PORTLAND -— Ambling around the seasonal aisles of the bookstores in the weeks before Christmas, likely as not, you’ll stumble across several books featuring nutcrackers.

Lavishly illustrated, one with a CD with Claire Bloom’s wonderful reading of the story of “The Nutcracker” and, likely as not, some will magically emit Tchaikovsky’s familiar bum/dadadadada/damdamdam.

The story’s author is variously given as Ernst Hoffmann, Ernst Theodore Hoffmann and sometimes ETA Hoffmann. And should you be riding your search engine and let your mouse bite after you typed in the word ‘nutcracker,’ you will find 7,277 websites, and 105 book titles with the word ‘nutcracker’ in them.

What could possibly explain the amazing longevity of a story penned as the dust from the 1815 Battle of Waterloo was settling? 

Its author was a conscientious judge in his day job in Berlin, a talented musician – hence the third initial A, standing for Amadé, as in Mozart – a caricaturist, occasional theater director and one of the most innovative and deeply thoughtful writers of his or any other time.

He embedded the story of the “Nutcracker and Mouseking” in a framework of story-telling patterned on the tradition of Boccaccio’s Decameron: A group of writers meets under the banner of Saint Serapion, a saint of shaky sanity but redoubtable imagination. 

They meet to read their stories to each other and to comment on each other’s writing.

But how did the story bounce from post-Napoleonic Berlin to France to Russia and then into the amazing repackaging machine of the United States?

For one thing, in the late 18th and early 19th century, German Christmas started to morph into what it has become: a child-centered holiday. 

For another, Hoffmann was one of the first German export successes of modern times. 

His stories were not just read in France and Russia but became fashionable.

Writers such as Gautier, Nerval, George Sand, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Edgar Allan Poe were influenced by him. 

So it is no surprise that the great Russian imperial ballet would ask Tchaikovsky to compose music for a Nutcracker ballet.

Of course, the story needed to be adapted, and what the adaptors nibbled away was the satirical edge of Hoffmann’s story, some of its raucousness and its realism.

It’s hard to dance satire.

The sanitized ballet mice don’t fire stinky mouse pellets in battle. The king in the story is silly and gluttonous, not an object of admiration emanating benevolent power.

The king’s ministers are mindlessly subservient, Hoffmann’s swipe at the arch-conservative establishments of his time. And the land of the sugar plums is hardly choreographed to get across the idea of self-centered adolescents.

And then there is the transformation of the handsome youth, young Drosselmeyer, into an ugly nutcracker, whose enchantment can only be lifted if he finds a woman who will love him in spite of his ugliness.

We might put this under the rubric of beauty and the beast tales where unselfish, self-sacrificing love lifts enchantment.

But it is also a fact that Hoffmann was haunted by a sense of his own bad looks and by his impossible love of a teenage girl twenty years younger.

Psychobabble aside, from beginning to end, good godpapa Drosselmeyer, the alter-ego of Hoffmann, hovers over the action, manipulating not only nutcrackers and other gadgets, but representing and encouraging that which makes us quintessentially human: the power to imagine.

Godpapa may be a wizard, but he uses recognizable tools.

This is the story’s innermost secret, that the preciousness of the imagination should be balanced with keeping at least one toe touching reality, lest we gallop away unbridled into fantasy land.

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov may be allowed to defy gravity for sublime moments.

But, “personal preference notwithstanding, gravity is the law.”

– Special to the Press Herald