Like many of the classic children’s books being reissued by New York Review Books, Krabat & the Sorcerer’s Mill by Otfried Preussler has the potential to appeal to readers of various ages: nostalgia-seekers who enjoyed Anthea Bell’s excellent translation when it was first published in the 1970s, and young aficionados of fantasy fiction who’ll be happy to discover, in teenage hero Krabat, a worthy progenitor to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. The Czechoslovakia-born Preussler, who died last year in Prien, Bavaria at age eighty-nine, was one of Germany’s most popular and beloved children’s writers. Drafted into the German Army in his late teens, during WWII he spent five years as a POW in the Soviet Tatar Republic. After the war he became a schoolteacher, a profession he remained in for many years despite his success as an author: his 1956 debut, The Little Water Sprite, sold 7.5 million copies worldwide. His stories, which have been translated into fifty-five languages, conjure magical worlds populated by supernatural beings; his life’s mission, he once avowed, was to provide “food for fantasy.” For Krabat, he drew on the folk tales he loved as a child, basing the book on a Wendish legend. But it is Preussler’s own storytelling mastery and gift for atmosphere that render this Bildungsroman-meets-Gothic horror both timeless and splendidly, creepily original.
Krabat, a fourteen-year-old beggar living in early 1700s Saxony, has a series of dreams in which a disembodied voice summons him to an unfamiliar mill in a nearby village. Unable to ignore the command and the accompanying chorus of talking ravens, who insist that he must obey, Krabat leaves his friends and eventually finds the mill, “a hunched shape in the snow, dark and menacing, like some vicious, powerful animal lying in wait for its prey.” Inside, he is invited by “the Master,” a burly one-eyed man in dark clothes, to become an apprentice in grinding grain and “the rest”—whatever that may be. Krabat, no longer fully in possession of his own will and hazy on what, exactly, is happening, consents. Immediately, the “floor quivered, the walls began to tremble, the beams and doorposts shook.” Terrified, he tries to run, but the Master blocks his way.
And so Krabat is forced to join a brotherhood of eleven other young men whose physical toil would be backbreaking if it weren’t for the special deal apparently struck: a pentagram drawn on their foreheads, symbolizing their slavery to the Master, casts an enchantment that makes work easy and muscles indefatigable between the hours of dawn and dusk. On Friday evenings, the millers assemble to hear their Master read from the Book of Necromancy. They’re taught spells, charms, invisibility, and transfiguration; as a ritual, they all turn themselves into ravens, and occasionally trick livestock buyers at the market by becoming oxen or horses, only to fly away as birds after an expensive purchase. Krabat soon realizes that, in essence, he’s learning how to achieve power over other men—and that, he thinks, is “a fine thing to aim for.”
Or is it? As Krabat matures—which at the sorcerer’s mill happens at triple the usual speed, with three years somehow passing in one—he begins, with slowly dawning horror, to understand the vile system that operates under the Master’s tutelage. Leaving the brotherhood is said to be out of the question, and indeed, courageous escapes attempted by Krabat’s compatriots end in disaster. Worse, each New Year’s Eve one man must die and be replaced by a new, innocent, apprentice, in accordance with the dictates of a monthly visitor with a red feather in his hat known only as the Goodman—Lucifer himself, perhaps? Even the Master is afraid of this shadowy figure, who on each night of the new moon delivers sacks of mysterious, perhaps bodily, substances to be ground in the Dead Stones, a set of millstones reserved for this sole purpose.
Strangely, though work is relentless, the daily grinding of grain doesn’t seem to constitute an actual commercial enterprise. Rather, it is a means of subjugating the millers to the Master’s sovereignty, as well as, presumably, a front for the obscurely grim monthly services carried out for the Goodman. When Krabat wonders why they work at all when they have magic at their disposal, his kindly mentor, Tonda, says “But think how quickly you’d be bored with a life like that! We can’t do without work in the long run, not without going to the dogs.” Tonda’s words reveal the stark effects of institutionalization—he is no longer willing or able to question his outwardly imposed routines—while also pointing to the story’s central message: actual work is preferable in every way to the trap of a Faustian pact.
As in any barbaric regime—prisons, boarding schools, gulags, and, indeed, POW camps—at the Black School, as it is officially known, fellowship and loyalty are vital to survival, and Preussler depicts with great authenticity and sensitivity the familial bonds that Krabat forms. Still, the rebellions devised by him and his friends, and their conspiracies to use magic against the Master, only backfire: since he is capable of turning himself into any and many forms, evading his surveillance is almost impossible—Krabat is often chilled by seeing a one-eyed bird, horse, or woman tracking his movements. Meanwhile, he is identified by the Master as his most talented protégé, and thus his biggest threat and possible successor. By the time that Krabat, alone, is awarded special privileges such as Sundays off from work, he is wise enough to see that a perennial human dilemma looms: will he be seduced by the heady trappings of power and influence, or seek out a morally palatable alternative, even if that entails the mortal danger of trying to elude the Master’s domination—and, then, a humdrum magic-free existence?
That Krabat chooses the latter path isn’t entirely due to his virtuous nature: he has fallen in love with a local girl, whom he’s barely spoken to in person but, thanks to his superior talent for magic, can communicate with telepathically. Unless the young wizard overthrows the Master’s supremacy, the object of his affections might suffer the fate of Tonda’s girlfriend, who was tormented in her dreams “until she drowned herself in despair.” The denouement of Preussler’s genuinely suspenseful plot pits Krabat and his love against the Master in a contest of the latter’s devising and with the highest possible stakes: beating the Master means escape, plus the rest of the brotherhood’s liberation from their helpless pact with darkness. But if the young lovers lose, they die and the Master’s reign continues. The real competition, of course, is between black magic and “the kind that springs from the depths of the heart, from caring for someone and loving him.” And, as in the best children’s allegories, the ultimate triumph of good over evil feels equally inevitable and rewardingly, climactically hard-won.
Without resorting to black-and-white moralizing—even the Master, it seems, is warped by his assigned role in a murky and coercive Realpolitik—Pruessler spins a hypnotic tale that operates on two levels: as an entertaining take on the ever-appealing trope of a magical secret society, and as a nuanced commentary on our capacity to submit to, and resist, corruption. In the current arguments surrounding the merits of children’s and young adult fiction, the eerie and sophisticated Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill could well stand as Exhibit A.