A Nature endowed by Spirit – Animism & Pagan Values in Germany’s early 20th Century Childrens’ Literature

written by Týra Alrune Sahsnotasvriunt

The animism as portrayed in the works of mainly early 20th century German authors was prompted by the epoch of Romanticism of roughly a century earlier.
It was an attempt to rekindle the early spirit of this movement which sought to defy the cold, sterile trend of Realism and the age of industrialism.
It strove to keep alive something sacred and mystical, something that could not be explained with science and logic.
Romanticism is essentially the science of the heart and soul.

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Especially three female authors/artists come to mind when thinking of animism, pantheism or an anthropomorphic display of nature and animals in children’s literature; Ida Bohatta (*April 15th 1900 †1992) Else Wenz-Viëtor (*April 30th 1882 †1973) and Sibylle von Olfers (*May 8th 1881 †1916).

While hardly anything is known about Bohatta’s personal life, Wenz-Viëtor’s life was considered turbulent and scandalous back then. She divorced a fellow artist only to get remarried shortly afterwards.

The scandal von Olfers caused her wealthy family was nothing in comparison to this, but nonetheless refusing a promising marriage proposal only to join the “Grey Sisters” – a Catholic order – came as a shock to her parents.

As different as the lives of these three women were, they had one thing in common, the belief in the inherent goodness of a nature endowed by spirit and an unshakable belief in the order of it.

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Sibylle von Olfers’ most famous work remains Something about the Root Children (“Etwas von den Wurzelkindern”), a book about an elderly lady, Mother Earth, living underground with her countless little “root children” – anthropomorphic flowers and plants.

Mother Earth is depicted as a crone throughout the whole book. This is to emphasize her knowledge and wisdom and the fact that she is not only mother but a grandmotherly – gentle mother figure – to her (root) children.

In the beginning of the book she wakes up the root children who get ready to sow their own spring gowns.

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The children then spend a lovely summer dancing out in nature and celebrating the season with their friends – beetles, grasshoppers and other insects – until they are called back home to Mother Earth again come fall.

As Mother Earth takes the root children to bed again, so they will rest underground over the winter, they are already looking forward to the next season outside again.

The root children do not mature over the summer, they remain the same in size and age, only their gowns change from pastel spring blossoms to bright summer colors to rusty autumn reds and oranges.

This emphasizes that we and our fellow creatures are and always will be Mother Earth’s children, her offspring. We may grow and mature and increase knowledge, but we will never be as wise and grand as our sacred Mother, who we are but a part of.

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Of course von Olfers has been heavily criticized by (German) liberals, the ”’68ers”. They view her work as dangerous to children, accuse her of misrepresenting nature and “teutomanic ideal world nonsense”; something they are also quick to accuse Bohatta and Wenz-Vietor of.

As a Pagan who grew up with these books as a guide on how to treat nature and all living creatures – with love and respect – I will leave this uncommented…

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Bohatta’s famous The Spring Children (“Die Frühlingskinder”) a book about anthropomorphic flowers is also in the vein of von Olfers’ books. Both her and Wenz-Viëtor do not only portray nature as animated but add dwarves (or literally “little root men”/”root wights”), elves and fairies and other Vaetten to the mix.

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Other German authors:

In her Woodsman’s Pucki (“Försters Pucki”) novels Magda Trott (*March 20th 1880 †1945) wrote about the special relationship between children, their pets, animals and nature. A nature they still view as mystical, yet holy, complete and just. The faith in the order of nature is at the center of the first few Pucki novels as well, but more importantly Pucki – representative of mankind in general – is too. The morale of the stories is that we all have a place in nature, a role to fulfill, a wyrd and orlog, even though these terms are not specifically mentioned.

Trott, too, has been criticized by the German liberals who tried to ban her books due to a “dangerous” portrayal of right and wrong and “antiquated gender roles” and the fact that Trott had to find a middle way between writing about headstrong, independent Pucki whilst appeasing and promoting the nazi regime.

Later versions of the novels have been edited to the effect that all traces of nazi-friendliness were erased. I have the original books which I also read at age 6. Luckily my parents chose to explain to me the political background and that some things had changed instead of robbing me of the experience of reading and enjoying the books regardless of the sparse political nonsense on the fringe of the story.

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Bunny School (“Die Häschenschule”) and Little Sabina the Chicken (“Sabinchen das Hühnchen”) are further examples. Little Sabina is a rather lazy young chicken lady, who wants to go and enjoy the comforts of the world instead of laying eggs. Finally, the farmer’s wife has had enough and plans to slaughter her for dinner. A reformed Sabina becomes the prime example of a dutiful hen who finds true happiness only as she embraces who and what she is.

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Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s works were usually rather lugubrious in nature save for Little Thimble (“Fingerhütchen”)

Many international childrens’ books today still portray animals as anthropomorphic, but whereas in early 20th century (German) literature the natural hierarchy and order are emphasized, international bestsellers such as Wilbur and Charlotte by E.B. White (1950’s) or Julia Cunningham’s Maybe, a Mole (1960’s) are about incompatible species helping each other out or predators and their prey becoming best friends, whereas the predator is only reformed once being ashamed of what he is. Something that Disney has made a habit of promoting as well.

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German version of Maybe, a Mole by Julia Cunningham

Just as much as I like certain aspects about the Pucki books I still love some of the storylines in the two books mentioned above. This is not an attempt to bash the books, merely to point out the shift in literature and pedagogy. The traces of animism and sometimes pantheism and being a part of a greater picture were all moved more and more into the background. Instead anthropomorphized animals were used to teach children about inter-human relationships. Something that neither worked nor could it ever have in my personal opinion, considering how I see too many children treat nature, animals and even their trusted friends – their pets.

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I, for one, am grateful I grew up in a world filled with magic, faeries, tree and stone wights and many more creatures like that. I’m grateful my parents taught me to take every living thing for what it is and not try to change it; that I had no right to do so, because everything alive had a right to be free in being true to itself. That is something that I for one took from these wonderful books and the lovely illustrations.

Else Wenz-Vietor Der Heuschreck und die Blumen by Max Dingler 1924-10

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