The Nutcracker

Today has been a pensive day, a day to think about family and work.  And, thinking like that, what surfaces is what’s very close to you.  Right now, what’s close to me is The Nutcracker and a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Let me start by saying that small children have absolutely no sense of time and season.  You know how I’ve talked about having seasonal books?  Well, those are my preferences, of course, but then you have some books which are meant to be seasonal.  Valentine’s Day by Anne and Lizzy Rockwell, for example, which we recently read, because I guess April needs as much a dose of bright red love as February does.  The principle that small children are utterly negligent of time and season, however, is best borne out by the Changeling’s relationship to The Nutcracker, which is apparently of and for all seasons, day in, day out.  There is no day which cannot be improved by watching The Nutcracker, and very few which pass without my voice intoning, “Christmas was coming…” and so on forward through to the very end: “Beside Clara, on her pillow, the Nutcracker smiled with his glittering teeth.”

What’s that I’m reading?  Canadian children will know it for The Nutcracker, retold by Veronica Tennant, illustrated by Toller Cranston, and I will always be happy to read it at any season of the year.


This one is another Canadian book from my childhood.  Veronica Tennant was always, to me, a writer, although I fuzzily knew that other people said she was a “prima ballerina,” which I took to be some kind of ballerina who could do really extraordinary things.  Of course that’s true, but I think that “really extraordinary things” in other people’s minds probably didn’t extend to being able to suspend themselves midair, which I really believed ballerinas could do.  My sister was the ballet dancer between us, as you can probably tell.  I knew, and know, squat about ballet: I just enjoyed it, and I still do.  And while I particularly loved Giselle, I had, and have, a soft spot for The Nutcracker as Veronica Tennant’s story.  We had the cassette tape which went with the book, and I still remember her voice reading us the story, clearly and passionately and mysteriously.  It was the mystery which stood out to us then, and which I try to draw out for the Changeling now.

Mystery?  you ask.  Yes, very much the mystery.  I like to think of Veronica Tennant and Maurice Sendak talking about The Nutcracker, you know.  Both of them wrote and published Nutcrackers, and each, in their own way, fought back against the popular, rather dull, candy-cane-and-flower Nutcrackers of the popular imagination.  Maurice Sendak went back to the original story to fight his battle out; Veronica Tennant, wedded to the ballet in which she had danced so many times, laid out her mystery using the components available to her.

Veronica Tennant starts with an older Clara, right on the cusp of becoming “a young lady,” as her godfather says.   She’s no child, and her childlike innocence is slipping away quickly.  She’s also rather perceptive, and keenly attached to her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer, a clockmaker and antique dealer.  He shows up at the house on Christmas Eve with gifts: a clock, a céleste, and the Nutcracker for Clara.  While her brother, Fritz, bursts out that the Nutcracker is ugly, the more sensitive Clara examines him, enthralled.  Does she love him?  We don’t really know, but she definitely becomes attached to him and pleads with her mother (in vain) not to put him back under the tree with the other presents at bedtime.

It is the céleste, however, which is yet the more mysterious gift.  It is the gift of music, the gift of the ballet, and it subtly binds the text to the ballet itself.  In that rickety old cassette tape, you could listen for the céleste to make its appearances along with the other characters, but with it long gone, perhaps you’d best listen to the ballet itself as you read.  The céleste summons Clara from bed, and its music pursues her along her fantastic journey; it brings the Sugar Plum Fairy to her feet to dance, and lures Clara to dance along with her– and dance her way home again.  When Clara does return home (to find herself fallen at the bottom of the stairs– was it all just a fever dream?), she lies sick until she can hear the music of the Sugar Plum Fairy again, which is, of course, brought to her by her mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer… how does he know what she needs?  Is it a kind of goblin market where she can only be cured by the music which felled her in the first place?

Very well, you say cautiously, but what of the Nutcracker?  Well, he’s her partner on this journey, isn’t he?  Her dance partner in the ballet, her fellow warrior against the King of the Rats, and her guide to the Land of Sweets.  But he, too, is bound by certain rules, certain laws.  He is only freed from wood for a few hours, and then he has to return– when the céleste’s music ends, Clara’s back home, and, with her, the Nutcracker is back in his wooden prison.  It’s rather sad, and only Herr Drosselmeyer seems to know more of the story.  And, in this version… he’s not telling.

No, I’m not going to digress into the E. T. A. Hoffman story presented by Maurice Sendak.  Frankly, I do have a sense of the seasons, and I’m saving that for Christmas.  (You can prepare yourselves by checking it out in the meantime!)  I will only say that, yes, there is more to the story, and I honour Veronica Tennant for carefully leaving those threads open, for leaving the mystery alive, along with the music of the céleste, so that children like me, growing up with her story, could whisper, “But I know there’s more…” and go looking for E. T. A. Hoffman as we grew older.  She didn’t wrap it up with a candy-cane bow and pretend that was it: she loved the mystery rather than repressing it.  And, more than that, she worked with Toller Cranston, who fully threw himself into the mystery with his twisted eyes and exaggerated lines and colours.

Come to think of it, the Changeling is right.  Who doesn’t need a bit of mystery in the springtime?  Each season has a little mystery to it, as Vivaldi knew, and the mystery of spring, as Stravinsky knew, is very potent.  As for the Nutcracker?  Well, wood coming to life and growing is definitely seasonally appropriate, isn’t it?  And so I recommend that you turn on some music, fetch a copy of Veronica Tennant’s Nutcracker (if you can find it) and just read and listen for the mystery.


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