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The Poetry and Meaning of Fairy Tales

Schmidt Number: S-1897

On-line since: 15th January, 2006

The Interpretation of Fairy Tales

Berlin, December 26, 1908

The subject of today's lecture is a kind of principle or rule for the explanation of fairy tales and legends. In a wider sense this principle can be extended to the world of myths, and we will indicate in a few words how this can be done. Naturally it is impossible in one hour to specify exactly how one should satisfy a child today with the fairy story itself and then later, when the child is older, with the explanation of it. I would now rather try to clarify what should exist in the soul of the one who wishes to explain such stories, and what that person ought to know.

The first thing we must determine when relating fairy tales, legends or myths is that we should certainly know more than we are able to say, indeed, a great deal more; and secondly, we should be willing to draw the sources of our explanation from anthroposophical wisdom; that is, we must not introduce into the fairy tales just anything that may occur to us but must be willing to recognize anthroposophical wisdom as such, and then try to permeate the fairy tales with it. Not everyone will succeed at once. But even if at first we cannot unriddle it all, we should gradually be able to find the right meaning. What is built on a good foundation will work out well, but where it is not, it follows that all manner of things can be construed into it. We speak both for those who are narrating and also for those to be instructed. Examples of the clearest possible kind will be given, to let us picture what it is all about. The first fairy tale we have to discuss can be told in the following manner:

Once upon a time it happened — where did it happen? where indeed did it not happen? — there was a tailor's apprentice. He had only one penny left in his pocket, and with this penny in his pocket he felt driven to wander forth. He soon became hungry, but with his penny he could only afford to buy some milk soup. When the soup was placed before him, a swarm of flies flew into it and when he had finished his meal the plate was covered with buzzing flies. He struck the plate once or twice with his hand, counting how many he had killed, and found it amounted to a hundred. So he got a slate from the innkeeper and wrote on it: “He killed a hundred at one blow!” And having hung the slate on his back he went his way. As he passed a king's palace, the king was looking out and seeing someone passing who had something written on his back, he sent his servant down to see what the writing was. The servant saw: “He killed a hundred at one blow!” — and told the king. “Ho!” said the king to himself, “That is someone I can make use of!” and he sent down and had him brought in. “I can make use of you,” said the king to the tailor. “Will you enter my service?” “Yes,” said the other, “I will willingly enter your service if you will give me a proper reward, but what that is I shall tell you later.” “Very well,” said the king, “I shall reward you handsomely if you keep to what you have promised. You shall eat and drink well, as long as you like. After that, you must do me a service, equal to your strength. Every year a number of bears come to my country and do fearful damage. They are so strong that no one can kill them. You will of course be able to kill them, if you live up to the statement on your slate.” Then the apprentice said: “Certainly I will do this, but till the bears come I must ask for as much to eat and drink as I want.” For the apprentice said to himself: “If I cannot slay the bears, and they kill me, I shall at least have eaten and drunk well.” And so it went for a while. When the time came and the bears were due to appear, he arranged the kitchen, set up a little table and left the door wide open; on the table he placed all manner of things that bears like to eat and drink — honey and suchlike; then he hid himself. The bears came along, ate and drank till they were gorged and then had to lie down. He cut off the head of each bear and in this way killed them all. When the king saw this, he asked: “Now how did you do it?” And the apprentice said: “I simply killed the bears and then cut off their heads.” The king took this on trust and said: “If you have done that, you can render me an even greater service. Every year great strong giants come to our country. No one can kill them or drive them away; perhaps you can.” The tailor replied: “Yes, I will do it, if afterwards you will give me your daughter as my wife.” Now it was very important to the king to have the giants driven away, and so he promised, and again for a time the tailor lived a good life.

When the time came for the giants to appear, he took all manner of things that giants like to eat and drink, and went to meet them. On the way he added to the rest a piece of cheese and a lark, and then with all his many things and the piece of cheese and the lark he met the giants. The giants said: “We have come again to wrestle with the strongest; no one has overcome us!” Then said the tailor's apprentice: “I will wrestle with you!” “It will go badly with you!” said one of the giants. The tailor said: “Show me your strength and what you can do!” The giant took a stone and pulverized it between his fingers. He then took a bow and arrow and shot the arrow so high into the air that it did not come down for a long time. “If you want to see my strength, if you want to wrestle with me, you must be able to do something better than that,” said the giant. The tailor took a small stone, and covered it secretly with a little cheese, so that when he pressed it between his fingers the cheese spurted out milk. Then he said to the giants: “I can press liquid out of a stone and that you cannot do!” It made a great impression on the giants that he could do something different from them. Then he also took a bow and arrow, but when he shot, unobserved by them he let loose the lark, which flew up and did not return. So he said to the giants; “Your arrow came down again, but I shot so high that mine never returned to earth!” The giants were astonished to find anyone stronger than themselves and said to him: “Will you be our comrade?” He agreed. Certainly he was small, but for all that he would be a good addition, so they took him into their company and he stayed a while with them. But it was galling to them that there should be anyone stronger than themselves, and once when he lay awake in bed he overheard them arranging to kill him. Therefore he made preparations. He got a big meal ready with the things that he had brought with him. The giants ate and drank all they could until they were gorged. Still they were determined to kill him. So he took a pig's bladder and filled it with blood, fastened it on his head and went to bed. The giant who had been chosen to kill him came and stabbed at his head, and when the blood ran out they were delighted, for now, they thought, they were rid of him, and they lay down and slept. But he got out of bed and killed one giant after another as they slept. Then he went to the king and related how he had slain one giant after the other.

The king kept his word and gave him his daughter for a wife, and the tailor was married to the king's daughter. The king marveled greatly at his son-in-law's strength, but neither the king nor his daughter knew who this man really was, whether a tailor or a king's son; they did not know it then, and if they have not found it out since, they do not know it even today.

This is one of the fairy tales that we want to take as an example. But before we go into it, let us put another beside it, for if you collect fairy tales, from whatever period or people, if they are genuine fairy tales you will find that certain basic ideas run through them all. I must call your attention to the fact that the giants were overcome by cunning. Now make a plunge back through the centuries and recall Odysseus and the giant Polyphemus in the Odyssey. Let us put the following fairy tale side by side with the first one:

Once upon a time it happened — where then was it? where indeed was it not? — there was a king who was so beloved of his people that he was always hearing them wish that he would take a wife as good and noble as himself. It was difficult for him to find anyone suitable for him and for his people. Now he had an old friend, a poor forester, who lived simply and contentedly in the forest and who was very wise. He might very easily have been rich, for the king would willingly have given him everything, but the forester wished to remain poor and retain his wisdom. So the king now went to his friend the forester and asked his advice. The latter gave him a branch of rosemary, saying: “Take care of this; the maiden before whom it bends is the maiden you ought to marry.” So the very next day the king had a number of damsels brought before him. He had pearls spread out before them, and every girl's name was written on the table in pearls; then he made it known that the maiden before whom the branch bent should be his bride; the others would have only the pearls. So he went around with the branch of rosemary, but it did not move; it bent before no one. The girls were given their pearls and went away. The second day the same thing was arranged, and again the same thing happened, and likewise on the third day. The next night, while the king slept, he heard something tapping on the window. It proved to be a little golden bird; it said to him: “You do not know it, but twice you have done me a great service; I will also do you a service. As soon as day breaks, get up, take your branch of rosemary and follow me. I will lead you to a place where you will find a horse; it has a silver arrow piercing its body; you must pull it out, and the horse will lead you to where you will find your bride.”

The next morning the king went out and followed the little golden bird until they came to a horse that was very weak and ill and that said: “A witch has shot an arrow into my body!” The king pulled out the arrow and at that moment the weak animal was changed into a wonderfully swift horse. The king mounted it, the golden bird flew on in front, and the rosemary branch waved ahead of the king on his magic horse. At last they reached a castle made of glass. Long before they reached it, they heard a buzzing and a buzzing and a buzzing, and when the king entered with the branch of rosemary and the little golden bird, he saw another king standing there, fashioned entirely of glass, and in the stomach of the glass king was an enormous bluebottle fly; it was this bluebottle fly that made the buzzing, and it was trying to work its way out. The king asked the glass king what it all meant. “Well,” said the latter, “just look towards the sofa: there sits my queen in a pink silk gown, and the secret of it all you will soon discover. The web that has been spun around the queen has just been torn away by a thornbird and will soon be quite torn off her. Then there will come a wicked spider to spin a new web around the queen, and while I am bewitched here in a glass body, my wife will be enmeshed by the spider's web. We have already been imprisoned like this for several hundred years and must remain here until we are released.” Presently the wicked spider appeared and spun her web around the queen, but while the spider was at work the magic horse stepped up and wanted to kill the spider. He was just about to put his hoof on her, when the buzzing bluebottle fly, which had worked its way out, came to the help of the spider, but the magic horse killed them both. Then instantly the glass king was turned into a quite human king. The thornbird was changed into a charming waiting-maid, the queen was freed from the cobweb, and the glass king related how it had all come about:

As soon as he became king he had had to suffer from the persecutions of a wicked witch who lived in a forest on the edge of his domain. The witch wanted him to marry her daughter, but as he had already chosen a wife from a neighboring fairy castle, the witch swore to be revenged on him; she changed him into a glass king and her daughter into a bluebottle fly, who gnawed at his stomach. The queen was tormented by the witch, who changed herself into a wicked spider and spun a cobweb around the queen; the maid was changed into a thornbird, and the king's horse was shot by the witch, whose arrow remained in its body. Now everything had been set right through the horse being freed and able to free the others.

Then the king asked the former glass king if he knew where he could find a suitable wife. The latter showed him the way to the neighboring fairy castle. The little golden bird flew on in front and when they came to the castle they found a lily. The branch of rosemary led them straight to it and bent before the lily, and at the same moment the lily was changed into a wonderfully beautiful maiden who had also been bewitched, for the queen of the neighboring castle was her sister. Now she was released, because of what had just taken place. The king took her back to his home, the wedding was celebrated, and they lived in great happiness, they themselves and all their people. They lived for a long, long time. No one knows how long, but if they have not died, they must still be alive today.

The first thing we must do in order to understand the meaning of genuine fairy tales and myths is to stop regarding them as fantasy derived from folk imagination; they are never that. The starting point of all true tales lies in time immemorial, in the time when those who had not yet attained intellectual powers possessed a more or less remarkable clairvoyance, the remains of the primeval clairvoyance. People who had preserved this lived in a condition between sleeping and waking where they actually experienced the spiritual world in many different forms. This was not like one of our dreams today, which have for most people (but not for everyone) a somewhat chaotic nature. In those ancient times, people with the old clairvoyance had such regular experiences that everyone's were the same or very similar.

What then really happened to human beings in this intermediate state between waking and sleeping? When people are in their physical bodies, they perceive the world around them as far as they can with their physical organs of perception but behind that world is the spiritual world. In this intermediate state it was as though a veil were lifted, the veil of the physical world, and the spiritual world became visible. Everything in the spiritual world was seen in some particular relationship to what lived inwardly in the human being. It is much the same in the physical world; we cannot see colors with the ear nor hear tones with the eye. The outer accords with the inner. In such an intermediate state, the external senses were silent, while the inner soul became active. Just as the eye and the ear connect themselves with the surrounding world, the different parts of the human astral body make their own connection, in this intermediate state of consciousness, with their surrounding world. When the outer senses are silenced the soul comes to life.

We have, to begin with, three members of the soul: sentient soul, intellectual soul, and consciousness soul. As the eye and the ear each have a different relationship to the surrounding world, so has each of these three members of the human soul its quite distinct relationship to its surrounding world. We become aware, in this intermediate state, of one or another part of our soul, which is directed to its surroundings. If the sentient soul especially is directed to its spiritual surroundings, we will see all those beings that are intimately connected with the ordinary forces of nature. People do not themselves see the active forces of nature, but they do see what lives in that activity: wind, weather and other natural phenomena. The beings that express themselves within it are perceived through the sentient soul. When that soul is especially active, it is exactly as if we were still living at the time when neither the intellectual soul nor the consciousness soul had yet been developed; we are transported back and see our surroundings as we did in ancient times, just as when we did not know how to use our intellectual and consciousness souls.

In those ancient times we were in very close touch with all the forces of nature and still bound up with them. We consisted, as everyone on earth did at that time, of physical body, etheric body, astral body and sentient soul alone. We ourselves were able then to do what now those beings around us that are active within the lower nature forces can do; they appear to us as the expression of what we once were, when in the howling windstorm men could tear up trees, when they could control the weather, the mist and the rain. The beings around us appear to us just as we ourselves once were when we still had the strength of giants, before we had withdrawn so completely from the forces of nature. The figures that appear around us are the facsimiles of our own former appearance, people with gigantic strength, “giants.” In such an intermediate state of consciousness, we see giants as real figures, representing a quite definite kind of being, men possessed of gigantic strength. The giants are also stupid, because they belong to a time when people could not yet use an intellectual soul — they are strong and stupid.

Now what can the intellectual soul see in such an intermediate state? It can see that things were fashioned in accordance with a certain wisdom. Through strength, through the giant in man, everything was formed and brought about; through what is in our intellectual soul when we are alive to it, we see beings around us who bring wisdom into everything, who regulate everything wisely. While the giants are generally seen in male form, we see the images of the intellectual soul as constructive female beings who bring wisdom into the activity of the world. These are the “wise women” of the tales, working behind everything that is formed and themselves forming everything. In these figures we see ourselves over and over again as we once were when we had acquired an intellectual soul but not yet a consciousness soul. Because we see ourselves intimately connected with such wise rulers at the back of things, we often feel when we enter an intermediate state of consciousness: “The wise female beings I see there are really related to me.” Therefore the idea of “sisters” often arises when these female beings appear.

Now there is something else our soul experiences when in this state of consciousness and this can be understood only very inwardly. In such a condition of soul we have withdrawn from ordinary physical perception, so that we say to ourselves, “Yes, what I see now in my soul is certainly contained in what I see during the day, in what is clear then to my intellectual soul — but when I see it by day, it is exactly reversed.” When in the intermediate state of consciousness we remember the impressions of the day, they appear to be the reverse of what we remember during the day of the perceptions we had during the intermediate state, of the various fleeting forms of our astral organization. When we recall the impressions of the day, it seems as though the subtle etheric forms behind ordinary reality were changed into stiff figures. Things during the day appear to us as though they were bewitched, with their real nature held prisoner within them. Wherever a plant or being appears bewitched, it has happened like this: we see the substance of a wise being behind the physical appearance and we remember, “Yes, by day that is only a plant; it is separated from my intellectual soul so that I cannot really reach it during the day.” When we feel this estrangement between the objects by day and what is behind them, for example the perception of the lily in the daytime and the form behind it related to our own intellectual soul, we will perceive that our intellectual soul has a strong kind of longing to unite with what is behind the object or the lily; it would be a “marriage,” a union of the night-form with the day-form.

The consciousness soul originated in human beings at a time when we had already distanced ourselves from the forces of nature and no longer could look into the mysteries of existence. What the consciousness soul is able to do is far removed from those strong forces we have described. Shrewdness is its essential quality, not strength nor any rough force. By means of the consciousness soul we can see all those spiritual beings that have remained behind at the stage where the human being had only the sheath of the ego. We see them living at that point, not able to do much with their minute strength, and as we see their forms in images according to their inner nature, they appear to us as dwarfs. In intermediate periods when we free ourselves from sense perception, we find the whole realm that lies behind sense perception peopled with such forms. In our more or less higher moments, when we feel our connection to the spiritual world, the outer events in life appear to be what they genuinely are: an imprint or reproduction of this whole relationship to the spiritual world.

If a person is especially shrewd in life and not only dry and prosaic but able to conceive the relationship of life to spiritual reality, particularly in such states in which human beings can still know something of spiritual reality, the following may happen. If he is a somewhat thoughtful person, he will observe that certain people with shrewdness are able in all sorts of clever ways to overcome the crude forces that otherwise dominate people's lives. He will then tell himself: “What actually happens in life is that rough strength is overcome by cleverness; for this we can thank the powers behind us, to whom we are related, for they have allowed a force to become conscious in us that overcomes rough strength with cleverness, the rough strength that we ourselves possessed when we were at the stage of the giants.”

The incidents of our inner life appear to us as mirror-images of events in the outer world that have passed away but can still be perceived in the spiritual world. In the spiritual world are reflected the struggles of those beings who, though weaker in bodily strength, are in consequence stronger in spiritual strength. Whenever the overcoming of the rough forces or the giants appears in fairy tales it is founded on the perception taking place in such an intermediate state of consciousness. Man wishes to gain a clear insight about himself; he has lost sight of the spiritual world, but he says to himself: “I can gain a clear insight when I am in such an intermediate state. Then I shall be so wise that intelligence and shrewdness will gain the victory over the rough forces!”

Powers appear and act and enlighten man as to what happens in the spiritual world. He then recounts what has happened in the spiritual world, and must recount it in such a way that he says: “What I have seen and related happened once upon a time, and is still happening behind the world of sense in the spiritual world, where there are different conditions of life.” It may be that every time he has seen it under such conditions, the event is already past, together with the conditions which made such an action possible. Yet it may still be there. It depends on whether someone entering an intermediate state observes that event. It is neither here nor there but everywhere where there is anyone who can observe it. Therefore, every genuine fairy tale begins:

“Once upon a time it happened — where then was it? Where indeed was it not?” That is the correct beginning of a fairy tale, and every fairy tale must end with, “I once saw this, and if what happened in the spiritual world did not perish, if it is not dead, it must still be alive today.” That is just the way every fairy tale should be related. If you always begin and end this way, you will create the right sort of sensitivity to what you are telling.

Suppose — like the king in the second tale — someone has to find a wife. He looks for a being in the human world who is as nearly as possible a picture of what he can find in the spiritual world as his archetype, and this can be found through the wise guidance of the powers that the intellectual soul can recognize. But in the outer world it cannot be found; therefore we have to subordinate the outer to the more inward element in ourselves. On the physical plane we are subject to error. Therefore we must allow deeply inward powers to rule, when we make such a search as the king is doing. Even today we are able to do this by putting ourselves in that intermediate state of consciousness, in order to make a connection with the powers ruling there. The persons who possess such powers, however, live in retirement where they are not distracted by the immense happenings of the world. And so the king has to go to his friend, the hermit, living alone and in poverty, who knows the secrets of the forces guiding human beings to the spiritual world. He is able to give the king the branch of rosemary.

The king cannot find, through any outward contrivance, what can be determined only by his archetypes in the spiritual world. Therefore he dreams first of all that a little golden bird comes to him and then he remains in a sort of waking-dream state. In this condition, through the transparent touch one has as a sense in the spiritual world, he experiences everything I have shown. Gradually he comes to find out, through the powers opposing human purity and nobility, something that has been preserved even into our own time: the possibility of being blessed with pure joy. None of the powers bound to the physical world today can bring him to this, only the power that appears to him when the intellectual soul or his general inner soul strength is directed towards the spiritual world. And this power comes to him in the image of the “magic horse.” In the physical world the horse is only the shadow picture of what lies behind it in the spiritual world. The harmful powers of soul embodied in the physical world have shot the arrow into the horse's body. The moment that these forces are plucked out and the horse is freed from them, the powers are aroused that enable the king to understand and assess all these relationships, so that by looking not only on outer appearance, he is able to find what is right for him. With ordinary intelligence, he might wander far into the world and find people here, there, and everywhere, but he would pass by the wife he is looking for; he would not understand at all what conditions are involved or what hindrances there are. The earlier conditions would be preserved.

The conditions he is looking for are there, but they are distorted by the outer physical world, where indeed most things do appear altered. We certainly do not have — in the physical world — the forces in their true reality. However, the transformed glass king finally appears in his true form and is the very personality who can point out where the other should look for a wife. Through the opposing forces of the outer world the glass king has been transformed; these forces assert themselves when the human being is completely entangled in the concerns of the external world. At first the glass king is completely enmeshed in outer circumstances and this has made him different inwardly from what he actually could be. We often have things like wrong-doing in our karma that are like an evil bluebottle fly. The truth lying at the bottom of all this is revealed in such pictures. We must be able to imagine the situation: what lies behind physical phenomena can be found in the forces awakened in the king. As his soul forces awaken and when he directs them well, he finds what the outer physical forces had hidden from him, his “bride.”

When some external happening like searching for a bride is pictured in such tales, it usually takes place not in an ordinary way but in circumstances where someone comes into contact with a sort of soul-shepherd, who will awaken the deeper forces within him, as the hermit did for the king. He is led thereby to the forces that make everything in the physical world appear unreal for a time; he needs this if it is going to be possible for him to discern the truth. And so we see that while outer conditions seem to be the source, other states of consciousness are present, calling forth genuine vision.

Every fairy tale can be explained in this way, but the explanation should come forth out of the spiritual reality that lies in back of the whole world of fairy tales. Everything that occurs in a tale, including all the small details, can gradually be found and interpreted. For example, the mysterious connection between the active forces of perception and the hidden forces of ordinary life can become visible when we begin to look at it more inwardly. This is beautifully symbolized in the touch of the little golden bird on the lily. Delicate, significant spiritual forces are indeed latent in the lily, but they only appear when they have been aroused by the golden bird.

The established belief that everything around us is bewitched spiritual truth and that we attain the truth when we break the spell, is the basis of the realm of the fairy tale. We must be quite clear that a fairy tale is primarily the account of an astral event. But by its constant repetition minor details are altered — people have an extraordinary talent for changing things! We carefully collect the tales as they are told again and again by simple people, and indeed these are remnants of an ancient picture seen in the astral world, but many of the details may well have been altered. And then the mistake is made to explain these alterations in a clever way. To explain fairy tales correctly, we must always go back to their original form and recognize it as such. Everything has to correspond to those astral experiences.

The question may arise whether the human being has the same form today as in those earlier times that are still contained in the spiritual experiences we have in the intermediate state of consciousness. The answer is no, we do not. We have passed through very different forms before developing into what we are today. However, what we have overcome and cast forth appears in a quite distinct, external form. In order to estrange ourselves from our giant power, we had to cast forth our giant shapes and overcome them, refining our forces and raising them to the intellectual soul and the consciousness soul. There are indeed beings who have remained at the stage of the rough forces. Wherever something evil appears and has to be overcome, something that has remained stationary on the astral plane, it always appears as a “dragon” or something similar; this is none other than the grotesque form, transformed in the spiritual world, of what human beings had to change and cast forth from themselves. We must be aware that this corresponds to an absolutely certain fact.

In conclusion, I should like to relate another fairy tale for you to ponder over for yourselves. It will contain the various motifs that come into play when the human being makes a connection with the astral world. If you apply what I have been describing to this somewhat complicated tale, you will be able to unravel the threads almost entirely for yourselves. This particular fairy tale is a kind of synthesis, bringing together the most varied, interweaving forces:

Once upon a time it happened — where then was it? Where indeed was it not? There was an old king, who had three sons and three daughters. When he was about to die, he said to his three sons, “Give my three daughters to those who first ask for them in marriage, that they do not stay single. That is my first charge to you. And my second is this: you must never find yourselves at a certain place, especially at night.” And he showed them the spot, under a poplar tree in the forest.

When the old king died, his sons were resolved to carry out his directions. On the first evening, something or someone shouted through the window, asking for a king's daughter. The brothers were willing and they threw one of their sisters out of the window. The second evening again someone or something shouted through the window, asking for a king's daughter. The brothers threw their second sister out of the window. And on the third evening again someone or something shouted through the window, asking for a king's daughter, and the brothers threw their third sister out of the window.

Now they were alone, but they began to be curious. They wanted above all to know why they should avoid the poplar tree in the forest. So they went out one evening and sat under the poplar tree, lighted a fire, and fell asleep. The eldest was to keep watch. While he walked backwards and forwards, armed with his sword, he saw something eating the fire; on looking closer he saw it was a three-headed dragon. He fought the three-headed dragon, he vanquished and buried it, but he said nothing about this to his brothers, and in the morning they went home. The next evening they went out again, lighted a fire, and lay down beside it. This time the second brother had to keep watch. Soon he saw something eating the fire, and on looking closer saw it was a six-headed dragon. He fought the six-headed dragon, vanquished and buried it, but said nothing about it, and the others thought nothing had happened; the next morning they went home. The third night the same thing happened; they lighted a fire, and the youngest brother had to keep watch. Almost as soon as the others were asleep, while he was walking up and down carrying his sword, he saw something eating the fire. He looked closer and hesitated a little, losing a few moments' time. Then he began to fight the dragon, which was a nine-headed one; but by the time he had finally vanquished it, the fire had gone out. Now he did not want to catch the others by surprise, so he set about finding a light. He saw a little light between the twigs, which he tried to get, but it was not enough. Then he saw something fighting in the air, and asked what it was, and the fighting Creatures replied: “We are the sun and the dawn, we are fighting for the day.” So he loosened a cord which fastened up his garments and tied the sun and the dawn together, so that the day might not begin. Then he went further to fetch light and fire, and came to a spot where three giants slept by a mighty fire. He took some of the fire, but as he tried to step over one of the giants, some fire fell on the giant and woke him. The giant seized him with his hand, showed him to the others and said:

“Look at the midge I have caught!” The king's son was greatly alarmed, for the giants wanted to kill him; however, they struck a bargain with him. There were three princesses they wanted to get hold of but a dog and a chicken at the door made such a noise that they could not get to them. The king's son promised to help them, and so the giants let him go free. A ball of thread was attached and the king's son went forward, carrying the ball of thread. It was arranged that every time he pulled the thread one of the giants should follow. He soon came to a river he could not cross. (All this time the brothers still slept.) He pulled the thread and one of the giants came and threw the trunk of a tree across the river so that he was able to go on. Now he came to the king's palace, where he expected to find the princesses. He went in and entered one of the rooms. There he saw one of the princesses. She lay on a copper bed and had a little gold ring on her finger. This he took off and put on his own finger and went on. Then he came to a second room where the second princess lay on a silver bed; she, too, had a little gold ring on her finger, which he took off and put on his own finger. Then he came to the third room, where the third princess lay on a golden bed, and he also put on her golden ring. Then he looked about him and discovered a very small opening which was an entrance to the castle. So he pulled the thread and the first giant came along; but the moment that the giant tried to get through the door, his head inside but his body outside, the king's son quickly cut off his head. He did the same with the second giant and the third, and so he killed them all. Then he went back to his brothers, after he had first unbound the sun and the dawn. They looked at each other and said; “Oh! what a long night!” “Yes,” he said, “it was a long night!” But like the others, he said nothing further, and they all went home.

Some time after this the brothers wanted to marry, and the youngest brother told the others he knew where there were a king's three daughters, and he led them to the castle. The three brothers married, the youngest marrying the most beautiful princess, the one who had lain on the golden bed. The youngest brother was the heir of his wife's father and had therefore to live in a foreign land. After a time he wished to visit his native land and to take his wife with him. But his father-in-law said to him: “If you set forth on this journey, your wife will be taken from you at the border, and perhaps you may never see her again!” They wanted to go, however, so they set out and took thirty horsemen to protect them. But when they came to the border, the wife was torn away as if by an unknown power. He went back and asked his wife's father how and where he could find his wife again. His father-in-law said;

“If you find her at all it will only be in the White Country.” So he set out to find his wife. But he did not know the way to the White Country.

At last he came to a castle, and went in to ask the way to the White Country. There he met the lady of the castle and saw that she was one of his own sisters whom her brothers had thrown out of the window. He asked for her husband, who was called in, and lo! he was a four-headed dragon! They asked him the way to the White Country; he did not know where it was, but his animals might know. The animals were called in, but none of them knew the way to the White Country. So the king's son went on and came to a second castle. There he found his second sister. He asked for her husband, and he was called in. He was an eight-headed dragon, and he, too, knew nothing of a white land. “Perhaps,” said he, “the animals might know.” The animals were called in, but none of them knew the way to the White Country, and so the king's son had to go on. After a time he came to a third castle, and there he found his third sister. He told her what he wanted, and she answered him very sadly. Her husband, a twelve-headed dragon was called in, and asked about the White Country; he said he knew nothing of it, but it might be that one of his animals did. The animals were therefore called in, but none of them knew the White Country. As the very last came a lame wolf. “Yes,” said he, “I once came to such a land; there I was wounded, and am now lame for evermore. I know the White Country, unluckily for me!” Said the king's son: “I want to be taken there.” But the wolf would not go, even though they promised him whole herds of sheep. At last he was persuaded to guide the king's son as far as a hill from which he could see the White Country. They came to this hill, and the lame wolf left him there.

The king's son found a spring from which he drank and felt greatly refreshed by the water. Then a woman came by, whom he recognized at once as his stolen wife. She also recognized him, saying immediately: “You cannot carry me off yet, for if you do, the magician who imprisons me here as his wife will at once bring me back on his magic horse. It flies through the air as quickly as thought.” Whereupon the king's son said:

“What then shall we do?” She answered: “There is only one way: we must have a swifter horse. Go to the old woman who lives at the border. Hire yourself out to her as a servant; she will set you hard tasks, but you will soon find out how to accomplish them. You must demand as wages the youngest foal and a saddle. Say to the old woman: ‘I want the old saddle that lies over there on the ground, covered with dirt.’ Thirdly, you will demand a very old bridle.”

With these instructions the king's son went on his way and came to a stream. As he rested beside it, he saw a fish lying on the bank. The fish begged him, “Take me and throw me back into the water; you will be doing me a great kindness!” He did so, and while he was doing it the fish gave him a whistle and said to him: “If you ever want anything, just whistle, and I will do you a service!” He took the little whistle and went on. After a while he met an ant who was pursued by her enemy, a spider. He freed her, and in return the ant gave him a small whistle, and told him that if he were ever in trouble and whistled, help would be sent him. He took it and went on his way. Soon he met a wounded fox, who had a silver arrow stuck in him. The fox said, “If you will draw out the arrow, and give me some herb roots for my wound, I will help you if ever you are in great trouble.” The king's son did this, and the fox also gave him a whistle. With these three whistles in his pocket the king's son went to the old woman who lived at the border. He told her he wished to hire himself out to her as a servant. “That you may,” said she, “but service with me is very hard; so far no one has been able to stand up to it.” Saying this she led him out into a field where ninety-nine men were hanging. “All these men hired themselves out to me, but none could do what I wanted. If you still wish to come and are also not able to stand up to it, you may be the hundredth.” However, he entered her service for a year.

Now in that district a year has only three days. On the first day the old woman made him a soup that sent people to sleep, a dream-soup, and then she sent him away with three horses. Having taken the soup he soon fell asleep, and when he awoke the three horses were gone. He bethought himself of the three whistles; he took the first one out and whistled. There was a kind of spring at that spot, and three little goldfish came swimming along. As soon as he touched them, they turned into the three horses, and so he brought the horses back to the old woman. She herself had changed the horses into goldfish. When she saw him return with the horses, she lost her temper and threw herself from side to side with rage.

The next day the old woman again made him a dream-soup, and sent him away with the horses. The soup sent him to sleep, and when he awoke the horses had disappeared. Then he whistled with the second whistle, and three golden ants instantly appeared. As soon as he touched them, there were his three horses again, which he brought back to the old woman. Then the old woman was quite wild, because she herself had enchanted the horses, and she railed against the horses. But the king's son was saved. The third day the old woman said to herself: “I must set about this much more cleverly.” She again made him a dream-soup, and sent him out with the horses. When the soup had sent him to sleep, she changed the horses into three golden eggs, which she placed under herself and sat down on them. When the king's son awoke, the horses were gone, and so he whistled on the third whistle. Now just imagine how cleverly everything happened. The fox came by and said:

“This time the task is a little more difficult, but we shall manage it. I shall go to the hen-yard and make a great commotion there. The old woman will spring up and go out, and at that moment you will touch the eggs and they will be changed.” And so it happened. The fox went to the farmyard and made a disturbance, and as the old woman sprang up and ran out, the king's son touched the eggs; when she came back there were the three horses! The old woman was now obliged to ask the king's son: “What will you have for your reward?” She expected he would want something very special. But he said: “I only want the foal that was born last night, the old saddle over there covered with dirt, and an old bridle.” These she gave him. The foal was so small he had to carry it on his back. When evening came the little foal said; “Now you can sleep while I go to a spring and drink.” Next morning it returned, and could already gallop with great swiftness. The second night the same thing happened, and the third day it led him to the place where his wife was. His wife was placed on the little horse — and this is the point that proves to anyone who understands these things the occult origin of fairy tales — and the king's son asked, “How fast shall we travel through the air?” His wife answered: “With the swiftness of thought!” Now when the magician who had imprisoned her noticed their flight, he mounted his magic horse to hurry after them. The horse asked him: “How fast shall we travel through the air?” And he replied: “With the swiftness of will or of thought!” He rushed after them, getting nearer and nearer — and when he was quite near, the magic horse told the one in front of him to stop. “I will only stop when you are quite close,” was the answer. At the same moment the magic horse reared, threw the robber off, and joined the little horse. So the queen was freed. The king's son was now able to go home with his wife, and they lived again in their own country. And if what happened did not fade away, they must still be alive today.

That is a somewhat more complicated fairy tale, containing the most varied features. Until the time comes when we can say more in explanation of this tale, we should just let it penetrate our souls in order to decipher the different features that are here harmonized so wonderfully. Of course, all that has been brought in through false tradition must naturally be sifted out of it. But you will be able to find the threads leading to every event if you follow the principle described here: the dragon-theme; the theme of the three sisters who were thrown out of the window; the theme of the conquest of the dragons at the fire; the theme of cleverness; the marriage theme (the intellectual soul with the outer world); and once again in a unique manner the theme of the cleverness of the magic forces. Then Nemesis or fate appears in a wonderful way when the king's son meets his sisters: the three brothers had thrown out their higher sisterly nature — hence the death of the dragons at the fire, and so on.

Such fairy tales are the experiences of certain individuals among people who are in the intermediate state of consciousness. The great popular myths of the gods are also representations of everything the initiates experience on the astral and higher planes. Fairy tales stand in relation to the great popular myths of the gods in the following manner: The myths can be understood when we realize the huge comprehensive circumstances of the cosmos underlying them, and fairy tales can be understood when we realize that the different happenings and pictures are nothing but the repetition of astral events. In far remote times everyone had astral experiences. They became fewer and fewer. One person told them to another, the other took them up, and so the fairy tales were carried from place to place. They appeared in the most varied languages, and we can note the similarity of the fairy tale treasures the whole world over, when we unveil the astral events that serve as their basis.

Any thoughtful person who travels about can even now find the last remnants of atavistic clairvoyance. Somewhere or other he may meet someone who relates what he has seen in the astral world as his own personal experience. Such a person in traveling about the world will hear fairy tales told by those who still possess a presentiment of the real truth. In this way they have been inscribed in our literature, and thus did the brothers Grimm collect their fairy tales; in like manner others have collected them, who were usually not clairvoyant themselves, but got them at second, third, or even tenth hand, so that they encountered them in a very mutilated form. But the time when people were still in such close touch with the spiritual world is approaching its twilight. Human beings are withdrawing more and more from the spiritual world. Atavistic clairvoyance is becoming rarer and rarer, at least, what may be called healthy clairvoyance, and true clairvoyance tends more and more to be attainable only through training, so that in the time to come most people who know anything of the matter will say about what people saw in ancient times: “Once upon a time old people related this or that from their astral experiences. Where was it then? It could have been everywhere.”

Nowadays, however, we can very seldom find anyone who can relate things from a genuine source, and it will be said of fairy tale experiences: “They happened once upon a time, and if they did not perish, these fairy tale experiences are still alive.”

But for most people, who are inwardly entangled with the physical plane, they have long since been dead.




Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
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