Balázs, Béla. The Cloak of Dreams: Chinese Fairy Tales. Trans. Jack Zipes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. ix+177. Illus., two appendices, bibliography. $24.95 hardcover.
The Ohio State University
The Cloak of Dreams: Chinese Fairy Tales is a collection of literary fairy tales penned by the Hungarian author, film critic, filmmaker, and political activist Béla Balázs in the early 20th century. A complex man who experienced great suffering and isolation, Balázs was able to find comfort and beauty in the fairy tale form and often turned to it throughout his life. These particular tales were written in response to a collection of odd and often unsettling illustrations done in a Chinese style by the artist Mariette Lydis – Balázs produced what would become Der Mantel der Träume: Chinesische Novellen (The Cloak of Dreams: Chinese Fairy Tales) in 1922. This new translation is by prominent fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes and part of his new series entitled “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.” As such, this edition includes introductions to both the author and the illustrator, two appendices – one an early and very positive review by Thomas Mann and the other an additional, earlier Taoist-inspired fairy tale by Balázs – and a bibliography.
About a third of this small but elegant book is dedicated to Zipes’ introduction to the author. This section focuses on exploring Balázs’ fascination with the fairy tale while simultaneously discussing the writer’s life history and additional work. Zipes effectively shows how the fairy tale, in its many forms, followed and influenced Balázs throughout his life. The reader learns that when he was young, for example, Balázs would often listen to his father tell tales and go into the country to hear and collect songs and stories from the peasants. These trips “played a strong role in Balázs’ growing interest in fairy tales” (8) and would later help inspire him to write his own. Balázs frequently felt very alienated and it is clear through his writings that he felt “[i]t was through folklore […] that he might overcome [that] alienation” (24).
Zipes believes that this collection is Balázs’ greatest achievement in literary fairy tales (45). These stories contain all of the fairy tale motifs and themes that Balázs was particularly drawn to, such as “the wandering protagonist seeking the essence of life, mysterious woods and mountains, haunting music, pure friendship, passionate love, solitude, alienation, magical objects, and pantheistic ecstasy in a liminal state” (13). He likely drew inspiration from Chinese folk stories (51) and the stories are certainly “[s]teeped in Taoist philosophy” (27), which was a particular interest of Balázs (45-48). Though it may be odd to find a Hungarian man writing Chinese inspired stories in German, the tales never feel disrespectful or stereotypical. These influences are instead woven together with “associations from his own personal experiences” (51) to create wonderfully strange, poetic tales that contain umbrellas painted to look like various skies, the shattered pieces of the moon fairy’s mirror, ominous chestnut tree shadows, and cloaks embroidered with dreams. As Zipes states: “[t]o read Balázs’ fairy tales is to experience the bitterness and joys of life and to reach a condition of suspension or liminality in which nothing can be explained rationally but everything can be understood intuitively” (52).
From a folkloristic standpoint it is important to emphasize that these tales are not folktales but purely literary fairy tales. Indeed, Balázs’ tales “[hark] back to the great German romantic fairy tales of W.H. Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, and E.T.A. Hoffmann” (13) rather than traditional folktales. While Balázs, as mentioned, did collect stories and have a great respect for folklore, these are not retellings but entirely new creations inspired by those tales, Chinese tales, Taoist philosophy, Lydis’ illustrations, and his own experiences. “Balázs was obsessed by fairy tales throughout his life” (2) and used that interest to inform his own stories. While I cannot recommend this book as a source for folklore scholars, I can, however, recommend it wholeheartedly as beautiful collection of literary tales and a fascinating look at the ways in which folklore can inspire new artistic creation.