Goethe: “Das Märchen” 1/2

Excerpt, “Hours with German Classics” by Frederic Henry Hedge. 1886.

weimar 1803-500


Das Märchen

In the summer of 1795, Goethe composed for Schiller’s new magazine, “Die Horen,” a prose poem known in German literature as Das Märchen … “The Tale” … as if it were the only one, or the one which more than another deserves that appellation.

It is not to be supposed that the author himself claimed this preeminence for his production. The definite article must be taken in connection with what precedes it in the “Unterhaltungen Deutscher Ausgewanderten;” it was that tale which the Abbe had promised for the evening’s entertainment of the company.

Goethe gave this essay to the public as a riddle which would probably be unintelligible at the time, but which might perhaps find an interpreter after many days, when the hints contained in it should be verified. Since the first appearance commentators have exercised their ingenuity upon it, perceiving it to be allegorical, but until recently without success. They made the mistake of looking too far and too deep for the interpretation. Carlyle, who in 1832 published a translation of it in “Fraser’s Magazine,” and who pronounces it “one of the notablest performances produced for the last thousand years,” says: “So much, however. I will stake my whole money capital and literary character upon, that here is a wonderful EMBLEM OF UNIVERSAL HISTORY set forth,” etc.

But Goethe was not the man to concern himself with such wide generalities. He preferred to deal with what is present and palpable, and the inferences to be deduced therefrom.

Dr. Hermann Baumgart in 1875, under the title “Goethe’s Märchen, ein politisch-nationales Glaubensbekenntiss des Dichter’s,” wrote a commentary on “The Tale,” which gives what is probably the true explanation. If it does not solve every difficulty, it solves more difficulties and throws more light on the poem than any previous interpretation had done. I follow his lead in the exposition which I now offer.

“The Tale” is a prophetic vision of the destinies of Germany – an allegorical foreshowing at the close of the eighteenth century of what Germany was yet to become, and has in great part already become. A position is predicted for her like that which she occupied from the time of Charles the Great to the time of Charles V — a period during which the Holy Roman Empire of Germany was the leading secular power in Western Europe.

That time had gone by. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, Germany had declined, and at the date of this writing (1795) had nearly reached her darkest day. Disintegrated, torn by conflicting interests, pecked by petty rival princes, despairing of her own future, it seemed impossible that she should ever again become a power among the nations.

Goethe felt this; he felt it as profoundly as any German of his day. He has been accused of want of patriotism, and incurred much censure for that alleged defect. He certainly did not manifest his patriotism by loud declamation. During the War of Liberation he made no sign. Under the reign of the Holy Alliance, he did not side with the hotheads — compeers of Sand — who placed themselves in open opposition to the Government. He could not echo their cry. They were revolutionists; he was an evolutionist. And they hated him, they maligned him, they invented all manner of scandal against him. They accused him of abusing the affections of women for literary purposes; they even affected to depreciate his genius.

Borne pronounced him a model of all that is bad. Menzel wrote: “Mark my words: in twenty, or at the longest thirty, years he will not have an admirer left; no one will read him.” There was nothing too bad to be said of Goethe; he was publicly held up for reprobation and scorn. It was as much as one’s reputation was worth to speak well of him.

Goethe, I say, was charged with want of patriotism. He was no screamer; but he felt profoundly his country’s woes, and he characteristically went into himself and studied the situation. The result was this wonderful composition: “Das Märchen.”

He perceived that Germany must die to be born again. She did die, and is born again. He had the sagacity to foresee the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire – an event which took place eleven years later, in 1806. The Empire is figured by the composite statue of the fourth King in the subterranean Temple, which crumbles to pieces when that Temple, representing Germany’s past, emerges and stands above ground by the River. The resurrection of the Temple and its stand by the River is the denouement of the Tale. And that signifies, allegorically, the rehabilitation of Germany.

The agents that are to bring about this consummation are the spread of liberal ideas, signified by the gold of the Will-o’-wisps; Literature, signified by the Serpent; Science, signified by the Old Man with the lamp; and the Church, or Religion, signified by his wife. The Genius of Germany is figured by the beautiful Youth, the disconsolate Prince, who dies of devotion to the Fair Lily. The Lily herself represents the Ideal.

Having premised thus much, I now proceed to unfold the Tale, with accompanying comments, omitting however some of the details, and presenting only the organic moments of the fable.


In the middle of a dark night (the dark period of German history), the ferryman asleep in his hut by the side of a swollen river is awakened by the cry of parties demanding to be ferried across the stream.

Here let us pause a moment. The Hut, according to Baumgart, is the provisional State (Nothstaat), – the government for the time being. The Ferryman then is the State functionary, who regulates and controls civil intercourse. The River represents that intercourse — the flow of current events — swollen by the French Revolution. Now, a river is separation and communication in one. The Rhine, which separates Germany from France, is also a medium of communication between the two.

What is it then that the River in the “Märchen” separates and mediates? This is a difficult question. No interpretation tallies exactly with all the particulars of the allegory. The most satisfactory is that of a separation and a means of communication between State and people; between official, established tradition and popular life.

To return to the story. The Ferryman, roused from his slumbers, opens the door of the hut, and sees two Will-o’-wisps, who are impatient to be put across. These are the bearers of the new ideas, which proved so stimulating to the German mind — giving rise to what is known in German literature as the Aufklärung (“enlightenment”). Why called Will-o’-wisps? They come from France, and the poet means by their flashes and vivacity, as contrasted with German gravity, to indicate their French origin. They cause the Ferryman much trouble by their activity.

They shake gold into his boat (that is, talk philosophy, — the philosophy of the French Encyclopedia); he fears that some of it might fall into the stream, and then there would be mischief, — the stream would rise in terrible waves and engulf him. (The new ideas were very radical; and if allowed to circulate freely in social converse might cause a revolution). He bids them take back their gold. “We cannot take back what we have once given forth.” (The word once spoken cannot be unspoken.)

When they reach the opposite shore the Ferryman demands his fare. They reply, that he who will not take gold for pay must go unpaid. He demands fruits of the earth (that is, practical service), which they despise. They attempt to depart, but find it impossible to move. (Philosophy without practical ability can make no headway in real life.) He finally releases them on their promise to bring to the River three cabbages, three artichokes and three onions.

I am not aware that there is any particular significance in the several kinds of vegetables here specified. The general meaning is, that whoever would work effectually in his time must satisfy the necessities of the time — must pay his toll to the State with contributions of practical utility.

The Ferryman then rows down the stream, gathers up the gold that has fallen into the boat, goes ashore and buries it in an out-of-the-way place in the cleft of a rock, then rows back in his hut. Now, in the rock-cleft, into which the gold had been cast, dwelt the Green Serpent. The Serpent is supposed to represent German Literature, which until then had kept itself aloof from the world had wandered as it were in a wilderness; but the time was now come when it was to receive new light and be quickened with new impulse. She hears the chink of the falling gold-pieces, darts upon them, and eagerly devours them.

They melt in her interior, and she becomes self-luminous — a thing that she had always been hoping for, but had never until then attained. Proud of her new lustre, she sallies forth to discover if possible whence the gold which came to her had been derived. She encounters the Will-o’-wisps, and claims relationship with them.

“Well, yes,” they allow, “you are a kind of cousin; but you are in the horizontal line — we are vertical. See here.” They shoot up to their utmost height. “Pardon us, good lady, but what other family can boast of anything like that? No Will-o’-Wisp ever sits or lies down.”

The Serpent is somewhat abashed by the comparison. She knows very well that although when at rest she can lift her head pretty high, she must bend to earth again to make any progress. She inquires if they can tell her where the gold came from which dropped in the cave where she resides. They are amused at the question and immediately shake from themselves a shower of old pieces, which she greedily devours. “Much good may it do you, madam.”

In return for this service they desire to be shown the way to the abode of the Fair Lily, to whom they would pay their respect. (The Fair Lily represents Ideal Beauty.) The Serpent is sorry to inform them that the Lily dwells on the other side of the river.

“On the other side!” they exclaim, “and we let ourselves be ferried across to this side last night in the storm! But perhaps the Ferryman may be still within call, and be willing to take us back.” “No,” she says; “he can bring passengers from the other side to this, but is not permitted to take any one back.”

The interpretation here is doubtful. It may mean that while a jealous Government is willing to assist in the deportation of questionable characters, it will have nothing to do with them on its own ground.

But besides the government ferry, there are other means of getting across. The Serpent herself, by making a bridge of her body, can take them across at high noon. (Literature, in its supreme achievements, — its meridian power — becomes a vehicle of ideas which defies political embargo.)

But Will-o’-wisps do not travel at noonday. Another passage is possible at morning and evening twilight, by means of the shadow of the great Giant. The Giant’s body is powerless, but its shadow is mighty, and when the sun is low stretches across the River.

Here all commentators seem to agree in one interpretation. Says Carlyle, “Can any mortal head, not a wigblock, doubt that the Giant of this poem is Superstition/” This is loosely expressed. Unquestionably superstition, in the way of fable or foreboding, stretches far into the unknown. But it is a shadow, according to “The Tale,” which possesses this power. Now, to make a show two things are needed: Light, and a body which intercepts the light. The body in this case is popular ignorance; that is the real Giant. Superstition is that Giant’s shadow – strongest and longest, of course, when the sun is low.

Thus instructed, the Will-o’-wisps take their leave, and the Serpent returns to her cave.

Now follows the scene in the subterranean Temple, the Temple of the Four Kings, by which we are to understand historic Germany — the Germany of old time. The Serpent has discovered this Temple, and having become luminous is able to see what it contains. There are the statues of the four kings. The first king, who wears a plain mantle and no ornament but a garland of oak leaves, represents the rule of Wisdom and acknowledged worth.

The second, who sits, and is highly decorated — robe, crown, sceptre, adorned with precious stones — represents the rule of Appearance (Schein) — majesty supported by prestige and tradition. The third, also sitting, represents Government by Force. The fourth, the composite figure in a standing posture, represents the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. The Serpent has been discoursing with the Gold King, when the wall opens, and enters an old man of middle stature, in peasant’s dress, carrying a lamp, with a still flame pleasing to look upon, which illumines the whole Temple without casting any shadow.

This lamp possesses a strange property of changing stone, wood into silver, dead animals into precious stone, and annihilating metals. But to exercise this power it must shine alone; if another light appears beside it, it only diffuses a clear radiance, by which all living things are refreshed.

The bearer of this lamp is supposed, by Baumgart, to represent Science (Wissenschaft); but is seems to me that his function includes practical wisdom as well. What it signified by the marvelous properties of the lamp must be left to each reader to conjecture.

“Why do you come?” asks the Gold King of the Man with the lamp, “seeing we already have light?”

“You know that I cannot enlighten what is wholly dark,” is the reply. (Wisdom does not concern itself with what is unsearchable — with matters transcending human ken.)

“Will my kingdom end?” asks the Silver King.

“Late or never.”

The Brown King asks, “When shall I arise?”

The answer is, “Soon.”

“With whom shall I combine?”

“With your elder brothers.”

“What will the youngest do?” inquired the King.

“He will sit down,” replied the Man with the lamp.

“I am not tired,” growled the fourth king. (The Empire, even at that date, was still tenacious of its sway.)

Again, the Gold King asks of the Man with the lamp, “How many secrets knowest thou?”

“Three,” replied the Man.

“Which is the most important?” asks the Silver King.

“The open secret,” the Man replies.

It sometimes happens that a truth or conviction is, as we say, “in the air,” before the word which formulates it has been spoken; it is an open secret. Thus, in the closing months of 1860, “Seccession” was in the air; it was our open secret. (An American remembrance from Harvard Professor F.H. Hedge.)

“Wilt that open it to us also?” asks the Brazen King.

“When I know the fourth,” replied the Man.

“I know the fourth,” said the Serpent, and whispered something in the ear of the Man with the lamp.

He cried with a loud voice, “The time is at hand!” The Temple resounded, the statues rang with the cry; and immediately the Man with the lamp vanished to the west, the Serpent to the east.

Here ends the first act of this prophetic drama.

To be continued …

goethe's garden2