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Goethe's The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Text by: Amy Carpenter

It is every housewife's dream: a special word that, when uttered in a commanding voice, will magically clean the entire house. This dream has been fulfilled in part. Though we have yet to discoverer that magic word that will make all our problems disappear, we do have seemingly magical devices that help us get the mundane, time-eating chores of everyday life done: washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, microwaves, robotic sweepers, carpet cleaners, and, best of all, clean water pumped right into our house, along with the pipes to take the used, dirty water back out of the house and into some dark, dank place where we don't have to smell or see it.

In the old days, the fetching of water was a major chore. One had to take a bucket (or two), haul it to the well, fill it, and then laboriously carry it back to the house. This had to be repeated until the housewife had enough water for her daily chores or for a bath, which is why, in the old days, people hardly ever took a nice, relaxing bath. They just put up with the stink to avoid the hassle of fetching water!

Thus, one can understand why a certain young apprentice, who knew the magical word that would cause a broom to come to life and fetch him water for a bath, would jump at the chance to use that word as soon as his master left the house for the day. Oh, yes! Rather than working at the boring, hard tasks his master had left for him to do, the apprentice would say that magic word (which he had heard his master use many a time) and — voila! — he would have a relaxing soak in the tub. Better yet, he would still be able to get everything done because his living broom had done everything for him.

Unfortunately, once the broom had fetched him his water, the apprentice did not know the word that would make the broom stop fetching water. On and on the broom took its buckets, filled them, and emptied them in the overflowing bathtub, much like a burst pipe that sends water rushing into a house, overflowing and ruining everything in its path. The apprentice muttered every incantation he had learned, used every command he could think of, but alas, the broom blithely ignored him. In desperation, the apprentice seized an ax and split the broom in two. But magic brooms are not to be thwarted by mere physical violence. The broom simply grew itself back into two brooms. Now the apprentice found himself in even more of a pickle: double the water, double the mess. Oh where, oh where was his great and knowledgeable master?

Suddenly, his master, that wise and venerable sorcerer, returned and in his calm but stern manner, uttered that simple word that would stop the whole fiasco. The broom meekly returned to its closet, and the water receded, leaving the apprentice to stand before his master like a pup caught chewing his master's shoe (and pillow and sofa and favorite book). The things we do when we think we know, but we really don't know at all!

This story, called The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is actually a poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is the ballad that inspired Paul Dukas' symphonic poem of the same name, which in turn inspired Walt Disney to produce a movie illustrating the stories created by great musical masterpieces. This movie, called Fantasia, has imprinted in our minds the image of Mickey Mouse as the foolish, young apprentice. But the story about the little mouse with the big problem is not just a magical children's tale. It is a lesson on the brashness of new philosophies and the wisdom of the old.

Goethe himself was a complicated man. Born in 1749 in Frankfurt, Germany, he was the son of upper-middle class parents. He received his childhood education at home and then at the age of 16, followed in his father's footsteps by studying law at Leipzig University. While at the university, he became gravely ill and had to return home for a period. Eventually, he returned to school (this time attending Strasbourg, Germany) and finished his law degree. During his time at Strasbourg, he met philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder who helped open his eyes to the cultural richness of literature and its ability to provide insight into the identity of a people. As he toured the countryside, he found himself reacting viscerally to the beauty of both the places and the people. He became a central figure in the Sturm und Drang movement. Though partial to the ideals of the ever-rational Enlightenment, he found himself wanting to express the emotions in his heart. He wrote several emotional pieces, which became some of the most famous works of this brief movement.

After Strasbourg, Goethe began the practical life of practicing law before accepting a position in the court at Weimar, Germany. Weimar became his home and the center of his philosophy and work. It was here that he collaborated and became friends with some of the great German philosophers of the time. It was here that he worked in several government positions, which opened new fields of knowledge to him, such as geology. It was also here that he died in 1832.

Goethe had a lifelong dream of visiting Italy. His father often recounted his own experience in Italy, and Goethe wanted to go there himself, to learn art and to experience what he thought of as the old, ancient way of life. Several times, he almost made it to his personal mecca but had to turn back because of duties and circumstances. Finally, in 1786, he "ran away" from his responsibilities (he actually went on a little vacation to a spa and secretly escaped to Italy). Although Rome itself was a disappointment, Goethe found the classical, Hellenistic inspiration he was looking for in Sicily and the Greek temples that dotted the area around Naples. Goethe was a man of the Enlightenment. He fully believed in the ideals of the classical world. But he was also a man who embraced new views. As the Napoleonic wars destroyed and exported many of Italy's classical treasures, Goethe also learned that, while the classical was the ideal, it was not the reality. Times were changing, and people could try to live the ideal but would largely fall short of it. It was time for a new philosophy. This new philosophy would become known as Weimar Classicism.

Weimar Classicism was a product of the collaboration of Goethe and his friend, Friedrich Schiller. Schiller and Goethe fed off of each other, critiquing each other's works and thereby improving each other's writings. Both were part of the Sturm und Drang Movement, and both returned to a more classical form of writing afterward. From the time they met in 1794 to the time of Schiller's death in 1805, they sought to reconcile the old, wise ways of the Enlightenment with the new, introspective and emotional ways of the burgeoning Romantic Movement. It was during this time that Goethe returned to writing poetry in the singing, rhyming form of the ballad. The Sorcerer's Apprentice was one such ballad. It was written in 1797 and published the next year in Schiller's Musenalmanach für 1798. Though the poem was attributed to him, Goethe actually based his ballad on a story recounted by the Greek rhetorician and satirist Lucian in his work, Philopseudes. Lucian's story is likewise told in first person, though the master is an Egyptian scribe well versed in the occult.

Although The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a work of powerful language and emotion, it is steeped in the classical tradition of a Greek writer. It is a synthesis, in both language and ideas, of old wisdom with modern philosophical invention. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is actually the story of the tumultuous transition between the classical ideals of the Enlightenment and the highly personal and emotional philosophy of the Romantic Movement. It is the master sorcerer of conservative wisdom who knows all and who the apprentice seeks to emulate. It is the brash youth who thinks it knows all but then discovers much to its dismay that it only knows the beginning of things. It is the sweeping flood of change, which new ideas initiate but then have little control over. It is the final word of rational wisdom, which cleans up the mess and sets everything in order. And yet, it is also about magic, an irrational and unexplainable phenomenon that penetrates our ordinary lives in extraordinary and unfathomable ways.