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Goethe's Standard of the Soul

Goethe's Fairy Tale. The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily.



Tired out with the labours of the day, an old Ferryman lay asleep in his hut, on the bank of a wide river, in flood from heavy rains. In the middle of the night he was awakened by a loud cry, — he listened — it seemed the call of belated travellers wishing to be ferried over.

Opening the door, he was astonished to see two Will-o'-the-Wisps dancing round his boat, which was still secured to its moorings. With human voices, they declared they were in a great hurry, and must be taken instantly across the river. Without losing a moment, the old Ferryman pushed off and rowed across with his usual skill. During the passage the strangers whispered together in an unknown language, and several times burst into loud laughter, whilst they amused themselves with dancing upon the sides and seats of the boat, and cutting fantastic capers at the bottom.

“The boat reels,” cried the old man; “if you are so restless, it may upset. Sit down, you Will-o'-the-Wisps.”

They burst into laughter at this command, ridiculed the boatman, and became more troublesome than ever. But he bore their annoyance patiently, and they reached the opposite bank.

“Here is something for your trouble,” said the passengers, shaking themselves, and a number of glittering gold pieces fell into the boat. “What are you doing?” cried the old man, “bad luck if a single piece of gold falls into the water! The river hates gold, and would swallow both me and my boat. Who can say even what might happen to you? I pray you take back your gold.”

“We can take nothing back, which we have once shaken from us,” answered one of them. “Then,” replied the old boatman, “I must take it ashore and bury it,” and he stooped and collected the gold in his cap.

The Will-o'-the-Wisps had in the meantime leaped out of the boat, and seeing this the old man cried, “Pay me my fare.”

“The man who refuses gold must work for nothing,” answered the Will-o'-the-Wisps. “But you shall not go,” replied the Ferryman defiantly, “until you have given me three cauliflowers, three artichokes, and three large onions.”

The Will-o'-the-Wisps were in the act of running off with a laugh, when they felt themselves in some strange way fixed to the earth; they had never experienced such a sensation. They then promised to pay the demand without delay, upon which the Ferryman released them and instantly pushed off in his boat.

He had already gone some distance when they called after him, “Old man! listen, we have forgotten something important”; but he did not hear them and continued his course. When he had reached a point lower down, on the same side of the river, he came to some rocks inaccesible to the water, and proceeded to bury the dangerous gold. Into a deep cleft between two rocks, he threw the gold, and returned to his dwelling. This cleft was inhabited by a beautiful green snake, who was awakened from her sleep by the sound of the falling money. At the very first appearance of the glittering coins, she devoured them greedily, then searched about carefully in hopes of finding such other coins as might have fallen accidentally amongst the briers, or between the fissures of the rocks.

The Snake immediately experienced the most delightful sensations, and perceived with joy that she had become suddenly shining and transparent. She had long known that this change was possible, but wondering whether she would be bright for ever, curiosity drove her to leave her dwelling and find out, if possible, who had sent the beautiful gold. She found no one; but she became lost in admiration of herself, and of the brilliant light which illumined her path through the thick underwood, and shed its rays over the surrounding green. The leaves of the trees glittered like emeralds, and the flowers shone with wondrous hues. In vain did she penetrate the lonely wilderness, but hope dawned when she reached the plains, and saw, some way off, a light resembling her own. “Have I at last discovered my fellow?” she exclaimed, and hurried to the spot. Swamp and morass were no hindrance to her; for though the dry meadow and the high rock were her dearest habitations, and though she loved to feed upon juicy roots, and quench her thirst with the dew and with fresh water from the spring, yet for the sake of her beloved gold and of her glorious light, she would face any privation.

Wearied and exhausted, she finally reached the confines of a wide mo