E.T.A. Hoffmann: “Master Flea” 1/2
An illustrated version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Meister Floh” — excerpted from “Tales of the Nations,” a picture book published in Hamburg in 1933 by the “Cigarettenbilderdienst Hamburg-Bahrenfeld” (“Cigarette Picture Service”).Narrator and Illustrator:Stefan Mart.
n the fairy-tale land of Famagusta – the land of the strangest flowers and of blossom creatures, the land of speaking birds and other marvels never seen or heard by any mortal – two intruders turned up one day from the world of human beings. They were both very handsome lads, but rogues of bad character, magicians and sorcerers by profession.
They appeared in the guise of harmless botanists with green specimen containers and butterfly nets. But they also had hidden on their persons sharp-edged instruments, microscopes and collapsible telescopes. It was only due to a number of coincidences that they were able to enter this land – something which these scoundrels may have divined through their magic arts. It so happened that the guardian of this fairy-tale land, a giant as tall as a tree, was just taking his seven-day nap.
And the Sublime Spirit that kept watch over everything had just flown off on a trip to the stars to make a few inquiries. That was how the two magicians managed to set out on their searches
undisturbed. One of the two was called Leuwenhoek; he had a flea circus at a fun fair outside the gates of a small town close by. The other, whose name was Swammer, had a conjurer’s stall there. They soon discovered something with their powerful microscopes which had them dancing for joy like a pair of billy goats.
They had found a pearl lying in the stamen of a tulip which reflected the portrait of a beautiful girl’s face in its magnificent lustre. The two magicians at once began to make use of their sinister powers to break the spell binding the pearl. A prickly thistle, known in this fairy-tale land as Zeherit, the thistle prince, grew very close to the tulip and had always sought to protect the magic pearl. The prince, in despair, stuck his thorns into everything he could reach, and Leuwenhoek and Swammer often howled with pain, their howls sounding like the hoarse barking of old watch dogs.
However, after much experimenting, the magicians succeeded in their endeavours. A slender girl of almost ethereal beauty soon sprang out of the tulip. Leuwenhoek at once caught hold of the extraordinary creature with his rough hands so that she could not escape him. The other rascal, Swammer, would have liked to take hold of her as well, but he was probably afraid that the delicate little creature might be destroyed, as she hardly showed any signs of life. He relied on his cunning and was already quietly planning to remove this miraculous creature from his colleague.
While the two magicians were both secretly pondering how they could take sole possession of this girl of elfin beauty, they suddenly heard a very fine melodious voice that must have come
from a creature leaping around high up over them. Sometimes the voice came from behind, sometimes from above them in the air, then from the right and then again from the left. – “Oh dear, oh dear! what have you done, you scoundrels? You will not escape severe punishment: you have changed Alinore, the daughter of great King Sekatis, back into human shape. The Sublime Spirit had changed her into a pearl in order to preserve her from the burden of life on earth. Shame on you scoundrels!” But the two unscrupulous magicians only laughed.
Leuwenhoek took an ever firmer hold of the little girl, taking out his telescope with his other hand to see who was jumping around with such amazing prowess. – It had to be an incredibly small and also quite remarkable creature. – “Right! There it is!” cried Leuwenhoek, “it’s a huge flea as big as a good-sized bean. That would be the very thing for my circus!” He focussed his glass so directly on the insect that, in the middle of a big leap, it fell from the sky, stunned, and landed right on the nose of Leuwenhoek the flea-tamer. The flea slipped down the smooth, even surface of the nose and, still dizzy, unfortunately leapt straight into the big botanical specimen container, the cover of which was wide open. – “Well!
That’s taken care of!” said Leuwenhoek with a pleased grunt, closing the box. – “This splendid specimen of a flea will be the main attraction of my show!” – Now it was time for the magicians to see to gentle little Alinore. During the flea hunt, Leuwenhoek had taken too firm a grip of her, and the lovely girl now lay across his arm like a lifeless doll. – “Help her soul! She is dying before my eyes!” cried the flea-tamer in disappointment.
Both magicians now murmured magic spells and exhaled their warm breath over her in the hope of bringing her home alive. Leuwenhoek put the girl very carefully into his specimen container, which had fly-mesh on both sides, and he ran off with it as fast as he could to bring his loot to safety. Swammer ran after him, spitting with rage, as he begrudged his colleague the ownership of Alinore. Now that the flea was alone in the specimen container with little Alinore, a human being, it at once came to and took a lively interest in her condition. The poor girl wasn’t able to live or die and was moaning in her struggle with death. The flea saw how beautiful and graceful she was, was filled with pity for her and decided to help. –
“Quiet, fair human child! We shall very soon cross the border of fairy-land Famagusta. – But before we cross the border, I cannot give you the vitality you need; only then does the power of the Sublime Spirit cease and am I out of reach of his revenge.”
“I am dying! I am dying!” breathed Alinore, who became pale as death and fainted. The flea quickly bit the unfortunate girl in the shoulder. As if by magic, Alinore opened her eyes, and warm colour returned to her cheeks. She smiled like a delighted child and kept calling out: “My heart is beating! – I am alive! A thousand thanks to you, Master Flea!” – But the lovely girl was soon to be torn out of her happy fairy-tale dreams and to learn that it does not bring happiness to be brought into the world of humans.
Only a few days later she was standing on the rough and shaky stage of the fun-fair booth which belonged to Leuwenhoek the flea-tamer. Behind her a canvas backdrop covered with silly and horrible coloured pictures fluttered in the wind. The sounds of squeaky organ notes, bad music and cracked bells came from all sides, producing deafening confusion. People shoved and pushed everywhere, shouting like rough-voiced cattle drivers.
Alinore found herself in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the fun-fair. She thought with longing of the land of Famagusta; she thought of Zeherit, the noble thistle prince, who had always kept his arms chivalrously around her to protect her from trouble. It now seemed to her to be a paradise lost. Master Flea was her only comfort and she could count on his unconditional help.
He sat next to her, fettered with a tiny little chain to the large nose of a huge papier-maché mask. They were both supposed to attract passers-by into the booth. They both had to sing a little song. Master Flea usually performed a few jumps and sang first:
I am the master of the fleas
Jump twenty metres if you please.
Golden garments can I wear
Travelling in my sedan chair.
I can ride and fire a cannon
And in duelling I’m a champion.
My somersaults on the trapeze –
Just watch them, and your blood will freeze.
Now, hurry up, the show is starting
Entrance fee for kids: one farthing.
Straight afterwards came the wonderfully delicate voice of the lovely girl, and everybody paid attention:
I’m pretty Princess Alina.
Doll-like is my demeanour.
I’m from a fairyland forlorn,
In Famagusta I was born –
Where some enchanted humans live,
Where hidden spirits reign and thrive,
Where birds and flowers all can speak,
Where . . . .
She didn’t get any further. Swammer, the rogue, had his conjuror’s booth straight opposite Leuwenhoek’s, and he was extremely envious of his colleague’s success. He was determined to employ all means to undermine his rival’s business. As soon as Master Flea and Alina began to sing their songs, the scoundrel would take his megaphone and drown their gentle voices. Then the injured party Leuwenhoek would dash out from behind the red velvet curtain of his flea theatre in a towering rage.
The two sinister magicians drew their dangerous weapons and – the battle of the telescopes began. The former friends, now bitter enemies, attacked each other with huge telescopes. – “Draw, damned scoundrel, if you have the courage!” shouted Leuwenhoek. – “Come on! I am not afraid of you – you will soon feel my strength!” cried Swammer and he, too, took his telescope apart. Both now put the well focussed glasses to their eyes and continued to denounce each other violently.
The struggle continued with murderous flashes aimed at each other’s eyes. Both fought as hard as they could, sometimes lengthening their weapons, sometimes shortening them, by pulling out or collapsing the instruments. The combattants often hit their targets, and jumped wildly up and down with pain, supplying a musical accompaniment of howling and screaming reminiscent of the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the damned in hell.
To be continued…