Krabat: The First Year

This year for my Summer in Other Languages self-challenge, I am reading the novel Krabat by Otfreid Preußler. As I did with my reading of Die Kleine Hexe two years ago, I’m going to post a summary in German and English, plus some thoughts in English. I’ll focus at first on my impressions from reading the book itself; later I intend to learn more about the folklore behind the story.

The book is divided into three parts based on the three years of Krabat’s apprenticeship, and I’m aiming to read one part per month. Below, my summary of Part One, Das Erste Jahr (The first year).

Krabat, ein armer Junge ohne Eltern, hat nach der Weihnachtszeit einen seltsamen Traum. Er hörtet eine Stimme, die ihm gebietet, “Komm nach Schwarzkollm in die Mühle.” Die Bewohner in die Umgebung halten sich fern von der Mühle und warnen Krabat dagegen, aber er lauscht diese Warnungen nicht. Bei der Mühle findet er einen Meister und elf Junge, und sagt “ja” zu werden der zwölfte Müllerburscher.

Durch sein erste Lehrjahr, durch Winter, Frühling, Sommer, Herbst und nochmal Weihnachtszeit, findet er langsam mehr heraus über die Mühl und ihr geheimnisvoller Meister. Die Müllerburschen sind auch Studenten in einer schwarzen Zauberschule. Sie verwandeln sich zu Raben und lernen von dem Meister Zaubersprüche. Jede Neumondnacht kommt ein anderer Mann mit einer Feder wie eine Flamme in seinem Hut, um die vollen Säcken zu bekommen. Nur an diese Nacht funktioniert der “Toten Gang”, aber was mahlt er? Krabat findet kleine Dinge, weiss und hart wie Steine, die keine Getreide sind. 

Es gibt verschiedene Persönlichkeiten unter den Müllerburschen, freundlich und feindlich. Manchmal spielen sie Streiche, zum Beispiel mit einer Kompanie von Soldaten, die sie anwerben will. Der Ältester, Tonda, ist vom Anfang Krabats Freund und Helfer. Sie sind gepaart durch die Ostersamstagnacht, wenn die Jungen mussen übernachten bei einem Ort des Todes und erhalten da von einander das Zeichen, dass sie als gehorsam gegenüber dem Meister kennzeichnet. Tonda spricht über ein junges Mädchen, das er verliebt hat, und ist jetzt tot. Hat der Meister damit etwas zu tun?

Ein anderes Mal gibt er zu Krabat sein Messer, das wird schwarz, wenn man in Gefahr ist. In Tondas Hand hat Krabat es gesehen, schwarz zu scheinen, aber in Krabats Hand wird es nochmal silbern. 

Krabat hat immer viele Fragen; Tonda antwortet nicht alles, und sagt nur Geduld zu haben. Aber am Neujahrstag, nach eine unruhige Nacht, findet Krabat Tonda steif und tot; er hat die Treppe hinuntergefallen. Tonda wird ohne Pastor und Kreuz begraben, und die andere Müllerburschen wollen nicht darüber sprechen.

Was passiert wirklich in dieser Mühle? Ist Krabat in Gefahr? Kann er entfliehen? Oder ist der Meister zu kraftvoll für ihn? Mit solchen Fragen endet das erste Jahr.

Krabat, a poor boy with no parents, has a strange dream following Christmastime. He hears a voice that bids him, “Come to the mill in Schwarzkollm.” The residents in the area stay far away from the mill, and warn him against it, but Krabat doesn’t listen to their warnings. At the mill he finds a master and eleven miller boys, and says yes to becoming the twelfth.

Through his first year of apprenticeship, through winter, spring, summer, autumn and again Christmastime, he slowly finds out more about the mill and its mysterious master. The miller boys are also students in a black school of magic. They change into ravens and learn spells from the master. Each night of the new moon, another man comes with a feather in his hat that looks like a flame, to get the full sacks. Only on this night does the “Dead Chute” function, but what is it milling? Krabat finds little things, white and hard like stones, that are not grain.

There are different personalities among the boys, friendly and not. Sometimes they play tricks, for example with a company of soldiers who wants to recruit them. The oldest, Tonda, is Krabat’s friend and helper from the beginning. They are paired up on on the night of Easter Saturday, when the boys have to spend the night in a place of death, und receive from each other the mark that shows they belong to the Master. Tonda speaks about a girl he loved, who is now dead. Did the Master have something to do with this?

Another time, Tonda gives Krabat his knife, that becomes black when one is in danger. In Tonda’s hand Krabat saw it appear black, but in Krabat’s hand it becomes silver again.

Krabat always has many questions, but Tonda doesn’t answer all of them, and just says to have patience. But on New Year’s Day, after an unquiet night, Krabat finds Tonda stiff and dead; he has fallen down the stairs. Tonda is buried without pastor or cross, and the other boys don’t want to talk about it.

What is really going on in this mill? Is Krabat in danger? Can he run away? Or is the Master too strong for him? With such questions ends the first year.

Illustration by Maryna Verbytskaya

This is a story about how a basically innocent or neutral person can fall into evil. Krabat is adrift in a cruel world, with no parents to care for him; the ministrations of the church were too restrictive and he ran away. Called to the mill by a dream, he seems to be half-asleep even in his waking life. It’s obvious that something is uncanny about the mill and its master — who apparently can walk through walls upon his first appearance — yet Krabat shrugs it off, and ignores the warnings of folk with homes, who can’t understand his plight. As a miller’s apprentice he is warm and clothed and has plenty to eat, so he prefers not to think about what may be behind the business he’s gotten involved in. But with the death of his friend, it’s clear that this is going to have to change.

Preussler does a masterful job of interweaving the creepy and uncanny elements with more ordinary and human ones. The boys are each described with individual characteristics, but most don’t get much attention other than Krabat’s friend, Tonda, his more malicious counterapart, Lyschko, and Juro, a boy who appears “slow” but actually may be the wisest of all. Their magic skills enable them to be sometimes helpful — as Tonda is to Krabat in the beginning — sometimes playful — as they are with the buffoonish soldiers — but underneath, there is the reality that gaining power in such a way has to have a heavy price. In scenes of dark symbolism, they are marked by a black star and put themselves under the yoke of a Master who bears no love for them. Is losing their freedom really worth it?

Krabat is backward at first when he graduates from the trial period to being a student, but his pride is touched and he quickly makes an effort to learn all he can. Based on Tonda and Juro’s mysterious warnings, though, it seems that knowledge may not be enough. Is love the key? The voice of a girl he heard singing in the village during the holy vigil of Easter still haunts him, though he pushes the thought of her away. Over the next year, after the shocking death of Tonda, I expect that this motif will return.

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8 thoughts on “Krabat: The First Year

  1. This does sound an interesting fantasy with elements at the every day, human level that are relatable too. I hadn’t come across this book before but see now that it is available in translation. I’ll be looking out for your summaries of the other two parts as well 🙂

    1. I actually read it in English some years ago (should have disclosed that on the post), but I’ve forgotten enough of the details that there are still lots of surprises. Definitely recommended!

    1. Yes, I enjoyed Preußler’s children’s books but I’m happy I can read some more advanced fare.

  2. As a German, I know Otfried Preußler, of course, he is very popular over here. Still his. But I never read Krabat. His most popular one is probably “Der Räuber Hotzenplotz”. So, thanks for your description.

    You might know already, that I also have a German book blog, if not, here is the link.

    1. Thanks for that link – so far I have stuck to English book blogs but I may branch out there too.

      I recommend Krabat, it’s a definite step up in maturity from the books for younger children, which I have also enjoyed.

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