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Reviewing Adalbert Stifter's "Rock Crystal"

March 22nd, 2017 | 4 min read

By Charlie Clark

When I was 12 years old, I took a walk in the woods and I got lost. It wasn’t just me: it was the day after Thanksgiving and there were five of us. My cousin Daniel was the oldest, 13, but it was my parents’ farm, so my brother and I were supposed to know the lay of the land. And until we got lost, I would have said that we did. We were in the woods all the time, and the trails were mostly clear. But we got turned around, must have crossed a downed fence, and ended up wandering through unfamiliar places.

There are two main things I remember about this experience of lostness. First, we all kept moving—pushing tirelessly ahead. The weather was mild, so we were in no real danger (though we knew our parents probably weren’t happy with us). But even so, you might have thought we would stop to think—or at least to worry about being lost. But we didn’t and I think that has a lot to do with the second thing I remember, which is this overwhelming conviction that we would find our way. (We didn’t.) I kept expecting to find my bearings over the next hill where there would be a clearing or creek or path I recognized.

Reading Adalbert Stifter’s novella Rock Crystal, I made the pleasant discovery that there might be something universal in this experience. The central facet of Rock Crystal’s tiny, jewel-like plot follows two children lost in a snowstorm in an Alpine waste. (A perilous landscape of avalanching slopes, booming glaciers, and looming crevasses in marked contrast to my Indian summer stroll through Tennessee woodland.) As Conrad and Sanna trudge onward, convinced that at any moment they will catch a glimpse of their valley and “run down the mountain,” they are turned back again and again onto the endless plains and peaks of ice. The tension builds, and if you’re like me, you might even feel the first flutterings of panic.

But in the end, it will turn out alright for Conrad and Sanna. (It did for me too. We followed the sound of a chainsaw and hitched a ride back to the highway, riding on the bed of a truck stacked with logs.) The lost will be found, “all manner of thing shall be well.” The deep black and danger of the night will be matched only by the brightness of the morning. Because this is a Christian story, richly inflected with gospel hope. In fact, it’s a Christmas story.

When Stifter sets out to introduce the reader to his setting, he doesn’t start with the towering, icy peak or the bewildering forest or the village in the valley. He starts with the church calendar: “One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields… Christmas, birthday of our savior.” Prior to their being bound together by place, which residents of remote Alpine valleys undoubtedly are, Stifter’s characters are bound together by time, by the cyclical motion from season to season.

But this is no mere secular motion from thaw to planting to harvest to frost. This is time known and experienced sacramentally. As they are bound together by their shared sense of time, they are really bound together by narrative. Each new season is a repetition—by the whole people—of some part of the Christian story, which thus becomes a kind of frame tale, and all the events of village life become stories-within-a-story.

Of course, having sketched this liturgical setting, Stifter does turn to the relevant history and geography that lead to Conrad and Sanna being stranded on the mountain. Though their father is a native, their mother comes from a neighboring valley, which in the closeness of their community might as well be a foreign country. Though friendly enough, the village remains uncertain how to embrace her (”there was always something, reserve or a sort of shy respect”) or her half-foreign children. The children’s habit of making frequent journeys to their grandmother’s house in the other valley means they are “hardly Gschaid children, but belonged half to Millsdorf.”

Ultimately, the drama of the children’s misadventure on the ice will be a catalyst for resolving this deeper conflict. Having visited their grandmother on Christmas Eve and become lost in the snowstorm on their return, the children imagine their village going about its customary rites: the midnight mass of Holy Night, receiving gifts “the Blessed Christ-child has brought,” the teeming candles on hearthside tree. In fact, search parties from both villages, their parents’ and their grandparents’, have spread out looking for them, disrupting their celebrations and putting their own lives at risk. Almost despairing, not knowing that the children have been sustained through the night by a bottle of their grandmother’s coffee extract, they find them at last on Christmas morning.

In the words of Stifter, “Only from that day on were the children really felt to belong to the village, and not to be outsiders. Thenceforth they were regarded as natives whom the people had brought back to themselves from the mountain.” The community that has been called together through shared time and place is perfected in acting out the story in which it has its being. Only by issuing in mission is its liturgical formation complete. (Today’s seekers after the reenchanted life of a Christian village would do well to remember that.)

In his introduction, W.H. Auden describes Stifter as lover of “tradition, order, childhood, and the limpid serenity of the classical style.” Even in so short a book, his prose traverses several tones, ranging from travel guide to fairy tale, but ascends and descends fluidly and graciously. The translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore is natural and a pleasure to read aloud. Today’s readers can look to Rock Crystal as a model of successful Christian fiction. Though the enchanted past it describes may be a foreign country, we feel that its time could also be our own, united as we are by the story of the church of all times and places.

Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark is the executive director of the Eleazar Wheelock Society.