Krabat by Otfried Preußler
Reviewed by Erin Horáková
25 May 2012
In the late seventeenth century, after the end of the world, a fourteen-year-old orphan boy named Krabat walks from town to town begging with a troupe of friends. Krabat isn't bitter about his lot. The conflict that will eventually be called the Thirty Years' War (though it pushed at either side of that perimeter) has been going on for over a generation. This is the only life he can conceive of. What is there to be bitter about?
Summoned across Saxony, a province in the east of Germany on the Polish border, by repeated dreams of a strange mill, Krabat becomes its Master's twelfth apprentice. Dark magic, at first visible only in furtive glimmers, sustains the isolated enterprise. When Krabat transitions from mundane apprentice to pupil in the Master's Black School and learns more about his situation, he begins to realize that the power the apprentices wield and the relative safety of their lives at the mill come at a terrible price. No one can truly escape the mill, and every New Year one of the Master's men dies in mysterious circumstances.
Krabat, by Czech-German writer Otfried Preußler, is a 1971 novelization of an old central and east European folktale. The book is a beloved classic in its homeland, but didn't fare so well in translation. This recent "reprint" is available via HarperCollins's Library of Lost Books, which specializes in ebook and print on demand editions of "lost" works. According to the friend who first introduced the book to me—a German academic with an active interest in folklore—audiences familiar with the source material read it as a strong, "faithful" presentation of a common narrative, perhaps with political overtones especially resonant for its time. Most Germans might not recognize the folktale characters, but plot elements like the children playing the three wise men or the concept of a period "between the years" will be familiar, as they still have modern cultural currency.
English-speaking audiences will likely have a different experience, understanding Krabat as an entirely fresh story rather than simply one telling. The historical setting, religious rituals, and characters like Big Hat (a regional folk hero, sort of like Paul Bunyan, rather than a character invented specifically for the novel) are all sufficiently unfamiliar that it's difficult to separate the canny from the un. While that creates an interesting readerly uncertainty, it can also make it difficult to grasp the meaning of actions in the novel, to appreciate the references, and to know whether characters are doing something because it's a local custom or as an sign of their affiliation with dark powers. Both English readers and Germans not immersed in their country's folklore might benefit from knowing more of that context, delivered via footnotes, a glossary, or a preface.
I asked my German academic friend, who read and loved Krabat as a child, why the book had been so special to her. She called my attention to the strong mentor-student relationships and friendships among the miller's men; the secret brotherhood and its implications of a hidden society—cool, dangerous, and forbidden—within society that one could be initiated into; the instances where the characters got to play around with their powers, transforming into horses and ravens for exciting chases and to play pranks; an empathy with Krabat for, essentially, having a hard time in a strange new school; and an appreciation for the way the most horrible things that happen in Krabat are believably balanced with and overcome by streaks of joy, camaraderie, and kindness. Its length is modest, and its language approachable.
You can also read Krabat as post-apocalyptic fiction, clearly in conversation for the author and his initial readers with the pressures of life in post-World War II Germany and East Europe. It's easy to feel the resonance of this unending conflict to life in divided 1971 Germany for people still licking old wounds, living on the fault line between superpowers. The Thirty Years' War, born of sources myriad and murky, resulted in profound devastation not to be felt again in the region until the World Wars. In some ways, it was worse: the death rate in the Holy Roman Empire amounted to as much as eighty million people, some 20% of its population and three times Europe's death rate during WWII. Foreign mercenary armies were expected to live off the land (bellum se ipsum a let—the war will feed itself), and they picked its bones clean. Fighting, famine, heavy taxation, government bankruptcy, and disease destroyed whole districts. Many incidents of adult cannibalism of children were documented in the besieged city of Breisach in 1638. Testimonies speak of whole emptied villages, of wolves that roamed city streets in massive packs, killing livestock, pets, and men without fear. The level of destruction was staggering, horrific, difficult to fathom.
However, Krabat is somehow gentle. The catastrophes of the war are muffled. Krabat's parents have died of plague, and the army is eager to impose itself on the mill's precious resources and conscript its men into its ranks, but this seems almost natural rather than like a series of keenly felt impositions. The mill's Master fought in the war as a young man a generation ago, and he is using his Black Arts to egg it on still. Disturbingly, its horror has become a part of life.
Rather than focusing on stark, moralized confrontation, Krabat occupies itself with the subtle nexus points where power, knowledge, and culpability meet. The magic the Master wields keeps him alive and perpetuates the work of the mill, but that work is disturbingly purposeless. Once a lunar cycle the Goodman, the Master's apparent boss, who is never explicitly referred to as the devil and who only speaks once in the novel, comes to have bags of a mysterious substance ground on the otherwise disused equipment the Master's men call the dead stones. Krabat only once glimpses what's inside—shards that might be bone, what looks to be a tooth—before he's magically forced to forget. Krabat has no idea what purpose this work serves—the Master himself may not even know.
Other than this task, which is surrounded by a sense of urgency, all the other work of keeping the mill up and running seems to be a kind of cruel farce. The men grind grain, but there's no talk of selling it, and no regular contact with the nearby villagers or with other millers through which they might do so. They can't simply be working to sustain themselves—they work hard, long hours, their burdens made light with magic, and they clearly produce far in excess of their needs. The mill exists expressly to secure the Master's immortality, and perhaps as a place for him to hide and succor himself after a personal tragedy. In that pointless, earnest labor there are echoes of fascist and communist work projects, of Stalin's miles of canals that ultimately served no purpose other than to make the prisoners in his gulags who'd dug them feel as devoid of value as their work. The unmarked graves of men who've died at the mill to sustain the Master, and the group consensus that the dead must be forgotten, seems eerily topical.
The men learn magic, but only as much as they choose to—there is no sense of clear goals, and the Master is not concerned with how they progress. They play innocent pranks, but their characters are individual rather than collectively malicious. The sulky spy who reports the men’s behavior to the Master is nothing like the mill's decent foreman, who reacts to others' troubles with empathy. There's no Faustian self-importance associated with this devil's bargain, and indeed little evidence of a concrete bargain.
Krabat, like presumably everyone else, was lured to the mill for unknown reasons. He stayed because there was work and shelter, and because times were hard. He was initiated into the Black Arts without any discussion of the repercussions of that decision, and even at the end, when he's learned enough to seriously contest the Master's will, he still seems to understand little of what they're doing and why. Krabat just glimpses the Master's political intrigues in the wider world, or hears of them second-hand, and then they recede into the background, behind the numbing routine of work. The suggestion that magic would free them from toil is greeted with a startlingly bleak pronouncement:
"Why do we do any work at all?" [Krabat] cried. "That's what I ask myself, when everything we do with our own hands could be done by magic!"
"Yes, of course," said Tonda. "But think how quickly you'd be bored with a life like that! We can't do without work in the long run, not without going to the dogs." (p. 82)
None of them really chose this—perhaps not even the Master. They don't ask what the Goodman would do if they didn’t grind whatever was in his sacks. They don’t have to. They are disposable, and the Goodman's retribution would clearly make their Master's formidable outbursts of temper seem trivial. Despite not asking what becomes of their work, given incidents like the Master encouraging the elector of Saxony into prolonging the war, and his annual sacrifice of their colleagues, we understand that the men have allowed themselves to become cogs in a large, vicious machine. They don't fully grasp what's transpiring, and they're afraid of what will become of them if they do. The only means by which they can escape involves risking the life of a totally innocent, uninvolved woman, in Krabat's case a girl referred to as The Singer, and escape itself would mean the loss of all their powers. The ways of maneuvering in the world they've worked hard to learn—here the Black Arts, but easily understood also as the ways they know how to navigate their corrupt system in a more mundane sense—would become valueless. Once again they'd be exposed to the grim, unpredictable fortunes of life for little people living in dark times.
The Singer is a very unusual female romantic interest. Her name is omitted for plot reasons, not out of a Rebecca-esque desire to lessen the sense that she's an independent person. I'd peaceably put suggestions that she's uncharacterized, and that we don't understand her reasons for loving Krabat, down to the weird romantic logic of fairy tales, which insists that being "pure of heart" and able to carry a tune in a bucket are greater indicators of long-term happiness than sharing a partner's interests and life goals. After all, we're no clearer on why Krabat initially fancies the Singer.
More interestingly, the Singer performs the traditionally male tole of rescuing Krabat, dude in distress. When we interact with her she's unflappable and competent, and she seems to be well-respected by the other villagers. Another writer (coughDickenscough) would have made her a mystical avatar of feminized goodness and maybe even redemptive Christianity, but surprisingly physical gestures like wiping the pentagram off Krabat's head and lying next to him while he sleeps ground her firmly in the practical, the sensual, and the real. Also there's a bit of semi-telepathic dream sharing, to smooth over any introductory rough spots. What young couple doesn't bond after fighting off a crazy one-eyed bird together in a nightmare, eh? You think your bowling first date was better than that? Plus she gets to assert Krabat's embattled self-determination and get in a bit of a hardcore "you shall not pass!" moment. It'd be weird if he didn't fancy her after all this, given that she's clearly no-nonsense awesome. I'd totally read a book about her further adventures with her sidekick the Boyfriend.
Krabat makes precious few choices. His mentor relationships with the mill foremen Tonda and Michal, with the fool Juro, with little Lobosch, who Krabat mentors in turn, and his relationship with the Singer are what mark him as special, rather than heroic action. He cares about others, and even in a bad situation not of his making, he's unwilling to act out of malice and frustration, unwilling to do harm. Krabat is the only one sufficiently bothered by his friends' death to want to seek to put things to rights, no matter the cost. He's hesitant in asking the Singer to risk her life, and it's notable that he doesn't demand, or plead, or try to impress the desperateness of his situation on her in any way—the agency here is all with the Singer, and the conclusion becomes her victory. Krabat tries to train and prepare for his final confrontation with the Master, but he's never been extraordinarily cunning, and in the end the Master is simply cleverer. With a simple trick all Krabat's work becomes useless, and he must rely on an amalgam of luck and his own simple decency.
In the world of Krabat, decency is ultimately the only thing you can control, the only thing you can rely on. Someone somewhere will always be cleverer, and there will always be things you don’t understand—all you can do is tend a personal sense of justice, and hope that will be enough to effect larger changes. Simple human connections, while subject to the deforming effects of situational oppressions, can be redemptive and are worth cultivating.
Perhaps what I, as an adult reader, most usefully took from Krabat was the bleak comfort concealed within, and mandated by, its post-end-of-the-world staging. The world has ended before. We live with and in a history pockmarked by past apocalypses. All of them, when they came, were too terrible to imagine. As genre readers and citizens of lean, uneasy times ourselves, our thoughts are full of cataclysmic possibilities. It's perhaps useful to keep in mind what has already happened, and to balance the arrogant immediacy of our problems with a judicious amount of historical relativism.