Mention The Nutcracker and most people think of a ballet about a girl whose ugly toy comes to life, fights off an army of mice, and transports her through the Land of Sweets. However, even those familiar with the ballet may not realize that it only conveys part of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s complex tale. Similarly, many Christians may not realize that biblical truths are beautifully—and often unwittingly—illustrated in fiction, myths, and fairy tales (Markos xviii-xxi). As Louis Markos writes in The Myth Made Fact, “The Enlightenment privileging of…reason over imagination has confined large numbers of Christians…to focus heavily on…logic-based apologetics while shying away from those more aesthetic, imagination-based aspects of the faith that resist rigorous analysis. By so doing, they have cut themselves off from what I would boldly call the ministry of myth” (xix).
Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is, despite its oddities, a praiseworthy reflection of several truths about the love of Christ and His Bride.
To better understand these reflections, Hoffmann’s tale must be studied in greater detail than the popular ballet conveys. On Christmas Eve, Marie Stahlbaum receives an ugly gift—a Nutcracker—from her ugly-but-kind Godfather Drosselmeier. Marie’s brother soon breaks Nutcracker by eagerly cracking the hardest nuts. As Marie binds Nutcracker’s wounds and watches over him that night, a hoard of mice attack her. Nutcracker leaps from the toy-cupboard, leading a flimsy army of toys to defend his kind nurse. The Mouse-King nearly overcomes Nutcracker, but Marie hurls her slipper at him, saving Nutcracker and bringing Mouse-King’s wrath on herself. The next morning, Marie has cut her arm on the toy-cupboard, but no one believes her description of Nutcracker’s fight against the mice.
While Marie heals, Drosselmeier tells her about Princess Pirlipat, born perfectly beautiful but turned into an ugly nutcracker by Dame Mouseyrinks’ curse. To break the curse, Drosselmeier’s nephew—a young man with a strong jaw—has to crack the otherwise-uncrackable Crackatook Nut and step backwards without stumbling. While Pirlipat regains her original beauty, Dame Mouseyrinks skitters beneath Drosselmeier’s nephew: he stumbles and falls under the curse of ugliness himself. Pirlipat screams in disgust and expels him from the palace. However, Drosselmeier’s astrologer friend tells him that Nutcracker will be so virtuous that the curse will be broken when a girl loves him despite his grotesque features. Drosselmeier ends the story telling Marie, “You still have much to suffer if you mean to befriend poor transformed Nutcracker; for the king of the mice lies in wait for him…. So be faithful and true” (66).
On the next three nights, Mouse-King demands that Marie sacrifice her sweetmeats, her dolls of sugar, and finally her books and dresses—if she refuses, he will eat Nutcracker. Marie makes these sacrifices but knows Mouse-King will demand her life. She tells Nutcracker, who asks her for a sword. That night, Marie hears a hideous fight followed by a quiet knock at her door. She opens it to find Nutcracker victorious and begging her to accompany him to his kingdom of sweets. The next day, although her parents again disbelieve her explanation of how Nutcracker saved her, Drosselmeier and his nephew, no longer a nutcracker, arrive—young Drosselmeier with gifts to replace all those Marie sacrificed for him. He asks for her hand in marriage. She accepts.
Perhaps unwittingly, Hoffmann’s tale illustrates five key themes of the love of Christ and His Bride.
First, like Christ (II Corinthians 9:15), Nutcracker is a gift who can be rejected or accepted. Pirlipat rejects Nutcracker’s sacrifice for her because he is ugly, and Pirlipat’s story—like the end of unbelievers—is terrifying because she abhors a virtuous man’s love. Marie accepts Nutcracker’s sacrifice for her because she recognizes his virtue beneath his ugliness, and Marie’s story is delightful—like the end of Christ’s followers—because she rejoices in the love of a virtuous man.
Second, like Christ (Isaiah 52:14-53:3; Matthew 11:28-30; Philippians 2:1-11), Nutcracker has no physical beauty, but beneath his ugliness he is good to the core of his heartwood. When Marie first observes him, he is “quiet and unobtrusive, as if waiting patiently till it should be his turn to be noticed” among the other presents (15). He is always “gentle” or “kind” (16, 61, 63, 74, 91). Because her dear Godfather Drosselmeier is also kind despite being ugly, Marie immediately recognizes Nutcracker’s noble, humble heart—and loves him for it (16).
Third, like Christ (Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19) and His Bride (Matthew 10:16-39; I Peter 4:12-19), Nutcracker and Marie make sacrifices because they love each other. Nutcracker risks his life twice to fight the Mouse-King and save Marie’s life. Marie sacrifices her Christmas gifts and her pleasant relations with her family when they refuse to believe her experiences.
Fourth, like Christ (Matthew 26:6-13; John 15:7-11; Ephesians 5:25-27; I Peter 3:4) and His Bride (Acts 2:47; Ephesians 1; Hebrews 8, 10; I Peter 1), Nutcracker and Marie value the virtue they see in one another. Nutcracker values Marie’s sacrifices for him, even though they are small and imperfect. He refuses to accept a jeweled sash from a doll because he treasures the humble ribbon Marie used to bind his wounds. He weeps for joy as he asks his sisters, “Can Princess Pirlipat…compare for a moment with Miss Stahlbaum here in beauty, in goodness, in virtues of every kind? My answer is, emphatically, ‘No’” (83-4). Marie delights in Nutcracker’s virtue from the moment she notices him, and she ultimately accepts his proposal of marriage because she knows he is fundamentally good (91).
Fifth, like Christ (Revelation 19:11) and His Bride (I Peter 1:3-9), Nutcracker and Marie remain “faithful and true”, so both are rewarded. They marry out of love proven through sacrifice, and they reign over a kingdom of peace and delight.
Modern readers may object to the story’s fantastic quirks and dated ethnic remarks. Many Christian readers may object to the story’s references to astrology and to a plot that involves family members laughing at injured children. Some Christian readers pursuing the story’s biblical parallels may object to Nutcracker’s need for Marie—without Marie, Nutcracker will be defeated. These objections do have substantial bases in the story, but when studying fiction’s biblical parallels, we are not looking for perfectly-pure stories or for perfect fictional demonstrations of biblical principles; fiction shows us only flickering glimpses of Christ, as Cardinal Newman wrote (Markos xv). We seek things that are “true…lovely…worthy of praise” wherever they are because they reflect our true, lovely, and praiseworthy Lord who calls us to “think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Although it is unlikely he meant to, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann wrote a story which reflects bright glimmers of the love of Christ and His Bride. Perhaps The Nutcracker is a Theodor, a “gift of God”, which, when read in light of Christ, might help each of us to become a better Amadeus, a “lover of God”—like Marie, ready to sacrifice all to follow Christ, the “Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11). May reading The Nutcracker and The Mouse King lead us to consider the ultimate noble Nutcracker—Christ, the King of Kings.