Goethe’s ellusive Fairy Tale

Goethe’s “Märchen,” known in English as “The Green Serpent and the Fair Lily” or as simply “Fairy Tale” is really a quite extraordinary work. It so brilliantly achieves it’s purpose that it is often published out of context. But removing the context often leaves people baffled, confused and unsure of what to make of this rich but mysterious tale. Placing it in a collection of short stories or anthology of fairy tales further hides its motivation and serves to make it even more confusing. Placing it back into it’s context provides readers with a better understanding of its motivation and provides a better basis for making confident interpretation.

It was originally published in 1794-5 in Friedrich Schiller’s journal Die Hören as part of a cycle of stories called Conversations with German Refugees. Schiller and Goethe were wrestling with the horrific results of the French Revolution. The journal Die Hören in general, and Goethe’s Conversations with German Refugees in particular, were attempts to provide a way out of the cycle of violence and toward a society of enlightened self-rule.

How is a cycle of short tales supposed advance such far reaching goals? Schiller, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man outlines the project. In summary: The goal of the enlightenment was to transform the state ruled by force to the state ruled by reason. However, as demonstrated by the French Revolution, people are not born knowing how to behave in a free society. Therefore there is a need for education to help men learn how to govern themselves. Schiller points out two drives or compulsions that complicate this—that of feelings (Sinnestrieb) and that of principles (Formtrieb). Feelings without principles leads to savagery. Principles without feelings leads to barbarism. There was plenty of both in the French Revolution. To resolve this we need to build a bridge between the two. For Schiller the way to do this is through yet another drive, Spieltrieb. This is a desire to play, experiment, recombine and create. Through creating art (and for Schiller watching a play or reading a poem is also a creative act) we arrive at a more relaxed and open mental state. If a work of art pushes us to a particular course of action (think propaganda) it is bad art. Art needs to create for us a morally valuable neutral ground which opens us up to new ideas and possibilities and frees us from intolerance and rigid preconceptions.

Die Hören was be the journal where Schiller, Goethe and other creative writers and thinkers would attempt, through art, to educate the German speaking population on how to build and live within a free society. The first creative work to be printed in Die Hören was Goethe’s cycle of stories Conversations with German Refugees.

The story cycle begins “in those unhappy days that brought such misfortune to Germany, to Europe, indeed to the whole world, when the Frankish army burst into our land through a breach in our defenses, a noble family abandoned their property in the region and fled across the Rhine in order to escape the afflictions threatening everyone of any distinction.” As winter passed, the Germans advance, Frankfurt is liberated and Mainz is besieged. It is the spring of 1793. Our group of refugees are gathered on one of their provincial properties on the East bank of the Rhine within earshot of the siege guns at Mainz across the river.

It is a diverse group, young and old, representing a variety of opinions and social classes. To pass the time they talk about politics and the events going on around them. As one might expect their beliefs and feelings conflict. They get into an arguments and there is discord. To prevent further conflict they create some rules to keep the conversation more civil and less antagonistic. They agree to tell stories.

The first attempts are simple and help to pass the time. They are morally uplifting, but their strict didactic approach leaves little to the imagination and are uninspiring and of limited interest. As they continue and the stories get better until, in the end, we get the “fairy tale that will remind you of nothing and of everything.”

It appears to be an allegory. There are many themes in the fairy tale that parallel events in the frame narrative. One example is the river that needs to be crossed and/or bridged. We have seen it in Goethe’s frame story where the refugees cross the Rhine river fleeing from France whose fleur-de-lys (“flower of lily“) is suggestive of the tale’s character Lily. But we have also seen this in Schiller’s essay which attempt to bridge feelings (again, perhaps suggestive of the character Lily) and principles (possibly suggestive of the Giant). Everything in this tale is specific enough to suggest interpretations but open enough to have multiple meanings.

At the end of the Fairy Tale it is the ability of everyone to appreciate and cooperate with others that allows them to combine together and accomplish more than any could do individually. In fact most characters operating in their own personal interest create discord, disfiguration (the old woman’s withered hand) or death (of the dog, the bird, and the prince).

The story generally suggests to us the value of cooperation and compromise but leaves itself open to diverse interpretation. In fact there have been a great number of very different interpretations: moral, political, economic, freemason, alchemical, etc. This is what makes the Fairy Tale so fascinating—and more importantly, provides a model for successful non-authoritarian communication.

The story has no single meaning. It is conducive to a great multiplicity of meanings and variety of interpretations. If the goal is to teach people how to be free, you cannot tell them what to think. You cannot tell people how things must be done, as in the earlier didactic tales in the frame story. You need to leave room for individual interpretation & creativity.

Goethe shows us the way to living and getting along in a free society, but leaves room for individuals to work out many of those details for themselves, indeed requires them to do the work necessary to be free—to define their world through creative acts of reflection and communication.

This is very similar to what you see described in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One of the advantages of the American system is that policy and legislation are set at the national level but the specifics and details of interpretation, implementation and enforcement are left to state and local governments. This kind of democracy is more participatory—more people are making a contribution at all levels. It is also more flexible. Local people and communities are more involved and have a say in governance and the policy is better adapted to local mores and conditions.

I think Goethe has accomplished his purpose admirably with this tale. It is evocative, open-ended and calls out for imagination in reading and interpreting it. So much so that it has had a life of its own outside of Conversations with German Refugees. It often ends up in collections and anthologies without reference to the original frame tale. This works great as a vehicle for creative reading and interpretation but I think it is also important to see and understand it within the context of the original frame story. It is only in that context where you can fully understand what Goethe was trying to do and why the act of creative reading and interpretation is so important. Perhaps we would have a more productive democracy if our politicians, media and every citizen understood and practiced it as a model for more sympathetic, cooperative and flexible democratic communications.

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~ by severalfourmany on December 1, 2012.

4 Responses to “Goethe’s ellusive Fairy Tale”

  1. Thanks for your explication of this interpretation-resistant story. I have not read it in the context of “conversations” but obviously should.

    I was baffled when I first read it, but moving onward in German literature I began to see traces of it all over the place. E. T. A. Hoffmann was clearly liberated by Goethe’s example.

    Anyway – nice to make your acquaintance. I have been rummaging through your blog – love the Liszt piece!

  2. Thanks! I’ve been enjoying your blog for some time. It would be interesting to revisit Hoffmann, as you suggested, with Goethe’s program in mind.

  3. […] Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis, Bhagavad-Gita section of The Mahabharata, the Fairy Tale in Goethe’s Conversations with German Refugees have all been interpreted in many different ways over the years. Hamlet, Faust, Paradise Lost, Pride […]

  4. […]  This post from a year ago places it in context and provides some direction for reading and interpreting this enigmatic work. […]

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