Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter
Imagine a landscape painting, an old master: a monolithic, alpine expanse, crystalline with ice and snowfall, trees weighty under wintry heft. On the horizon, the glow of a distant village. The hint of a pathway weaves through the mountaintop, suggesting a journey well-travelled but snowed-in, impossible, at this time, to traverse. At the top of the vista, two figures sit, cold and alone. They’re children. It’s Christmas Eve and they’re lost but not afraid, under an expanse of familiar stars.
This is Adalbert Stifter’s 1845 novella Rock Crystal, a spiritually symbolic work of pristine artistry. It is rare to read something so pure and unadulterated: it is a text that feels shaped with miniscule brushstrokes, one of singular purpose and effect. Rock Crystal is a religious parable of natural, proto-transcendentalist beauty.
Conrad and Sanna, two local children, are to visit their Grandmother in the next town over on Christmas Eve. Their family was unusual in that they were spread between two villages, in an expansion that many of the other townspeople were too proud and rooted to do themselves: “So it came about that the two children went over the col oftener than any of the other villagers and in this way, like their mother who had always been treated as a stranger in Gschaid, the children became strangers too; and were hardly Gschaid children, but belonged half to Millsdorf.” Conrad and Sanna were old enough enough to travel alone, but their mother insisted that they come back before nightfall, especially with signs of inclement weather approaching. As expected, Conrad and Sanna get lost on the return trip and, without people around, find themselves intimately connected with the nature around them.
This is a short text, yet Stifter is indulgent with his 75 pages. Before the children are even introduced, Stifter spends a third of his novella setting his scene, detailing both Gschaid and Millsdorf in painstaking, painterly detail. This is a slow preamble to what becomes a quickly-paced tale, and although dry at first it is purposefully executed. Conrad and Sanna learn something in their journey that it seems many of the townspeople had already forgotten:
“When they sit together in the common room at the inn, they are always talking about their feats and strange adventures…. The mountain also sends down from its snowy flanks streams that feed a lake in the forest, from which a brook emerges and flows merrily through the valley, driving the saw-mill, the grist-mill, and small machinery of various kinds, providing cleanliness for the village and watering for the cattle.”
Nature brings life to the village, which runs on its crystal-clear water. But, “as time and again they offer strangers this unrivalled, much extolled water, they never stop to think how useful it is, accepting it simply as something that has always been there.”
While stranded in a cavern, the children lose sight of the childish delights of Christmas Eve, but learn something far more resounding about God and faith. “Nature was to be explained in some other way,” Stifter writes. It wasn’t just living, it was life itself. “In the vast stillness which prevailed, a stillness in which not a snow-crystal seemed to stir, three times they heard the roar of the ice. What appears the most inert and is yet the most active and living of things, the glacier, had made the sounds.”
Conrad and Sanna, unwittingly enlightened, await their rescue. Although far from the village churches, they sense God’s presence. The glaciers around them imperceptibly melt, and flow, downstream, their life-giving water.