Hans in Luck: Seven Stories by the Brothers Grimm

Image of Hans in Luck: Seven Stories by the Brothers Grimm
Release Date: 
September 4, 2017
NorthSouth Books
Reviewed by: 

“a treasure to enjoy with your children and grandchildren . . . should become a family heirloom . . .”

In Hans in Luck: Seven Stories by the Brothers Grimm, today’s readers have the golden opportunity to experience award-winning Felix Hoffmann’s depiction of seven stories from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Nursery and Household Tales.

Hoffmann was born in 1911 in Aarau, Switzerland, and is considered one of the most important 20th century Swiss artists. He illustrated more than 70 books for children and adults, and was the only artist Thomas Mann authorized to illustrate The Magic Mountain. Hoffmann was awarded the Swiss Children’s Book Prize for his life’s work, and was listed more than once on the Honors list for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. 

He originally illustrated these selected tales by the Grimm brothers simply to amuse his family. Eventually they were published, each as its own picture book, beginning with Rapunzel in 1949 and ending with Hans in Luck, which was published in 1975, the year Hoffmann died. Now these seven individual books have been collected into one beautiful volume.

Hoffmann’s illustrations are rich with detail, emotion, and subliminal messages. An early image in the Rapunzel story depicts the witch bargaining with her neighbor, agreeing to share her homegrown vegetables in exchange for the couple’s firstborn child. It is murky and ominous, scribed with dark lines and tinted with heavy colors. The poor husband looks defeated; the witch is in full control, determined to drive a hard bargain; and the hapless wife who urged her husband steal the lettuces looks helplessly down on the scene from her balcony.

In the illustration of the witch visiting Rapunzel in the tower, her dark, stolid figure looms heavily in the shadowed arch of the tower window and poor Rapunzel looks meek and unhappy. Through the window is a ship at sea, a reminder of the larger world and all the possibilities that are out of reach outside.

The same scene is transformed in the illustration that follows. The prince has just entered through the window for his first encounter with the beautiful and lonely Rapunzel. The sun hits the surrounding window arch so it glows golden, illuminating the prince’s regal red clothing. Hope and light and color have entered Rapunzel’s narrow world. She stands beyond the light in the dark side of the tower room looking startled, but very interested. Nothing is visible through the window; Rapunzel has eyes for no one and nothing but the prince.

Hoffmann also captures exquisitely tender moments. Memorable is the illustration of the child Briar Rose nestling under her father’s chin. The king’s head bends lovingly toward hers with a look of devotion combined with anxiety for the curse that has been placed on his beloved daughter.

In the same story, whimsy mixes with tenderness in a double spread image. At the bottom left in the basement kitchen, the enchanted thorn hedge twines around the cook and kitchen boy, who were frozen by the 100-year sleep spell just as the cook was about to box the kitchen boy’s ears. We know they will momentarily awake, and the boy will get boxed, because up in the tower at the top right of the facing page, the handsome prince is gently kissing the sleeping princess.

Less known is the tale of King Thrushbeard. In one remarkable illustration, the once haughty, rude princess, who is reduced to living in a hovel and weaving baskets to earn her keep, is depicted in a dark, cramped room filled with bound bundles of willow. The unfortunate young woman sits on a stool with a partially made basket between her knees. Unwoven willow branches fan out in front of her, suggesting prison bars and creating a jagged, unsettling feeling that echoes the princess’ own emotions.  

Hoffmann is equally gifted in his animal portrayals. In “The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids,” the mother goat is completely goat-like, despite the fact that she stands on her hind legs and wears an apron. Her horror and grief is palpable when she returns home from running errands to find her children missing and the contents of their house destroyed.

In an amusing set of paired images in “Hans in Luck,” Hans’ mild mannered cow grows impatient with his clumsy milking technique. You see her placid expression on the first page, annoyance and aggression clear in her eyes in the facing image. Despite Hans’ foolishness in his trades, this is a happy story of a man who knows contentment, and the fresh illustrations, drawn with clear, clean colors, convey that joy.

In this book, Hoffmann’s illustrations are beautifully reproduced on high quality paper, and the stories are told in a matter-of-fact style true to the originals first published by the Grimm brothers in 1812. Hans in Luck: Seven Stories by the Brothers Grimm is a treasure to enjoy with your children and grandchildren and should become a family heirloom to hand down to each new generation.