 'The Nutcracker'

Dec 3, 2017
Originally published on December 4, 2017 10:53 am

It's that time of year — Sugar Plum fairies dancing in delight, the Mouse King, a gorgeous Christmas party, a prince, and that instantly recognizable music.

The Nutcracker ballet is a beloved holiday perennial, but Wicked author Gregory Maguire's new novel Hiddensee — which is based on the Nutcracker tale — is not exactly meant for the kiddos. It tells the backstory of the powerful toymaker, Herr Drosselmeier, who gives the Nutcracker to Clara.

"Like most Americans, maybe people around the world, I saw the ballet," Maguire says. "And one of the things that captivated me about it was that scene where the Christmas tree grows 40,50, 60 feet high, and that seemed to be one of the most magical transformations I have ever seen on the stage, even if the rest of the story seemed to me demented."


Interview Highlights

On why he thinks it's "demented"

It's crazy! It's broken! It doesn't make any sense. Act I is the traditional tale, that you might find in Grimm, with the small powerless Clara fighting the great King of the Mice, and that makes sense and is dramatically strong, and we're rooting for the small girl, and all that is great. Then, Act II comes — the most gorgeous ballet music in the world, but it's as if we're sitting in an overstuffed living room looking at the photographs of our grandparents' trip around the world. It has nothing to do with the great drama of Act I; it's all squandered. And I wanted to know what I could do with this story to make the two parts speak to each other.

On his take on Drosselmeier

Dirk Drosselmeier is a foundling, or that's what he's told, and he lives in the Bavarian forest. He's born about 1800 or so, so he's about 8 years old in 1808. Now you may know that at just about this time, the Grimm brothers were combing the woods of Bavaria and Baden, looking for those stories that would really cement German romanticism and the German romantic fairy tale in our minds for the next 200-some years. So, Dirk Drosselmeier is born right at the heart of the German fairy tale, in a sense, and I decided to take his life story, as a small poor boy in the back woods, as it were, of Europe, and see how he grows up to be able to enter the salons of Munich, and to be the one person who can stand between the little girl and the great darkness threatening her on Christmas Eve.

On why his version of Drosselmeier crosses over into the real world

The real world is hard and dark ... we seem to need both to stare with unblinking eyes at the reality of the hard world in which we live, and we also seem to need the comfort of those tales that we got when we were children that said if we fight hard enough and if we endure, we just might survive. If we remember the magic of our childhoods, we might be able to find in that the strength to carry on in our own hard and difficult adult lives.

I like a quote by Roger Scruton, a British moral philosopher, which says "the consolation of the imaginary is not imaginary consolation." And so when I ask myself, well, why am I not in public policy, why am I not a brain surgeon, why am I writing fairy tales for adults? I remember that giving people consolation through the literary arts is indeed a grown-up job, and that's what I try to do.

This story was produced for radio by Barrie Hardymon and Chad Campbell, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's that time of year - sugar plum fairies dancing in delight, the Mouse King, a gorgeous Christmas party and a prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "THE NUTCRACKER SUITE, OP 71")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The Nutcracker" ballet is a beloved holiday perennial. But the new novel "Hiddensee," which is based on "The Nutcracker" tale is not exactly meant for the kiddos. It tells the back story of the powerful toymaker, Herr Drosselmeier, who gives the nutcracker to Clara.

Gregory Maguire, author of "Wicked," among other bestsellers, is the author. And he joins us now from WGBH in Boston. Welcome to the program.

GREGORY MAGUIRE: Thank you so much. I'm delighted to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you first encounter the tale of "The Nutcracker"?

MAGUIRE: Well, like most Americans, maybe people around the world, I saw the ballet. Indeed, I saw it live, I believe, at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. And one of the things that captivated me about it was that scene where the Christmas tree grows 40, 50, 60 feet high. And that seemed to be one of the most magical transformations I've ever seen on the stage, even if the rest of the story seemed, to me, demented.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Demented?

MAGUIRE: Yes. Well, it's crazy. It's broken. It doesn't make any sense. Act 1 is traditional tale that you might find in Grimm, with the small powerless Clara fighting the great King of the Mice, and that makes sense and is dramatically strong. And we're rooting for the small girl, and all that is great.

Then Act 2 comes - the most gorgeous ballet music in the world, but it's as if we're sitting in an overstuffed living room looking at the photographs of our grandparents' trip around the world. It has nothing to do with the great drama of Act 1. It's all squandered. And I wanted to know what I could do with this story to make the two parts speak to each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what this was about? I mean, your book is a sort of prequel to this. It tells the story of Dirk Drosselmeier, the powerful toymaker. And when we meet him, he is in dire straits. Tell us about that.

MAGUIRE: Well, Dirk Drosselmeier is a foundling, or that's what he's told. And he lives in the Bavarian Forest. He's born about 1800 or so, so he's about eight years old in 1808. Now, you may know that just about at this time, the Grimm brothers were combing the woods of Bavaria and Baden looking for those stories that would really cement German Romanticism and the German Romantic fairytale in our minds for the next 200 some years.

So Dirk Drosselmeier is born right at the heart of the German fairy tale in a sense. And I decided to take his life story as a small poor boy in the backwoods, as it were, of Europe and see how he grows up to be able to enter the salons of Munich and to be the one person who can stand between the little girl and the great darkness threatening her on Christmas Eve.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you take this, and you have all these different characters show up. Indeed, the brothers Grimm make an appearance, and we find out how he gets the eyepatch.

MAGUIRE: (Laughter) We find out how he gets the eyepatch. And, indeed, the only thing we know about godfather Drosselmeier from the stage is that he's tall and leering and a little menacing and a little helpful. And he's got this eyepatch. So my job as a novelist is to say that's not just a throwaway eyepatch. That eyepatch has some meaning. How did he get to need it? And what does that say about his character in general?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Well, we're not going to give it away. But what is so intriguing about this tale is that he's living inside a fairy tale. Then he goes to the real world of German Romanticism in the early 19th century, as you mentioned. And the real world is very hard and dark.

MAGUIRE: Well, the real world is hard and dark. And I don't - I think you've noticed that, Lulu, these days.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

MAGUIRE: And we seem to need both to stare with unblinking eyes at the reality of the hard world in which we live. And we also seem to need the comfort of those tales that we got when we were children that said if we fight hard enough, and if we endure, we just might survive. If we remember the magic of our childhoods, we might be able to find in that the strength to carry on through our own hard and difficult adult lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, because fairytales are often viewed as a kind of therapy for kids - right? - where they can process the fears and dangers of adulthood in a fanciful way. Is that what you're trying to do for your adult readers?

MAGUIRE: It's certainly what I'm trying to do for myself. I like a quote by Roger Scruton, a British moral philosopher, which says the consolation of the imaginary is not imaginary consolation. And so when I ask myself, well, why am I not in public policy? Why am I not a brain surgeon? Why am I writing fairy tales for adults? I remember that giving people consolation through the literary arts is indeed a grown-up job. And that's what I try to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It struck me, also, when I was reading this book, that, you know, Drosselmeier, in the ballet, is such a powerful figure. He is the center of the magic. But in the book, he is the least powerful character in many ways. Is there a message in that?

MAGUIRE: I think we often overlook the people who are really pulling the strings. And sometimes it's the people on the margins of society who have the most to do to pick up and placate those who really need the help. It's kindergarten teachers who are the ones who really catch the scoul of worry on the brow of one of their charges who is able to lean in right then, right there and do something useful for that human soul. And I think Drosselmeier is one of those characters, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have children?

MAGUIRE: I do. I have three adopted children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you taken them to see "The Nutcracker"?

MAGUIRE: I have not taken them. But my daughter, the youngest child, has been about 10 times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I was just curious if this was sort of a family tradition that had been passed down.

MAGUIRE: Here's the part that is a family tradition. I have 40 nutcrackers in the basement. They live in plastic crates. And just about now, we haul the crates out of the basement and we line the staircase with nutcrackers, large and small. The largest of them are about 3 feet tall. And the smallest of them you could actually hang on the Christmas tree with a little gold string if you wanted. They are an army of stern and scowling and bearded defenders of some faith or other. We're not sure we can name the faith, but we're glad they're there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gregory Maguire is the author of "Hiddensee: A Tale Of The Once And Future Nutcracker." Thank you so much for joining us.

MAGUIRE: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINDSEY STIRLING'S "DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.