- Snöfrid aus dem WiesentalDaoist Themes in a German Children's Book
The German writer Andreas Schmachtl, well known for his children's books starring small animals—notably a little white mouse called Tilda Appleseed, whose stories are now an animated TV series—recently published a new series, Snöfrid aus dem Wiesental (Snöfrid of Meadow Valley) (2015; 2016; 2017).1
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The books feature a furry creature that resembles a marmot and is about knee high. Its name Snöfrid designates the species, but because Snöfrids are so rare, it also serves as his personal name. The creature lives in the far north of the planet, in an area called Meadow Valley on the slopes of a mountain under a rock. Snöfrid spends his days enjoying life, eating oats, and foraging for berries. Occasionally he helps himself to some milk in the nearest human village. [End Page 199]
Many aspects of this creature resemble Daoist themes, especially those related to immortals or transcendents (xian 仙). Many stories in ancient China, notably collected by Ge Hong 葛洪 (283-343) in his Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳 (Traditions of Divine Transcendents; trl. Campany 2002), tell about their endeavors: they usually lived as hermits removed from society, were immune to heat and cold, exercised magical powers far beyond those of mere mortals, and interacted in often rather eccentric ways with ordinary society.
These characteristics also apply to Snöfrid. He lives on a remote mountain, withstands the cold, displays power over animals and the elements, and interacts with others without any status constraints. In addition, he also embodies various other Daoist themes, such as a closeness to nature, free and easy wandering, sitting in forgetfulness, and more.
It is not entirely surprising that Daoist themes are essential in a children's book. After all, in the Daoist classics, children are as close to the natural state as is humanly possible, able to be active for long hours without tiring and open to free and clear perception, quite free from societal constraints. A case in point in a modern context is the experiment run by the Washington Post: one of the world's top violinists played at 7:51 a.m. on a Friday morning in the arcade of a Metro Station in Washington, DC while dressed as a street performer. Of the 1,097 passers-by, only seven listened for more than a minute, two appreciated the skill and stayed as long as they could, while one person recognized the performer and stayed for the rest of the performance. No one stayed for more than nine minutes. And yet, each and every child who walked past wanted to stay on and listen. While the adults were too busy, the children exhibited an unperturbed curiosity, open to the wonders of life (Cline 2015, 180).
The Hermit Life
Snöfrid, too, has this quality. He is a little furry animal, about a foot tall who lives as a hermit under a boulder on a mountainside, a good distance from the nearest human village. He enjoys nothing more than to be left alone and rarely encounters anyone, not even another Snöfrid, who are generally quite rare (Schmachtl 2015, ch. 1).
The hermit life echoes the proto-Daoist tradition of the masters of methods (fangshi 方士), forerunners of the school of Numinous Treasure [End Page 200] (Lingbao 靈寶) who stayed away from society to pursue the path of immortality. Living far away from society, they were "unlike any other class of being" (Campany 2009, 49), quite like the Snöfrids. However, as Robert Campany points out, if they really had nothing to do at all with society, how come we know about them? In ancient China, stories about them circulated in society and were collected by people who were either practitioners of the arts of transcendence or had seekers in their family.
In his preface to the hagiographies about immortals, Ge Hong mentions that he, too, collected existing works (Campany 2002, 99). In that sense, a historical claim is made, namely that these aren't simply his inventions. The same holds true for the older Liexian zhuan 列仙傳 (Arrayed Biographies...