"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, Part 2

I provided a reading of the expository background in “Part 1,” hereNow I’ll go through the story proper and how it all relates to the themes and instabilities brought out in the exposition.

The narrative begins in my edition (Mayer and Moore translation, New York Review Books Classics) thirty pages into a 75 page story, nearly 40% in:

One winter, the day before Christmas, when in the valley of Gschaid early dawn had broadened into day, a faint clear-weather haze overspread the sky, so that the sun creeping up in the south-east could be seen only as an indistinct reddish ball; furthermore, the air was mild, almost warm in the valley and even in the upper reaches of the sky as indicated by the unchanging forms of the motionless clouds. So the shoemaker’s wife said to the children: “Since it is such a fine day and since it has not rained for a long time and the roads are hard, and since yesterday your father gave you permission, provided it was the right kind of day, you may go over to Millsdorf to see your grandmother; but first you must ask your father again.”
Perhaps one should say something about waiting so long for the narrative to begin.  This was much more prevalent in the 19th century, and actually opposed to the classical notion of storytelling by in medias res, which means to begin in the middle of things.  That means to start the story at a critical point in the narrative, or at least at the beginning of the action, and backfill the exposition.  Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and others do it regularly, but for some reason the 19th century authors weren’t fond f it.  As great a story teller as Dickens was, I don’t recall a work of his where he starts in the middle.  Certainly narrative thrusted at the beginning grabs the reader’s attention, and I would say most times that not it is the best approach to storytelling.  However, here because the themes are more of a hook than the story itself, I think Stifter does well with this extended opening exposition.

 There are two elements to the story that I want to highlight.  After getting their father’s permission to go off to their grandparents, the last thing the mother does is give them a blessing:

The lad slung a calfskin pouch over his shoulder by a strap—a perquisite deftly sewn by his father—and the children went into the next room to bid him farewell. They were soon back, and after their mother had made the sign of the cross over them in blessing, they skipped merrily off down the street.  (p.32)

Secularists might think of the blessing as superstitious, but Stifter doesn’t, as we see with so many of the providential events that lead to the children’s survival.  In a Catholic worldview a blessing endows a physical, spiritual, or supernatural gift upon a person, and while it does not guarantee an outcome (that would be superstition) it links the giver of the blessing and the receiver with the divine.  A blessing is also a sacramental, a sacramental being a sacred sign either abstract like a blessing or physical like holy water that brings us in contact with God.  (Don’t confuse a sacramental with a sacrament, which is a sacred sign implemented by Christ that confers a physical change to the soul.) Sacramentals are not just holy items, but things that are done with God’s love.  That calfskin pouch that Conrad uses is a sacramental since it was put together and given in love.  The mother bundling the children to protect them against the cold is another, and of course the blessing.  The Catholic worldview holds that there is a continuum between the spiritual and the physical, and so we see it in the story.  Notice the sacramentals later when the grandmother provides all sorts of gifts to the children.

Then she [the grandmother] bustled about here and there, packing to overflowing the lad’s calfskin pouch, besides stuffing things into his pockets. She also put divers things into Sanna’s little pockets, gave them each a piece of bread to eat on the way, and in the bag, she told them, were two rolls in case they became very hungry.

“For your mother,” she said, “I am giving you some well-roasted coffee-beans, and in the very tightly wrapped bottle with the stopper is some black coffee extract better than your mother herself usually makes; she can taste some just as it is; it is a veritable tonic, so strong the merest sip warms the stomach so that you cannot feel chilled even on the coldest of winter days. The other things in the bag, in the cardboard box wrapped with paper, you are to take home without opening.”  (p.36)

All these things aid the children in their survival.  All that food was not needed for a normal three hour hike, but it came in handy when they were lost.  Nor would they have received all that food if Conrad didn’t have the bag.  And that coffee allowed them to stay awake and not freeze to death during the overnight rest.  Providence uses the sacramentals to ensure survival.  And let’s not forget the father is a shoemaker who specialized in mountain shoes.  I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the story, but those mountain shoes the children were wearing had to be critical on the climbs and descent on the glacier.  By coordinating the sacramentals for a fortunate outcome, Stifter is presenting a world integrated with the divine.  When the children eat that bread the grandmother puts into Conrad’s bag, it’s most certainly suggestive of the Eucharist, and therefore God’s presence.  In town the priest had postponed high Mass (p. 72) because of the missing children, but the children eat the bread (p. 54) in a thanksgiving, and this happens just when children back in town are supposed to be receiving Christmas gifts (p. 56). 

Another part of the story we need to consider is the landscape and environment.  We see the harshness of nature; we see the spot the baker died and realize the danger is real.  One should begin to think, is this story an allegory?  And if so, what does it mean for the children to pass through a snowstorm unable to cognitively process the signs that would lead home, and all on Christmas Eve, for that matter?  Here is the moment they begin to realize they are lost.

“Will we be at the post soon?” asked Sanna. “I don’t know,” answered her brother. “This time, I can’t make out the trees, or the road because it is so white. We may not see the post at all, because there is so much snow it will be covered up, and hardly a grass-blade or arm of the cross will stick out. But that’s nothing. We’ll just keep straight on; the road leads through the trees and when it gets to the place where the post is, then it will start downhill and we keep right on it and when it comes out of the woods we are in Gschaid meadows; then comes the footbridge, and we’re not far from home.” (p.41)

But obviously they have drifted and are not on the way home. 

However, as they went, they could not tell whether they were going down the mountain or not. They had soon turned downhill to the right but then came to elevations leading up. Often they encountered sheer rises they had to avoid; and a hollow in which they were walking led them around in a curve. They climbed hummocks that became steeper under their feet than they expected; and what they had deemed a descent was level ground or a depression, or went on as an even stretch.

“But where are we, Conrad?” asked the child.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “If only my eyes could make out something and I could get my bearings.”

But on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.  (p.44)

As the children step through the strange rocks, as they climb up an unfamiliar ascent, as they enter a cave for shelter, the children have entered a new world, a different world.  Physically they are wandering lost in a snowstorm, but allegorically they have entered a world beyond.  Snow is sometimes taken as a symbol for death (winter, frozen, burial, universality as it falls covers everything), and death brings one into a new world.  And the children try to learn about this unfamiliar world.

It was a blessing the snow was dry as sand, so it shook off easily and slid from their feet and little mountain shoes without caking and soaking them.

At last they again came to something with form, immense shapes heaped in gigantic confusion, covered with snow that was sifting everywhere into the crevices; the children had, moreover, almost stumbled on them before they had seen them.  They went close to look. 

Ice—nothing but ice.

There were great slabs lying, covered with snow but on the edges glassy green ice showed; there were mounds of what looked like pushed-up foam, the sides dull but with inward glimmers as if crystals and splinters of precious stones had been jumbled together; there were, besides, great rounded bosses engulfed in snow, slabs and other shapes slanting or upright,--as high as the church steeple or houses in Gschaid.  (p. 48)

Despite the harshness of the weather, the children still get a blessing from the snow.  And it’s no coincidence that the simile for the height of the slabs is the church steeple, for the children have entered a divine world.  And the ice upon the rock slabs glimmers like crystals and precious stones, from which the story gets its title.  When Sanna suggests the ice was made by “a great deal of water,” Conrad disagrees, “No, it wasn’t made by water, it’s ice of the mountain, and always here since God made it so” (p. 48).  It is an amazing world, a world filled with God’s wonder.  Conrad continues,

“And down where the snow ends, you see all manner of colors if you look hard,—green, blue, and a whitish color—that is the ice that looks so small from down below because you are so far away, and that, as Father said, is going to be there as long as the world lasts.  And then I’ve often noticed that the blue color keeps on below the ice,—probably stones, I’ve thought, or maybe ploughed ground and pastures, and then come the pine woods that go down and down, and all kinds of rocks in between, then the green meadows, then the woods with leaves....”  (p.48-49)

Finally the children enter a cavern with a canopy of ice above them and a most intense color of blue: “But the whole cavern was blue, bluer than anything on earth, a blue deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself, blue as azure grass with a faint light inside” (p. 50).  Why blue?  Blue, the color of the Virgin Mary, the color of heaven, here I believe is supposed to suggest harmony and order and the unity with the divine.  Providence led the children to a safe spot with no ice and enclosed from the elements just as it got dark.  Stifter is I think reaching for the theology of creation, where God’s handiwork of nature blesses humanity with goodness.

The children spend that holy night of Christmas safe and fed with the sacramentals from their parents and grandparents under an “arch of heaven [that] was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array” (p. 57).  That arch of heaven, which gets elaborated several pages later (p. 61), suggests the rainbow as a sign from God in Genesis.

And so when the children on Christmas Day see a flame (representing Christ) coming toward them, it turns out to be the flag of a rescue team, and the first words from Philip the herdsman is “Praise be to God!” (p. 68).  When the children are led back to town to their anxious parents, the mother sees them first,

“Sebastian, they are here,” cried his wife.

Speechless and trembling, he ran toward them.  His lips moved as if to say something but no words came, he pressed the children to his heart, holding them close and long.  Then he turned to his wife and locked her in his arms, crying “Sanna, Sanna.” (p.70-71)

And then the father turns to the rescuers and says, “Neighbors, friends, I thank you” (p. 71).  So because of the children’s safe passage through the dangerous, divine world, we see then the resolution of the discords set out in the exposition.  The father does love his children, and the wife is now convinced of it; the grandparents are brought over and become unified with their daughter’s family; the wife is now embraced and become part of her new home town of Gschaid.  We see a unity of family, a unity of town, and a unity of the universe under God’s arch of heaven.  Having rescued the children, the town turns to go to church where the postponed Mass can now resume.

What a beautiful story.  This is how life should be!


  1. Has this been made into a film?

    God bless.

  2. Yes, several times but I believe in German. It's there in the Wikipedia link I provided.