Krabat: The Second 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 posting 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 reading one part per month. Below, my summary (spoilers not excluded!) of Part Two, Das Zweite Jahr (The second year). Read Part One here.

Krabat film poster

Das neue Jahr beginnt traurig für Krabat, der seinen Freund Tonda vermisst. Er weiss jetzt, dass es gibt Dinge in der Mühle, die von ihm früher geheim war – dunkele, gefährliche Dinge. Er denkt oft an Tonda, obwohl andere Müllerburschen ihm raten, ihn zu vergessen.

Aber er ist immer noch in Leben, und muss irgendwie weitergehen. Der Meister bringt ein neuer Müllerbursche, und die Arbeit fängt nochmal an. Mit der Bewegung der Mühle, “wurde es den Gesellen leicht ums Herz.” Krabat denkt, “Die Zeit geht weiter …”

Krabat ist jetzt kein Lehrjunge mehr; in einem Initiationsritual, die andere schlagen ihn, als wäre “er tatsächlich durch eine Mühle gedreht” wird, und nennen ihn “Bruder.” Er ist erstaunt, aber Michal erklärt, dass in der Mühle, ein Jahr für drei gilt. Und er muss feststellen, dass er schneller aufgewachsen ist als sonst.

Trotz seiner Fragen und seiner Traurigkeit arbeitet Krabat in diesem Jahr sehr hart. Er lernt so viel wie möglich in der Schwarzen Schule. Der Meister bemerkt ihn und nimmt ihn mit, als er nach Dresden reist, um sich mit dem Kurfürsten in einem Schloss zu treffen. Der Meister zeigt so seine Zauberkraft: Die Kutsche fliegt, Krabats Kleidung werden gewechselt.

Ein anderes Mal zeigt er seine Macht nicht so freundlich, als Krabat seine Befehle nicht befolgt. Aber Krabat denkt immer noch daran, wie er das schöne Mädchen sehen kann, das in er Osternacht gesungen hat. Ihr Gesicht, ihre Stimme, sind für ihn etwas, das ihn in eine andere Welt zieht. Aber es ist sehr gefährlich, sowohl für ihn als auch für das Mädchen, und er muss sich schweigen. 

Pumphutt statue

Zum Glück ist der Meister nicht allmachtig, wie ein Besuch von Pumphutt zeigt. Pumphutt ist ein Mann, auch so etwas wie ein Zauberer, der die Müller besucht und dafür sorgt, dass sie nicht zu geizig sind. Er gewinnt seinen magischen Kampf mit dem Meister, der danach sehr wütend ist. Gegen Pumphutt kann er nichts ausrichten, aber er kann sein Müllerburschen arbeiten machen. Der neue Junge bricht zusammen; so schnell kann er es nicht machen.

Es ist Michal der protestiert. Und der Michal ist am Neujahrsmorgen tot.

Wie kann Krabat sich aus diesem Fluch, diesem Übel, befreien? 

The new year begins sadly for Krabat, who misses his friend Tonda. He now knows that there are things in the mill that were secret from him earlier – dark, dangerous things. He often thinks of Tonda, although other boys advise him to forget him.

But he is still alive, and must somehow go on. The master brings a new miller boy, and the work starts again. With the mill’s movement “it became easy on the journeymen’s hearts.” Krabat thinks, “Time goes on …”

Krabat is now no longer an apprentice; in an initiation ritual, the others beat him as if “he is actually turned through a mill” and call him “brother.” He is astonished, but Michal explains that in the mill, one year is valid for three. And he finds that he has grown up faster than usual.

Despite his questions and his sadness, Krabat works very hard this year. He learns as much as possible in the black school. The Master notices him and takes him with him when he travels to Dresden to meet with the Elector in a castle. In this way, the master shows his magic power: the carriage flies, Krabat’s clothes are changed.

Another time, he shows his power not so kindly when Krabat does not obey his orders. But Krabat still thinks about how he can see the beautiful girl who sang in er Easter night. Her face, her voice, are for him something that draws him into another world. It is very dangerous, both for him and for the girl, and he must keep silent. 

Fortunately, the master is not omnipotent, as a visit from Pumphutt shows. Pumphutt is a man, also something of a wizard, who visits the millers and makes sure they are not too stingy. He wins his magic fight with the master, who is very angry afterwards. He can’t do anything against Pumphutt, but he can make his miller boy work. The new boy collapses; he can’t do it so quickly.

It is Michal who protests. And Michal is dead on New Year’s morning.

How can Krabat free himself from this curse, this evil?

Typical 19th century grain mill

In Here All Dwell Free, Gertrud Mueller Nelson explains how fairy tales show that the miller was often a figure of dubious character in the community. The miller takes the fruit of other people’s hard work, and skims something off the top for himself. He becomes wealthy by virtue of their labor, using a machine.

I think we can see a reflection of this in the “black mill” and its dark secrets. Even ordinary millers have to be kept in line, ethically — the folk figure Pumphutt seems to have arisen to address that need. But going beyond that, Krabat’s master is actually in league with the devil. One boy has to die each year, in a sacrifice that ensures the master’s power, while the boys are locked in a conspiracy of silence, helpless to do anything but hope that someone else is the next victim.

The mechanization of work makes it faster and more efficient, but also more distant from the human heart, from our true needs, concerns, and loves. The miller boys have given themselves up to becoming part of the machine, in a sense. (In this part, there is a section where they rebuild and replace the mill wheel.) In return, they receive a home, food, security, and even instruction in magic powers that enable them to fool and exploit the uninitiated. But the price is high: life itself.

For the boys, the passage of time becomes linked with the mill, as shown when time only seems to resume once it begins working again. Their life is enhanced and even speeded up by magic (Krabat has grown three years older in one year), but it stops when the mill stops. They can’t get out of this trap, without some kind of death being required.

Krabat, through his grief for Tonda that keeps his heart open, and his love for the girl whose voice called to him in the holy night of Easter, is struggling to free himself from this wrongful cycle of exploitative power. He is recognizing how to save one’s life can actually mean to lose it.

As we become more and more enmeshed in the lures of technology, its driving force that wants to push us ever faster and further, Krabat’s danger is akin to our own. But at this point in the story, there is not yet any clear way out of his dilemma. When he hears the noise of Michal falling, Krabat merely pulls the covers over his ears and wishes he were dead. How will he escape from a life that has caused him to long for death? The third year, it seems, will be decisive.

Scene from a theater production in Kiel

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