A glimpse at Goethe's life up until the moment he wrote his fairy tale.
by Tom Raines
“The Goethe fairy tale is a marvellous work, one must live it, not merely read it.”
A true fairy story is a work of art. At Michaelmas, in 1795, there appeared in the German magazine Die Horen (The Hours) a series of stories of which the concluding one was a Fairy Tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. This tale tells of magical transformation, yet one which, when the time is ripe, can be experienced by every human being. The author of these stories was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the creation of this Fairy Tale was to have far reaching consequences. Who was this Man and what was the significance of his Fairy Tale?
This introduction to the Fairy Tale and its creator, brief though it is – for one could surely write a whole book and still leave much unsaid – offers the reader a broad sketch of Goethe’s life as it unfolded up until the moment he committed his tale to the written word. This gives us some ground upon which to stand as we look together at how the Fairy Tale came to be created, following a little of its destiny in the world and seeking what might be its relevance for us in our time.
Goethe entered the world on August 28th, 1749 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He was destined to become a giant in the cultural life of Europe, producing a truly astounding body of work during the course of his 82 years of life on earth. Goethe’s contribution to world literature is universally acknowledged, the breadth and depth of which in its wisdom has often been termed ‘Olympian’.
His creative work and interests encompassed many areas and disciplines, including those of critic, journalist, painter, theatre manager, educationalist and natural philosopher. He produced prose and poetry across a variety of themes, displaying a command of many styles, whilst never losing the power to produce magical, short lyrics wherein he made the manifold mystery of human existence transparent. His creative faculties remained remarkably intact to the end of his life, epitomised by his masterpiece, Faust, that he worked on and developed for 60 years, completing it just before his death on 23rd March, 1832.
Goethe was also a natural scientist and his writings in this field alone produced some 14 volumes. He recognised that in observing natural processes, like a growing plant, a large part of the process of such a living organism’s ‘coming into being’ is invisible to our normal senses. A contemporary of Goethe’s, born some six years before him, was the philosopher Kant, whose ideas still stand behind much of our modern thinking. It was Kant who stated that the type of intelligence necessary to know these hidden processes in organic nature would be an intuitive intellect – intellectus archetypus – that, Kant asserted, was beyond the capacity of humankind. Nature, when revealed, manifests both the truth of scientific knowledge and the beauty of the creative act. But these were separate for Kant: Science was separated from Art. Goethe, however, brought art into his approach to science and made of them a unity. He did an enormous research work on how to observe Nature and in so doing brought a new approach to natural science. He was both a student and a ‘revealer’ in artistic form, of the secrets of inner human nature and the outer manifestations of ‘Mother’ nature. His own experiences showed him that through a willingness to observe with the senses, free of any preconceptions, deepening this process to the point of becoming aware of one’s inner responses, then one could come to an intuitive knowing of Nature’s hidden processes. He held the conviction that both art and science led to, and sprang from, the ‘primal source of all being’ out of which came the whole of creation. His Fairy Tale belongs to this source.
Born into a middle class family of cultured parents, Goethe received a wide and rich education. His father was a retired lawyer from the North of Germany. His mother, the daughter of a Mayor of Frankfurt, was able, in time, to open up many connections for her son with the dignitaries of that city. At the age of 17, Goethe would have preferred to have read classics at the then newly founded University of Göttingen where the influence of English prevailed, but instead, he followed in his father’s footsteps for a moment by going to study law at the University of Leipzig.
A few years later, in July 1768, he awoke one night in a desperate state; his lungs were haemorrhaging. He suffered an enormous loss of blood and nearly died. A long period of recuperation followed and for the next two years he was cared for at his Frankfurt home by Susanna Katarina von Klettenberg, a friend and distant relative of his mother.
Susanna von Klettenberg was a mystic with deep spiritual perception and was a member of the Herrenhuter, the Moravian Church. This was a religious movement having its roots in the 15th Century Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren or Brothers) Hussite movement of Bohemia and Moravia. This woman had realised that this near death experience was a turning point in the young Goethe’s life. As well as caring for his physical needs, she guided him into an awareness of spiritual realms of which he had been previously unaware. She brought him into contact with many written works on mystical subjects, especially books on alchemy by such men as Paracelsus, Basilius Valentinus and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont. She had a friend, also a member of the Herrunhuter, a physician and alchemist called Dr. Johann Freidrich Metz, under whose care and unique medicinal remedies Goethe slowly recovered. The deeper background of alchemy is connected to the Rosicrucians, those people who serve the aims of the individuality known as Christian Rosenkreutz, who seeks to further the work of The Christ by transforming and spiritualising the Human Soul and the Earth. Through his life-threatening illness, Goethe was brought into connection with the knowledge of the Rosicrucians and out of this influence and inspiration he was eventually to create his Fairy Tale.
Following his recuperation, Goethe transferred his studies to the University of Strasbourg where he developed a deep interest in natural science, history and folklore. He was now very active with his poetry and from this period came some of his finest lyric poems. Susanna von Klettenberg died in 1774 and Goethe was to later write a moving tribute to her Bekenntnisse einer schonen Seele (The Confessions of a Beautiful Soul) that he included in his novel Wilhelm Meister. That same year, Goethe had a meeting in Frankfurt with Karl August, Duke of Sachse-Weimar, a man who was to play a great role in his life. Eight years younger than Goethe, Karl August invited him to come to the city of Weimar and act as his personal advisor and counsellor. Initially Goethe agreed to come for only a few months, but this was to become his home for the rest of his life. Here Goethe took up ever-increasing responsibilities on behalf of the Duke and the affairs of State. This often involved extensive correspondence, interviews, conferences, travel and social obligations. One of the duties he was called upon to perform was that of inspector of mines and this took him to Illmenau, a few miles away from Weimar. Here, he became deeply interested in geology and mining principles. Through this work, coupled with the fact that Goethe’s official residence was a Gartenhaus (Garden House) in a park on the edge of Weimar, we can perhaps see how this man’s lively interest would be stimulated by the abundant plant and mineral forms with which he was coming more and more into contact. This interest would have been further supported by the proximity of the Thuringian forests and the herbalists he would often meet in the woodland countryside. Yet, all these duties were placing an increasing burden on Goethe, leaving less and less time for his own creative work, for he was now also director of the Weimar Theatre and was expected to write new plays as well as supervise stage productions. Finally, desperate for a release, he slipped quietly away for an extended visit to Italy in 1786. This was to last for over two years.
This journey to Italy had a profound effect on Goethe. The architecture, sculptings and paintings he discovered, influenced by the Greek, Roman and Italian cultures, drew forth many deep observations and insights from his soul. In the diary Goethe kept of this journey, he made the following entry under 6th September 1787: “…Supreme works of art, like the most sublime products of Nature, are created by man in conformity with true and natural law. All that is arbitrary, all that is invented, collapses: there is Necessity, there is God”. Goethe began to observe nature in a new and creative way. His faculty of observation, of ‘seeing’ ever more deeply into natural phenomena, was unfolding more and more and Nature began to reveal her secrets to him. In the botanical garden at Padua, whilst looking at a ‘Fan’ Palm tree, Goethe realised the importance of the leaf-form, showing itself in various stages of metamorphosis in a plant. This discovery worked further in Goethe, until, later in his journey, when he was in Sicily visiting the botanical garden of Palermo, it culminated in his receiving the profound experience of ‘seeing’ with his inner eye the ‘Urpflanze’ – the ‘archetypal plant’ – the creative form behind all plant life. A new approach to science was now developing within Goethe, whereby he observed not only what was the phenomenon before him, but also what inner activity was called forth in him in those moments. Goethe conceived science as a path of inner development, where, by means of intensifying the sensory observation, the inner faculties of imagination, inspiration and intuition could come alive, enabling one to break through to a spiritual understanding of what was at the very root and heart of the natural world and its manifold manifestations. He felt that science should have as its highest goal the arousal of wonder through contemplative observation in which the scientist would come to see “God in Nature and Nature in God”. Goethe wanted to open the eyes of the observer to what was spiritually at work in nature. His was a voice speaking over two hundred years ago, and yet his approach seems pressingly relevant today. It could be argued that the ecological crisis facing the modern world is really a crisis of our relationship to nature. The problem we face is not the degradation of nature, but rather the degradation of our awareness of nature. Many people today do not know how to look more deeply into nature for themselves, feeling that this must be the preserve of scientific ‘experts’, yet Goethe saw the human being as “the most powerful and exact instrument if we but take the trouble sufficiently to refine our sensibilities”.
The events, the artistic and natural impressions which gave rise to so many insights during his Italian Journey, Goethe recreated as a book, the reading of which clearly reveals how some of the experiences he made in Italy later became metamorphosed into aspects of his Fairy Tale. Goethe’s scientific approach to observing nature is one that can also be applied to the reading of his Fairy Tale. If we recreate his word pictures in our imagination, we can observe them with the ‘inner eye’ and allow what they may reveal to speak to us.
On his return to Weimar, a loneliness descended upon Goethe as he discovered that few understood his newly awakened scientific awareness, preferring to admire only his poems and written stories. Nevertheless, he chose to plunge deeper into his scientific studies. These efforts bore an early fruit with the publication in 1790 of the Metamorphosis of the Plant. Here, Goethe followed the plant through archetypal stages of alternating expansion and contraction. He saw the leaf as the constant underlying form in the plant that was metamorphosed forwards and backwards (if we imagine the leaf as central in the plant between root/stem and flower), appearing in different forms as root, stem, leaf, bud, flower and fruit, or seed. He followed this a year later with the publication of his first essay on optics, which led to his monumental study of colour phenomena, Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colour, eventually published in 1810). Here, Goethe challenged the theories of Newton that sought to explain the phenomenon of colour in terms of the measurable angles of refrangibility of colourless rays of light, thus reducing the phenomenon of colour to a dead mechanism. Goethe’s approach was to try and understand colour in its own terms as he experienced it arising out of the meeting of light and darkness in nature. He saw colour as the “deeds and sufferings of light” as it manifested itself on the material plane. He treated it as something living. It is a qualitative approach that has always appealed more to artists than to scientists. J. W. Turner, the English artist and contemporary of Goethe, experimented at the end of his life with Goethe’s theories and in the process painted some masterpieces [see pages 58 and 59 of this issue].
Goethe came to recognise three principles at work in organic nature: metamorphosis, polarity and enhancement. In other words: changing of form, the meeting of opposites (for example, day and night) and a climax or ‘crowning glory’ in a piece of creation (like a flower on top of a plant). It is just these qualities of magical change, meeting of opposites and glorious moments of achievement, of fulfilment, that one finds in a Fairy Tale! When we bear this in mind, Goethe’s life-path of development as a natural scientist – bringing his art into science and his science into art – becomes more visibly relevant to his ability to create a true Fairy Tale.
We have touched upon two occasions in Goethe’s life when inner soul changes occurred, signalled by outer circumstances. Around the age of 18 he had a life-threatening illness and was led to a spiritual perspective of life through a person deeply connected to the Rosicrucian stream. Around the age of 37 he took an extended journey to Italy and deepened his faculty of observation, beginning to see Nature more with his ‘inner eye’. Art and a new science open out for Goethe. These were times in his life when something happened which shaped his destiny, where he was able to take hold of new forces on his life’s path. These moments occurred around the ‘lunar node’ periods of Goethe’s life. What is this cosmic measure, the lunar node?
Briefly, viewed from the Earth, the orbits of the Sun and Moon are inclined at an angle to one another and intersect in two places. When the Moon is physically at one of these two intersecting points, and at the same moment is in a straight line with the Earth and Sun, this is called a lunar node. This special alignment occurs approximately every 19 years (18 years, 7 months, 11 days to be more exact). When a person is born, their body, soul and spirit unite on the earth. Ancient wisdom connected Earth, Moon and Sun with body, soul and spirit and so a person’s birth was understood as a moment when the different aspects of these three heavenly bodies were in a spiritual ‘alignment’. Of course the physical Astronomical alignment does not occur with each person’s birth, but its recurring rhythm of approximately 19 years was seen as applicable to every human birth, repeating itself throughout a person’s life. The moment of birth is the moment we take up the journey of our earthly destiny, and the occurrence through our life of our lunar nodes can be seen as moments that can reveal something of our destiny in a special way, when seemingly outer events appear to shape something of our lives. For Goethe, the first repeat of his lunar node came at the time of his illness and the second occurred during his Italian journey. Occult knowledge of the stars offers the picture that around each time the rhythm of the lunar node occurs in a person’s life, something of their true earthly destiny shines strongly into their life, illuminating and quickening it. This seems unmistakable in Goethe’s life.
In the spring of 1794, Goethe travelled to listen to a lecture in Jena and afterwards, on the steps outside the building where the lecture had been given, he shared with the philosopher Schiller his experience of the archetypal plant. Schiller responded to Goethe’s words by saying “That is not a description of something objective, but is only an idea”. To this Goethe replied “Then it is clear that I see my ideas with my eyes”. This conversation was to mark the beginning of a wonderful and fruitful friendship, where both found enormous stimulation through each other’s ideas. This relationship surely helped to alleviate the sense of loneliness that Goethe felt, for in Schiller he had found a kindred spirit with whom he could share his natural-scientific ideas.
Later that year Schiller proposed the publishing of a literary periodical to be called Die Horen and asked Goethe if he would like to contribute. Goethe was enthusiastic and as his first contribution offered a series of stories grouped together under the title Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderteen (Conversations with German Emigrants).
These stories grew as a response to the times in which they were written. Goethe was born and raised during the period when the French movement of ‘Enlightenment’ brought rationalism strongly into European thinking. This one-sided intellectual thinking was a ferment for the subsequent French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. It is clear that Goethe was no rationalist and the waves breaking over his soul at this time as a consequence of events stemming from this way of thinking became a deep burden for him. Two years before, Louis XVI, the King of France, had been executed and now in 1794 the revolution was at its height and thousands of refugees were fleeing for their lives before the armies of France. Goethe took these events as the background for his series of stories for Die Horen. In them he had a group of dispossessed and exiled aristocrats wondering and fearing about the future. They represented, in their various characters, something of a cross section of humanity. Tensions built up between them and in order to help maintain a peaceful existence together it was suggested that, taking it in turns, on each evening one person should tell a story to the group, to give a little common ground to their small community and help raise their spirits. And so Goethe weaves six tales. Finally an old clergyman in the group proposes he relates the seventh and last tale to be told, which will be a Fairy Tale. He says, quite enigmatically, that it will remind them of “everything and nothing”. Through the character of the old clergyman Goethe introduces The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. In the context of the Conversations with German Emigrants it is totally different in style and content to the proceeding six tales and clearly stands as a tale by itself.
This Fairy Tale was written by Goethe as a response to a work of Schiller’s entitled Über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man). One of the main thoughts considered in these ‘letters’ centred around the question of human freedom. What should be the condition of the human soul forces to achieve this freedom? Schiller recognised Necessity (instinct, passion, the realm of the Senses) and Reason as two forces in the human soul. If either one predominated over the other, it prevented the human being from attaining real freedom; either the soul would be driven by blind necessity, or else a cold reason would suppress all passion and instinct. Only by establishing a middle ground, where necessity and reason harmonised, could freedom exist. Thus Schiller had conceived of a threefold model of the human being, where, in the balance between the two poles of Necessity and Reason, Freedom would exist for the Human Personality. Schiller saw that a harmonious social life could only be founded on the basis of free human personalities. He saw that there was an ‘ideal human being’ within everyone and the challenge was to bring the outer life experiences into harmony with this ‘ideal’. Then the human being would lead a truly worthy existence. Schiller was trying to build an inner bridge between the Person in the immediate reality and the ‘ideal human being’. He wrote these ‘Letters’ during the time and context of the French Revolution. This revolution was driven by a desire for outer social changes to enable human personalities to become free. But both Schiller and Goethe recognised that freedom cannot be ‘imposed’ from the outside but must arise from within each person. Whilst he had an artistic nature, Schiller was more at home in the realm of philosophic thoughts and although Goethe found much pleasure in these ‘Letters’ of Schiller, he felt that the approach concerning the forces in the soul was too simply stated and, it should be said, working in abstract ideas was not Goethe’s way. So he set about writing a Fairy Tale that would show, in imaginative pictures, the way in which a human soul could become whole and free, thereby giving rise to a new and free human community. And this was published in Die Horen in 1795. Goethe’s life continued, encompassing many notable experiences and achievements but we will let his biography rest here, for we have arrived at the moment of birth of The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily through his creative hands.
Goethe lived in a moment of History that carried profound inspirations on its breath. Between the Rationalist period of European thinking and the beginning of scientific materialism around the third decade of the nineteenth century (about the time of Goethe’s death), there happened a most creative period of human thinking and consciousness. This was the moment known as the Classical period in Germany that was followed by a brief flowering of Romanticism all over Europe through such people as William Blake in England, with his prophetic art and poetry, and Novalis in Germany who brought through his poetry and other writings a spiritual interpretation of Cosmos, Humanity and Earth. Goethe was perhaps the most prominent representative of this movement, who, with his contemporaries, stood in the world for a moment, united by their endeavours to open a new thinking for a new knowledge, vouchsafing the future development of humanity. When this wave of spiritual endeavour receded under the pressure of scientific materialism, its achievements looked to a future time for a deeper unfolding. Are we now ripe for this in the 21st Century? Could we say for ourselves, “The time has come”?
This cry, “The Time has Come!”, rings throughout Goethe’s Fairy Tale, which is set in a landscape divided by a river. This acts as a boundary between two lands, that of our normal ‘daytime’ consciousness and that which is not accessible to our normal sense perception – The Land of the Senses and the Land of the Spirit. By the end of the Fairy Tale, there is a permanent bridge spanning this river, joining these two Lands together. The theme of love and sacrifice bringing about a true and harmonious community emerges as the tale unfolds. Many magical and seemingly illogical happenings occur, as is the way with any true Fairy Tale because they have their own laws at work within them. These are not understandable through the rationale of our normal intellectual logic, rather it is a higher spiritual ‘logic’ that is at work. Goethe’s understanding of the three principles in nature of metamorphosis, polarity and enhancement – or moment of climax – do not seem out of place in approaching this ‘higher logic’. A number of different characters appear in his Fairy Tale, interacting with one another, weaving together towards a climax that is experienced with the marriage between the Beautiful Lily and her Prince and the joining together, by means of the bridge, of the two Lands. The one event is dependent and linked to the other.
The Fairy Tale begins with a Ferryman, asleep, who lives in a small hut by the river. It is midnight and he is woken up by two Will O’ the Wisps, gentlemen seemingly made of flames of light, and asked to take them across the river. This he does. But, the Ferryman can only take passengers in this direction, none can return with him from the other side. Later, we realise that they are crossing over from the land of the Spirit to the land of the Senses. Soon there is a meeting with a Green Snake. She lives in a chasm in the rocks and has access to an underground chamber which is later revealed to be a temple containing four Kings; one each of Gold, Silver, Bronze and the fourth a mixture of all three. The Will O’ the Wisps devour gold wherever they find it, licking it up with their flames of light, then later shaking gold coins from themselves. By eating the gold coins shaken from the Will O’ the Wisps, the Green Snake is able to shine a light from within herself which illuminates her surroundings. It is in the underground Temple of the Kings that we first meet the Old Man with the Lamp. His is a special lamp that can only give light when another light is already present. It is he who first speaks the words, “The Time has Come!”, upon hearing a secret whispered into his ear by the Snake. The tale moves on and we meet the Wife of the Old Man with the Lamp. She leads the story further when she meets a young Prince walking in melancholy mood by the river. He loves the Beautiful Lily, but cannot approach her because, lovely though she is, her touch brings death to all living things, a fate which is deeply distressing to her as well as the Prince. So now we learn the central sorrow and tension of the tale. How will this be overcome?
There are moments at Midday, Midnight, Twilight and Dawn when the river can be crossed the other way, back from the sense-perceptible land to the Spirit Land. At Midday and Midnight the Green Snake transforms her body into a temporary bridge across the river whereas the shadow of a Giant performs the same function at Twilight and Dawn. Through this we are shown that there are two possible ways to cross the river from the Land of the Senses, but only at these special times. The scenes follow one another from midnight to dawn, through midday to twilight and a second midnight, dawn and finally midday when all is resolved. Seven stages, that most rhythmical of numbers. By crossing the temporary bridge formed by the Green Snake at Midday, the Wife and the young Prince come to the garden of the Beautiful Lily. In this garden, attended by her three hand-maidens, we witness the Beautiful Lily sorrowing for her own condition yet bringing joy, wonder and love to all who meet with her. At Twilight, when the rich colours of the day gradually die into the night, tragedy befalls the Prince, who, overcome by his desire for the Beautiful Lily, rushes towards her and his life is extinguished by her touch. The Green Snake, who is also present, immediately forms a circle around the Prince, clenching her tail between her teeth. The Old Man with the Lamp reappears as does his Wife and the Will O’ the Wisps. Under the guidance of the Man with the Lamp the whole group crosses over the bridge, formed by the Snake at Midnight, back into the Land of the Senses. Here remarkable transformations occur. Guided by the Old Man, the Beautiful Lily touches the Snake with her left hand and the Prince with her right, whereby he is brought back to life, but in a dream-like state. The Green Snake changes herself into a pile of precious gems that are then thrown into the river. With the help of the Will O’ the Wisps’ ability to eat gold, the group re-enters the underground Temple of the Kings. This Temple now magically moves beneath the river, coming up underneath the Ferryman’s hut, which falls into the open roof of the temple and is transformed into a beautiful silver altar inside the Temple. The Whole Temple has now arisen from the Earth and stands in the sunlight. The Three Kings of Gold, Silver and Bronze bestow gifts on the Prince that together overcome his dream-like state, restoring his full consciousness and stature. The fourth, ‘mixed metal’ King has had his gold ‘veins’ licked away by the Will O’ the Wisps and has collapsed. The Prince can now be united in marriage with the Beautiful Lily, for her touch no longer brings death. As King and Queen they look out from the Temple and see that a permanent Bridge now spans the river across which people are travelling to and fro. This Bridge is the result of the sacrifice of the Green Snake, cast as precious stones into the river. Now the two lands are united for all humanity and the final words of the Fairy Tale tell us “...the Bridge, to this day, is swarming with travellers and the Temple is the most frequented in the whole world”.
It is not the purpose of this article to retell the whole story with all its wonderful details, but to look only at a few themes and events that may help to bring alive its relevance for us. Many seemingly small details in this tale hold a world of knowledge and wisdom within them and it is the contemplation of this tale and all it contains which can lead to new and deeper understanding of some of the mysteries of the human soul.
So finally we follow a little more of the destiny of this Fairy Tale, for it brings us to a man who, more than any other, has helped reveal the spiritual wealth contained within it.
In February, 1882, on the occasion of his 21st birthday, Rudolf Steiner (who would later found the spiritual movement of Anthroposophy) received a copy of The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. It was given to him by Karl Julius Schrörer, whom Steiner referred to as his “teacher and fatherly friend”. Steiner read the tale with interest but could not yet penetrate its deeper meanings, although he returned to it a number of times in the years to come. It lay in Steiner’s destiny, after gaining his doctorate at University, to be invited to go to Weimar to edit Goethe’s writings on Natural Science. Whilst there, the inner depth of the Fairy Tale began to reveal itself to him. Later, he was to describe how “it was in the late eighties of the last century that the knot of Goethe’s Fairy Tale untied itself for me” and that by understanding how Goethe had arranged the sequence of pictures in the tale, Steiner realised they made possible a transforming power on the soul of the reader. He felt moved to make the profound statement: “this is the new way to Christ”. A great work of art only reveals itself in its deeper Being to one who is patient, allowing time, not forcing an understanding. This was to be Steiner’s experience.
On November 27th, 1891, Steiner spoke about “The Secret in Goethe’s Fairy Tale” at the Goethe Society in Vienna. He later recalled that the Fairy Tale come strongly once more into his inner life in 1896. In the years that followed, according to Steiner’s own biography, he went through a tremendous inner struggle with the materialism of the age in which he lived, culminating in him “standing in the spiritual presence of the Mystery of Golgotha in a most profound and solemn festival of knowledge”. Shortly after this experience, in 1899, Steiner, now 38 years old, wrote an essay to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Goethe’s birth, entitled The Character of Goethe’s Spirit as Shown in the Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily which was published in Berlin in “The Magazine for literature” during August of that year. A year later, at Michaelmas, September 29th, 1900, Steiner gave a private lecture where he spoke about the Fairy Tale under the title Goethe’s Secret Revelation(Goethe’s geheime Offenbarung). He was later to refer to this as his first anthroposophical lecture. Throughout his life he made mention on many occasions concerning this Fairy Tale. Of course, there were many other influences at work in Steiner’s life, but the significance of his relationship to Goethe, his work and particularly the Fairy Tale cannot be overlooked. It is in acknowledging Steiner’s insights to this tale that we now return for a look at some of its themes, but perhaps bearing in mind what he said of his own approach to understanding the Fairy Tale, “I did not write a commentary, I let the living lead me into the living”.
The theme of Goethe’s Fairy Tale is the transformation of the soul, which is an alchemical process. The Fairy Tale itself is a piece of alchemy, as Steiner discovered, whereby he was able to state from his own spiritual research that it was a work of art inspired by Rosicrucian wisdom. We may recall that with his illness around the age of 18, Goethe was led into connection with spiritual writings particularly those concerning alchemy. Goethe read, a number of times, a work entitled The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz: Anno 1459 which was first published in Strasbourg, in 1616. This book contained, in pictorial imaginations, the experience of an initiation in the spiritual worlds. Those serving the Rosicrucian path are concerned with the transformation of substance – both the substance of the human soul and of the earth Herself. Matter can be viewed as condensed spirit, darkened light, held fast, ‘spell-bound’, enchanted into physical form, as it were. When a transforming spiritual impulse can penetrate into matter, the condensed, imprisoned spirit-form can be released anew into pure spirit. The transforming of ‘soul substance’ is the overcoming of selfish human desires, making the soul a fit vessel for the spirit. Spiritual transformation of substance is the basis of a true alchemy. Goethe’s Fairy Tale has an inner architecture that follows alchemical principles. These principles – of separation, purification and re-combining in a new way – can be seen in the tale: the differentiation of the characters and their tasks, the purification through love and sacrifice (which the Green Snake willingly does), then leading to a new community life-condition imbued with spirit. On the way through this process, death occurs, showing the Rosicrucian principle of ‘dying in order to become’. This principle Goethe upheld in his own life and creative work. Nature, going through Her cycles, readily describes this process with the dying away in autumn and the birth of new life in spring.
Schiller’s conceptual thoughts concerning human freedom and the soul forces of the human being became, through Goethe’s imaginative creativity, the figures and events in his Fairy Tale. He allowed his imaginative pictures to grow and metamorphose towards the solution to the question: How the human soul attains to freedom? Steiner maintained that the various figures in the Fairy Tale were supersensibly perceived in Goethe’s imagination and therefore are true to themselves – not born from flights of fancy, but coming from the realm of real Imagination, through Goethe, as artistic phantasy. The Beautiful Lily is a picture of the pure spiritual forces, the embodiment of Freedom not accessible to the soul in its normal state, thus the river separating the ‘two lands’, the one of the spirit where the Beautiful Lily lives and the one of the senses, where the young Prince lives. Unprepared souls die at her touch. This indicates that a soul must be ripe in its powers to be able to consciously receive the spirit into it. The Green Snake, who has her home in a cleft in the rocks, is the embodiment of the subterranean forces of the soul. Life on Earth brings experiences to the human soul and the Green Snake is the embodiment of the sum of these experiences which when ripe, when ‘the Time has come’, can be sacrificed to form a permanent and fully conscious bridge to the spirit. These two conditions – of Lily and Snake – must be freely united in the soul in order for it to fulfil its true being. (Here we might recall Schiller’s three-fold picture.) The young Prince is the seeking soul. By the end of the tale, his unity with the Beautiful Lily has come about due to the awakening of previously slumbering soul forces enabling the Prince to unite with Freedom through the sacrifice of his life experience, when the time is ripe, as embodied in the actions of the Green Snake. His earthly life experience has now been transformed, becoming a new inner quality uniting the ‘two lands’. This is the new condition of soul that both Schiller and Goethe were striving to experience: The Free Human Personality. This soul transformation, bringing about new human community, is the outcome of the Fairy Tale.
The Old Man with the Lamp has an important role in the whole. He is that soul force which is the guide, knowing when the time is right what to do. In the first Temple scene the gold King asks him about secrets. The old man says he knows three. The King then asks which is the most important. The Old Man says he will reveal that when he learns the fourth secret. At that moment the Green Snake approaches and whispers in his ear. Then the Old Man cries out “The Time has Come!” We do not learn directly in this moment what the snake has said, but, later in the tale, as she is curled around the dead Prince, she again speaks to the Old Man and tells him that she is willing to sacrifice herself. This she does. Steiner shows that what she whispered to the Old Man in the Temple was her free resolve to sacrifice herself. The Old Man knew that she must make her sacrifice, but he had to wait until she did it of her own free will. Then he could say, “The Time has come!”
The Christian path to Love is one of Sacrifice. In the Fairy Tale it is the sacrifice of the loving Green Snake that provides the force to make all things possible. Now we may better understand the title of this Fairy Tale. The Snake and the Lily are the two poles that the striving soul must unite in the right way to gain Freedom for itself. But other forces must also play their part, and we learn that they all receive their transformations at the end of the tale.
Three times in the tale the Old man speaks out “The Time has Come!” In the Temple, a little while later to his Wife and then again in the Temple with the whole group. Three times the Beautiful Lily hears these words spoken out: by the Wife when she relates events to her, by the Green Snake who also speaks to her and finally in the presence of the Old Man in the final Temple scene. Three is a powerful number; it relates to the Holy Trinity and is always present, in some form, in a true Fairy Tale. Weaving through Goethe’s tale, the three cries by the Old Man precipitate action. The three ‘hearings’ by the Beautiful Lily unite past present and future into an eternal now. Once, twice, thrice! builds a force that must be heard. The time has come! This full moment of will for action is the crucible for change. New conditions then appear.
The element of three appears also with the Kings of Gold, Silver and Bronze who bestow gifts on the Prince, bringing him to a full consciousness of his new Kingdom. These three Kings are related to the soul faculties of Thinking, Feeling and Willing, or Doing and their individual gifts strengthen these three, newly separated realms in the Prince. These realms have to become independent in order to work freely with one another within the soul. In the normal human condition they are mixed together, like the fourth King, and bring chaotic conditions into the human soul, making it unfree. This understanding of these three forces working freely in the healthy human soul enabled Steiner, later in his life, to develop a threefold picture of society. He envisaged society as composed of three independent but freely associating realms: the free spiritual-cultural life, the life of equal legal-rights between people and brotherhood in the economic life. There was a prefiguring of this in the ideals of the French revolution of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but they could not be realised as true social forms because they were viewed from an external perspective and not as qualities coming from the actual soul configuration of the free Human Personality.
Gold and light also weave together as themes throughout the Fairy Tale. Gold appears both as wisdom, in the gold King, and money, in the gold coins. It shows two sides of itself in human hands, bringing illumination and wisdom or suffering. When eaten by the Green Snake it causes her to shine light, but when a little dog belonging to the Wife eats some gold coins shaken down by the Will O’ the Wisps, it dies. The Old Man’s Lamp, when no other light is present, turns stone into gold. It is a wise Light. In the Fairy Tale, light appears in many forms, not least as the waxing and waning of daylight which places events at different times of the day and night. Here we could mention how the temporary bridges of the Green Snake and the Shadow of the Giant relate to the soul’s relationship to the spiritual World. These are moments in the Fairy Tale when it is possible to cross over from the Land of the Senses to the Land of the Spirit. In life, art is a bridge to the spirit. In creating art and entering its phantasy, the human being can be free for a moment, in touch with the creative source of things. This is the secret of the Green Snake forming a bridge at Midday and Midnight, for this enables – just at those moments – a crossing from the Land of the Senses to the Land of the Spirit. The Shadow of the Giant at Twilight and Dawn is another matter. One can also cross the river by this means, but, as the name ‘shadow’ implies, it is done not in full consciousness. It happens at Twilight or Dawn when things are not so definite, it is not clearly day or night as in the Midday-Midnight moments when the Green Snake makes her temporary Bridge. And it is not the Giant who can take people across, only his shadow. There is a dimming of awareness, one which we can understand in our modern times through the experiences people have when access to spiritual experiences is found by the use of drugs, or dubious mediumistic practices and the like. These are not clear paths to the spirit, in conscious knowledge, but access is gained through a ‘shadow’ of this knowledge.
The reader is invited to approach this Fairy Tale and make his or her own discoveries as well as look further into the wealth of insights that Steiner brought. The tale can be seen as a picture of one human soul. All the figures and events in the tale are the interacting forces within the one, striving, human soul. But within this context the forces have an individual existence, which Goethe’s characters give expression to. There are something like 20 characters in this tale. We have looked at some of the elements that exist in it as a means of orientating towards a deeper experience. Ultimately the tale itself should be allowed to reveal its own nature to each reader. Then, perhaps, a living understanding of the tale will also reveal itself, when the time has come!
The Fairy Tale went through its own metamorphosis.
Concerning the question of how the soul can attain freedom and create healthy social forms, Schiller, with his thinking, grasped the idea of a way forward. Goethe transformed it through phantasy into the feeling life of pictorial imagination. Rudolf Steiner completed this trilogy by transforming the Fairy Tale into a Mystery Drama, performed on the stage; he brought it into the will. In his autobiography, Steiner said the following: “The Goethe Fairy Tale images hark back to Imaginations which had often been set forth before the time of Goethe by seekers for the spiritual experience of the soul… not the interpretation, but the stimulus to the experience of the soul was the important result that came to me from my work upon the Fairy Tale. This stimulus later influenced the future life of my soul in the shaping of the mystery dramas I afterwards wrote”.
Originally Steiner had intended to create a dramatic form of Goethe’s Fairy Tale, but discovered that it could not happen because “it was clearly necessary to present these images in a far more concrete manner suited for our time”. And so Steiner metamorphosed the figures of Goethe’s Fairy Tale, essentially the different soul forces at work in one human soul, into individual human beings, where one soul force or another predominates, dealing with life’s tensions in a contemporary setting. This drama he called “The Portal of Initiation”. It is possible when reading both the Fairy Tale and this Mystery Drama to see which characters belong together. For example, the Green Snake has become the ‘Other Maria’ in Steiner’s Drama, a self-sacrificing nurse. The Beautiful Lily is ‘Maria’ who has attained much in spiritual development and helps a man called Johannes to also develop further. In him we have Goethe’s young Prince. The Old Man has become Felix Balde, a nature-mystic echoing the qualities of Jacob Boehme (a German mystic of the Middle ages). And so on. The characters in this mystery drama show the relationship of karma and destiny in human souls striving to come closer to the spirit. This Drama was performed in 1910 and Steiner wrote three more. In the second he drew upon traditions of the Knights Templar. The third and fourth Steiner claims as purely his own, representing the workings of Anthroposophy. In order to find a permanent home for the performances of these Dramas a wooden building was created in Dornach, Switzerland. This was burned down in 1923 and a second building, this time in concrete, grew out of the ashes. They both bore the name the Goetheanum in honour of the man who had so deeply influenced Steiner’s life and had provided the artistic seed inspiration for his own Mystery Dramas. Steiner was to say that Goethe’s Fairy Tale was the archetypal seed of the Anthroposophical movement. Indeed, just as the Green Snake sacrificed herself to form the bridge which could permanently unite the ‘two lands’, so Steiner gave his life’s work to create, through anthroposophy, a living bridge into the spiritual worlds from our Earthly sense-perceptible one. He realised on earth something of the ‘Crowning Glory’ of Goethe’s Fairy Tale.
In his Mystery Dramas, of which he wrote four, Steiner honoured the Fairy Tale as a form of artistic expression by having Felix Balde’s wife, Felicia (the metamorphosed ‘Old Man’ and ‘Wife’ from Goethe’s Fairy Tale) recite Fairy Tales she herself has created. In a lecture he gave concerning his second Mystery drama, Steiner had the following to say: “In our time there begins that new age in which it becomes necessary again to find access to higher worlds. For this a certain transition must be established and it is scarcely possible to make this transition more simply than by a sensible revival of a feeling for Fairy Tales. Between that spiritual world to which man can raise himself by clairvoyance and the world of the intellect and the senses, the Fairy Tale is perhaps the truest of all mediums. The very way in which the modest Fairy Tale approaches us, not laying claim in any sense to be an image of external reality but boldly disregarding all outer laws of external realities, makes it possible for the Fairy Tale to prepare the human soul to receive again the higher spiritual world”.
There will always be new things to discover within this tale because any living story, concerned with the verities of human existence, be it called myth, legend or Fairy Tale, has the ability to grow through the ages as a companion to humanity – alive in its own right because they, like us, come out of the spirit’s creative source. We may recall that, when Goethe first published the Fairy Tale in the magazine Die Horen, it was introduced within a series of stories by the figure of an elderly clergyman who said that he was going to tell a fairy story that would remind them of “everything and nothing”. And so it is. The Fairy Tale will surely speak to those who are able to hear and say nothing to those who can’t.
The last words should now rest with Goethe and his inspired creation, The Fairy Tale of The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. Early in the Fairy Tale the Gold King asks the Green Snake:
“What is more noble than Gold?”.
“Light” replies the Snake.
“And what is more refreshing than Light?” asks the King.
“Speech” replies the Snake.
I make no claims to originality, but record a debt of gratitude to those who have devoted study, research and no little insight into Goethe’s life and his creative work of the Fairy Tale. In particular, Paul Marshall Allen and Joan Deris Allen.
The Time is at Hand! , Paul Marshall Allen and Joan Deris Allen, 1995,
The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science , Henri Bortoft, 1996,
Selected works of Rudolf Steiner.
Images: chalk on Black card by David Newbatt
This article was first published in the Summer 2003 issue of New View magazine.