Author: Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif
Date published: July 1, 2011
Reckless: Steinernes Fleisch. By Cornelia Funke. Hamburg: Cecilie Dressler Verlag, 2010. 349 pp.
Reckless. By Cornelia Funke. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. 394 pp.
While questing for treasures, the hero of the Grimm tale "The Golden Bird" (AT 550) enlists a fox helper, who turns out to be the enchanted brother of the princess who must be rescued. The analogous assistant in Asbjornsen and Moe's "Lord Peter" (AT 545B) is a cat; this time she herself transforms into the human hero's true love at the story's end. Cornelia Funke's Reckless: Steinernes Heisch - in which folktale tropes are subversively engaged to construct a postmodern narrative of siblings, parents, and young adult pair-bonding - features an incarnation of this animal-helper figure, perceived by many readers as the book's most sympathetic character, although she is not its titular protagonist. Fox, a shape-shifting vixen-girl, yearns to upgrade her faithful-sidekick status to something warmer but is thwarted on two fronts: not only by the urgency of the quest she participates in but also by the impatience and self-centeredness of the book's questing hero, Jacob Reckless.
Prior to the events of the novel, Jacob has been employed, like the hero of "The Golden Bird," as a hunter of magical treasures for the nobility. Now, however, he is engaged in a race against time, attempting to counter a curse that has befallen his brother, Will. (No, their first names are not a coincidence.) Both brothers were born into the world we know - twenty-first-century New York City - and have accessed the alternative-European landscape that is Fox's native land by the tradition-honored means of a magic mirror. Jacob has come to the perilous Mirrorworld many times and survived, but Will has made only one journey there, and it may result in something very like death for him. (Is this my fault? This is the persistent question haunting the four main characters: Jacob, Will, Fox, and Clara, Will's medical-student girlfriend, also from our world.)
Funke's novel plays its Märchen-motifs both straight (gingerbread houses and seven-league boots on the concrete level; young men who sally forth to "learn what fear is" on the thematic level) and crooked. Funke's greatest subversion of her folktale sources is the doubt that any of its characters will actually find what they are looking for. Jacob, specifically, came through the Mirror the first time in search of his missing father, John Reckless, an engineer: he may meet him in a sequel volume, but perhaps he won't.
The novel's many allusions are drawn from broader sources as well. There is a gruff pub owner who, like any Beowulf, displays on his taproom wall the severed arm of a slain ogre. Anthony Hope's Ruritania lurks in the names of secondary characters and in the alternative -Habsburg empire where the center of power lies. The cities of the Mirrorworld, with their Victorian fashions and steampunk technology, have their analogues in Terry Pratchett; the warfare, which is laying the landscape to waste, has a narrated nineteenth-century flavor.
Many magical beings inhabit the Mirrorworld, but at the top rung of the power hierarchy (deities being distant or absent in this very contemporary European worldview) are the Fairies, modeled on those in the Grimms' tale of Briar Rose. These Fairies are capricious, and their spells are effectively irreversible. Power politics are complicated by the fact that the Fairies come in only one sex and must therefore find love partners among other species: humans, dwarfs, and the Others.
These Others, called "Goyl," embody a major secondary theme of the novel - namely, the clash of civilizations. Interestingly, Funke narrates several chapters from the Goyl point of view. Their name evokes "gargoyle"; accordingly, they are made of stone. Until recently the humans of the Mirrorworld have habitually slaughtered them, but now the cave-dwelling Goyl make war aboveground, and they have better soldiers than the human empire does. The Goyl are hardy, but daylight is painful to them: "The red moon is their sun," says Jacob Reckless's brother, Will, indirectly quoting Schiller's Die Räuber, alluded to by Funke in earlier novels. And Will is in an excellent position to sense this, since, as the result of a Fairy's spell, former New Yorker Will Reckless is painfully and inexorably turning to stone: becoming a Goyl warrior, body and soul.
Echoing the novel's contrastive origins in a Europe that is both traditional and contemporary, miraculous events may be commonplace in the Mirrorworld, but religion is dying. The Goyl have realized, through painful experience, that human beings are not gods; on the human side, ecclesiastical institutions (cathedrals and priests) are still retained, but in skeleton form only, irrelevant to everyday life.
The style of Reckless is a departure for Funke, particularly for readers who know her chiefly for the Inkheart trilogy. This time her sentences tend to be short. Characters careen from scene to scene. Descriptions of the many evocative settings are poignant but brief, usefully augmented by Funke's moody pencil sketches. Perhaps Funke is attempting to evoke a more Märchen-like, or cinematic, mood; or perhaps she is reflecting the main protagonist's "reckless" character, since it is clear that the ever-impatient Jacob prefers forward momentum to contemplative thought.
Reckless was released simultaneously in September 2010 in twelve languages, of which I have seen the German and the English versions. This hastiness in production has resulted in some problems, such as pronoun trouble in the English version of chapter 1 ("the mirror will open only for he [sic] who cannot see himself") and alternative Europe cartographic issues later on: do our heroes follow the railway eastward (German) or southward (English; which makes more sense) from the eastern Goyl fortress, on their way to the empress's capital at "Vena"? Perhaps later editions will take care of these, and perhaps sequel volumes will be more careful.
And where is John Reckless? For my money, he's designing siege engines for the non-Tsar of the non-Russias somewhere in the remote East. Time will tell, or not.
Sandra Ballif Straubhaar
University of Texas at Austin
Sandra BaMf Straubhaar is a senior lecturer in Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research and teaching areas include Old Norse women poets, the Nordic and Anglophone ballad traditions, transgressive women in Old Norse literature, medievalist national romanticism, normative aspects of Nordic children's literature, Old Norse Eddie and skaldic poetry, and the European folktale.