Roughing It: Swiss Family Robinson

May 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm Leave a comment

swiss family robinsonDisneyland used to have a Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Stuck between the Jungle Cruise and the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean, this was always my favorite part of the park. Climbing the bamboo stairs up through the branches, you could see all the trappings of the shipwrecked family, from gramophone and family book collection to the ingenious sunroof that in the movie Ernst rigged over the master bed.

The Swiss Family Robinson treehouse always seemed like the ideal home to me — a fascinating blend of ingenuity and aesthetic, the product of a group of imaginative, problem-solving, exuberant minds.

And, it turns out, so is the book that originated the house. Der Schweizerische Robinson was first published in 1812 with the credited author Johann David Wyss and credited editor his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss (recognize the name? He also wrote the former Swiss national anthem). In truth, however, while Wyss senior conceived of the idea and characters and probably wrote most of it down, the junior Johann did a lot more than ‘edit’.  Senior left the manuscript completely jumbled, so Junior was required to not only reorder the story, but to add transitional and explanatory bits throughout. (continued after the jump)

The story was a near-instant hit in German, feeding the public frenzy for shipwreck tales that had been first lit by Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719 (1). The Wyss’s success led to a very rapid translation into French, by Isabelle de Montolieu (who also did the first translations of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion). While Montolieu was an accomplished translator, she had a penchant for creation and added significantly to the Wyss’s text. Entire new episodes were a part of her French version published in 1814.

In English, the story met a similar fate. When William Godwin and his wife published their translation “from the German of M. Wiss” in 1814, their version included bits and pieces from Montolieu’s translation. Their longer reissue in 1816 featured more of their own content, just as Montolieu’s even longer 1824 edition included some borrowings from the Godwins as well as the now-famous adventures of each of the shipwrecked sons, Fritz, Franz, Earnest, and Jack.

So when William H.G. Kingston set out to publish a new English version of the story in the 1870’s, he had lots of options to choose from: the original collaborative Wyss story in German, Montolieu’s first French edition, the Godwin’s take on Montolieu and their subsequent take on their own first take, or Montolieu’s later, longer French story. Kingston’s final book, the best-known English Swiss Family Robinson, is mostly a shortened version of Montolieu’s last edition. The book is the ultimate product of eclectic authors and editors each adding their own bits to the story.

The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Disneyland

The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Disneyland

As perhaps expected, the cost of so many authors writing at so many different times is integrity of plot and character. But the payoff? Romping, exhilarating, nutty imagination. These many authors apparently saw their task as two fold: First, to keep and reinforce the message that, with hard work, faith in God, and a Rousseauist philosophy, they can survive anything; Second, to make the world of the novel as amazing and educational as they possibly could.

The island of the shipwreck became a mythical place where any sort of species could thrive. Tigers? Yep. Penguins? Yes, and delicious ones at that.Lobster, capybaras, jaguars, monkeys, tortoises, oysters, guinea pigs — nothing seems too delicate for the climate of their island. Ridiculous, but with a purpose. This insane zoology serves to accomplish those two tasks I mentioned before. The animals and plants make a convenient (if entirely inaccurate) naturalist lesson to fit with author’s goal of education, and the Eden-like setting and the family’s use of it validate God’s abundance and caring. Many authors, many animals, but for a fairly coherent purpose.

The subsequent mutations of the story in film form moved away from the overt religious didactism, but maintain the imaginative setting, making them great fun.

I mean, who doesn’t want to live in a treehouse?

(1)The title itself doesn’t name the protagonist family, whose name was never mentioned, but describes the book itself, “The Swiss Family Robinson”, meaning the family version of a Robinson Crusoe-like tale, with Swiss characters.

Most of the facts for this came from Ellen Moody’s page on Swiss Family Robinson, here.

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