Goethe: “Das Märchen” 2/2
Excerpt, “Hours with German Classics” by Frederic Henry Hedge. 1886.
The Man with the lamp returns to his cottage, where the Old Woman — his wife — greets him with loud lamentations. “Scarcely were you gone,” she whimpers, “when two impetuous travelers called; they were dressed in flames, and seemed quite respectable. One might have taken them for Will-o’-wisps. But they soon began to flatter me, and made impertinent advances.”
“Pooh! they were only chaffing you. Considering your age, my dear, they could not have meant anything serious.” “My age, indeed! always my age! How old am I, then? But I know one thing. Just look at these walls! See the bare stones! They have licked off all the gold; and when they had done it, they dropped gold pieces about. Our dear pug swallowed some of them; and see there! the poor creature lies dead.”
The Old Woman represents the Church — the accepted traditional religion. There is a beautiful fitness in this symbolism. Science and religion, knowledge and faith, are mutually complemental in human life. The little pug may mean some pet dogma of the Church; Baumgart suggests belief in the supernatural, to which modern enlightenment (the gold of the Will-o’-wisps) proves fatal. The little pug dies; but a doctrine which perishes, which becomes obsolete as popular belief, may become historically precious as myth. This is what is meant when it is said, farther on, that the Old Man with his lamp changes the pug to an onyx.
Moreover, when each myth is embraced by poetry, it acquires a new, transfigured, immortal life. Thus the gods of Greece still live, and live forever, in Homer’s song. In this sense, with this aim, the Man with the lamp sends the onyx pug to the Fair Lily, whose touch causes dead things to live.
The Old Woman had incautiously promised the Will-o’-wisps (in order, we may suppose, to get rid of them) to pay their debt to the River, of three cabbages, three artichokes, and three onions. But why did they visit her cottage at all; and why so intent on the obsolete gold on the walls? The answer is, modern culture knows full well that the Church is the depository of many precious truths which, though no longer current in the form in which they were once clothed, approve and justify themselves when restarted and given to the world in a new form.
So they — the New Lights — say in effect to the Church, “Old Lady, you are somewhat out of date; if you mean to keep your place and vindicate your right to be, you must throw yourself into the life of the time; you must contribute something useful to forward that life. It is through you that the new philosophy must discharge its debt to the River” (that is, to the life of the time).
The Man with the lamp approves and seconds the commission entrusted to his wife by the Will-o’-wisps, and at dawn of day loads her with the cabbages, the artichokes, and the onions destined for the River, to which he adds the onyx as a present to the Fair Lily. The first part of her mission is a failure. On her way to the ferry she encounters the Shadow of the blundering Giant stretching across the plain. The Shadow unceremoniously puts its black fingers into her basket, takes out three vegetables – one of each kind – and thrusts them into the mouth of the Giant, who greedily devours them. (Some freak of popular ignorance intercepts and impairs the practical benefit which the new culture, through the Church, had hoped to confer on the age.)
The Ferryman refuses to accept the imperfect offering as full satisfaction of the Will-o’-wisps’ debt, and only consents at last to receive it provisionally, if the Old Woman will swear to make the number good within twenty-four hours. She is required to dip her hand in the stream and take the oath. She dips and swears. But when she withdraws her hand, behold! It has turned black; and, what is worse, has grown smaller, and seems likely to disappear altogether. (The apparent dignity of the Church is impaired by contact with vulgar life.)
“Oh, woe!” she cries. “My beautiful hand, which I have taken so much pains with and have always kept so nice! What will become of me?” The Ferryman tries to comfort her with the assurance that although the hand might become invisible, she would be able to use it all the same. “But,” says she, “I would rather not be able to use it than not have it seen.” (Here is a stroke of satire on the part of the poet, implying that the Church cares more for the show of authority than for the substance.)
Sad and sullen the Old Woman takes up her basket and bends her steps toward the abode of the Fair Lily. On the way she overtakes a pilgrim more disconsolate than herself — a beautiful youth, with noble features, abundant brown locks, his breast covered with glittering mail, a purple cloak depending from his shoulders. His naked feet paced the hot sand; profound grief appeared to render him insensible to external impressions. The Old Woman endeavors to open a conversation with him, but receives no encouragement.
She desists with the apology, “You walk too slow for me, sir. I must hurry on, for I have to cross the River on the Green Serpent, that I may take this present from my husband to the Fair Lily.” “You are going to the Fair Lily?” he cried; “then our roads are the same. But what is this present you are bringing her?” She showed him the onyx pug. “Happy beast!” he exclaimed; “thou wilt be touched by her hands, thou wilt be made alive by her; whereas the living are forced to stand aloof from her lest they experience a mournful doom. Look at me,” he continued, “how sad my condition!”
This mail which I have worn with honor in war, this purple which I have sought to merit by wise conduct, are all that is left me by fate — the one a useless burden, the other an unmeaning decoration. Crown, sceptre, and sword are gone; I am in all other respects as naked and needy as any son of earth. So unblest is the influence of her beautiful blue eyes! they deprive all living beings of their strength, and those who are not killed by the touch of her hand find themselves turned into walking shadows.”
This is finely conceived. The Youth, the Prince who has lost sceptre and sword, represents the Genius of Germany, once so stalwart and capable in action, now (at the time of Goethe’s writing) enervated and become a melancholy dreamer from excessive devotion to the Lily, that is, excessive Idealism; whereby “Enterprises of great pith and moment … their currents turn awry. And lose the name of action.”
Such was Germany in those days. And even later, Freiligrath compared her to Hamlet, in whom “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
The travelers cross the bridge which the Serpent makes for them. The Serpent herself straightens out her bow and accompanies them. On the way, the Will-o’-wisps, invisible in broad day, are heard whispering a request to the Serpent that she would introduce them to the Lily in the evening, as soon as they should be any way presentable. The Lily receives her visitors graciously, but with an air of deep dejection. She imparts to the Old Woman her recent affliction. While her pet canary-bird was warbling its morning hymn, a hawk appeared in the air and threatened to pounce upon it.
The frightened creature sought refuge in its mistress’ bosom, and, like all living things, was killed by her touch. (The Hawk represents the newly awakened, impatient spirit of German Patriotism, which scared into silence the lighter lyrics of the time).
The Old Woman presents the onyx pug, and the Lily is delighted with the gift. Her touch gives it life. She plays with it, caresses it. The melancholy youth who stands by and looks on is maddened with jealousy at the sight. “Must a nasty little beast be so fondled, and receive her kiss on its black snout, while I, her adorer, am kept at a distance?” At last he can bear it no longer, and resolves to perish in her arms. He rushes towards her; she, knowing the consequence, instinctively puts out her arms to ward him off, and thereby hastens the catastrophe. The youth falls lifeless at her feet.
Her ends the second act. The Genius of Germany is apparently extinct. Can it be revived? The third and final act foreshows its revival — the political rehabilitation of Germany. I am compelled by want of space to omit, in what follows, many of the accessories — such as the female attendants of the Lily, the mirror, the last desperate freaks of the Giant, etc — and to keep myself to the main thread of the story.
The first object now, on the part of those interested, is to prevent corruption, which would make resuscitation impossible. So the Serpent forms with her body a cordon around the lifeless form of the Youth to protect it. “Who will fetch the Man with the lamp?” she cries, fearing every moment that the sun will set and dissolution penetrate the magic circle, causing the body of the Youth to fall in pieces. At length she espies the Hawk in the air, and hails the auspicious omen (Patriotism still lives.)
Shortly after, the Man with the lamp appears. “Whether I can help,” he says, “I know not.” The individual by himself cannot do much, but only he who at the proper moment combines with many. (All who have their country’s salvation at heart must joint their forces in time of need.)
Night comes on. The Old Man glances at the stars and says, “We are here at the propitious hour; let each do his duty and perform his part.” The Serpent then began to stir; she loosened her enfolding circle, and slid in large volumes toward the River. The Will -o’-wisps followed. The Old Man and his Wife seized the basket, lifted into it the body of the Youth, and laid the Canary-bird upon his breast. The basket rose of itself into the air, and hovered over the Old Woman’s head. She followed the Will-o’-wisps. The Fair Lily with the pug in her arms followed the Woman, and the Man with the lamp closed the procession.
The Serpent bridged the River for them, and then drew her circle again around the basket containing the body of the Youth. The Old Man stoops down to her and asks, “What are you going to do?” “Sacrifice myself,” she answers, “rather than be sacrificed.” The Man bids the Lily touch the Serpent with one hand and the body of the Youth comes alive again, but not to full consciousness. Then the Serpent bursts asunder. Her form breaks into thousands upon thousands of glittering jewels. These the Man with the lamp gathers up and casts into the stream, where they afterward form a solid and permanent bridge.
The Old Man now leads the party to the cave. They stand before the Temple barred with golden lock and bolt. The Will-o’-wisps at the bidding of the Old Man melt bolt and lock with their flames, and the company are in the presence of the Four Kings. “Whence come ye?” asks the Gold King. “From the world,” is the reply. “Whither go ye?” asked the Silver King. “Into the world.” “What would ye with us?” asked the Brazen King. “Accompany you,” said the Old Man. “Who will govern the world?” asked the Composite King. “He who stands on his feet,” is the answer. “That am I,” said the King. “We shall see,” said the Old Man, “for the time is come.”
Then the ground beneath them began to tremble; the Temple was in motion. For a few moments a fine shower seemed to drizzle from above. “We are now beneath the River,” said the Old Man. The Temple mounts upward. Suddenly a crash is heard; planks and beams come through the opening of the dome. It descends and covers the Old Man and the Youth. The women, who find themselves excluded, beat against the door of the Hut, which is locked. After a while the door and walls begin to ring with a metallic sound. The flame of the Old Man’s lamp has converted the wood into silver. The very form has changed; the Hut has become a smaller temple, or, if you will, a shrine, within the larger.
Observe the significance of this feature of “The Tale.” The Hut, as was said, represents the existing Government. New Germany is not to be the outcome of a violent revolution forcibly abolishing the old, but a natural growth receiving the old into itself, assimilating and embodying it in a new constitution.
When the Youth came forth from the transformed Hut, it was in company with a man clad in a white robe, bearing a silver oar in his hand. This was the old Ferryman, now to become a functionary in the new State.
As soon as the rising sun illumined the cupola of the Temple, the Old Man, standing between the Youth and the Maiden (the Lily), said with a loud voice, “There are three that reign on earth: Wisdom, Show, Force.” When the first was named, up rose the Gold King; with the second, the Silver. The Brazen King was rising slowly at the sound of the third, when the Composite King (the Holy Roman Empire) suddenly collapsed into a shapeless heap.
The Man with the lamp now led the still half-conscious Youth to the Brazen King, at whose feet lay a sword. The Youth girded himself with it. “The sword on the left,” said the mighty king, “the right hand free.” Then they went to the Silver King, who gave the Youth his sceptre, saying, “Feed the sheep.” They came to the Gold King, who, with a look that conveyed a maternal blessing, crowned the Youth’s head with a garland of oak leaves, and said, “Acknowledge the Highest.”
The Youth now awoke to full consciousness; his eyes shone with an unutterable spirit, and his first word was, “Lily!” He clasped the fair maiden, whose cheeks glowed with an inextinguishable red, and, turning to the Old Man, said, with a glance at the three sacred figures, “Glorious and safe is the kingdom of our fathers; but you forgot the fourth power, that which is earliest, most universal, and surest of all rules in the world: the power of Love.” “Love,” said the Old Man, smiling, “does not rule, but educates; and that is better.”
And so the Temple stands by the River. The Old Woman, having at the bidding of her husband bathed in the waves, comes forth rejuvenated and beautiful. The Old Man himself looks younger. Husband and wife (Science and Religion) renew their nuptial vows, and pledge their troth for indefinite time.
The prophecy is accomplished. What Genius predicted ninety years ago has become fact. The Temple stands by the River, the bridge is firm and wide. The Genius of Germany is no longer a sighing, sickly youth, pining after the unattainable, but, having married his ideal, is now embodied in the mighty Chancellor whose statecraft founded the new Empire, and whose word is a power among the nations.