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The Poetry and Meaning of Fairy Tales

Schmidt Number: S-2705

On-line since: 15th January, 2006

The Poetry of Fairy Tales

Berlin, February 6, 1913

There are several reasons why it would seem a somewhat risky enterprise to speak about fairy tales in the light of spiritual science.

First of all, the subject is indeed difficult, for the source of what one can call the true fairy tale mood lies deep down within the human soul. The methods of spiritual science that I have often described must take their way along extremely convoluted and lengthy paths in order to find this source. We little suspect how deeply hidden lie the springs that have given rise through centuries of human history to all the enchantment of genuine fairy tale poetry.

In the second place, it is just this poetic enchantment that causes one to feel strongly about fairy tales; studying them or trying to explain them with one's own ideas must surely destroy their fresh spontaneity, yes, even the whole effect of the tales. We often hear it said quite rightly that explanations and commentaries of poetry spoil the immediate, lively, artistic impression that a poem should give us; we want it to affect us simply on its own. All the more should this apply to the infinitely subtle and bewitching quality of the poetic tales arising from the deep, almost bottomless springs of the folk soul or from single human hearts. They flow out in such an original way that intruding our own strong judgment would seem like tearing a flower to pieces.

Nevertheless, spiritual research does find it possible to throw some light into those regions of soul that give rise to the poetic mood of the fairy tale. In doing this, the second doubt will be allayed. Simply by searching out the sources and wellsprings from which fairy tales flow, deep down in human soul nature, we can be completely sure that the explanations of spiritual science will touch those depths so gently that they are not harmed. Just the opposite: the wonder of everything lying down there in the human soul is so new, so original, so individual that one has oneself to resort to a kind of fairy tale in speaking about it all; nothing else will do to describe these hidden springs.

Goethe, for one, moving beyond his work as an artist in order to plunge fully into the wellsprings and sources of life, would not take to theoretical discussion nor destroy the fairy tale's living water with his scrutiny when he wanted to reveal one of the most profound insights into the human soul. No, as soon as he had won these insights, it seemed natural to use the fairy tale itself to describe what lives and comes to expression in the soul at its deepest level. In his Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, Goethe tried to express in his own way the extraordinary soul experiences that Schiller brought forward in a more abstract, philosophical style in the Aesthetic Education of Man.

The very nature of fairy tale enchantment leads us to believe that explaining and trying to understand it will probably never destroy the creative mood; to dig down into those wellsprings with the resources of spiritual research is to discover something quite remarkable. If I were to talk about fairy tales as much as I'd like to do, I would have to give many lectures. Today it will be possible to bring only a few hints regarding the results of research.

A person who attempts the spiritual exploration of the fairy tale sources will find that they lie in far more profound depths of the soul than those from which other works of art emerge, even for instance, the most awe-inspiring tragic drama. In a tragedy, the poet shows us how the human soul experiences the gigantic powers of fate that exalt as well as crush their victim. Fate is the cause of the ordeals and shocks of tragedy. We find that the tangled threads woven together and then unraveled in tragic drama belong more or less to what an individual has to suffer from the outside world. However difficult this may be to discern, requiring as it does our finding the way into the uniqueness of a human soul, it is nevertheless quite possible for anyone sensitive to the impact of life itself upon the soul. A tragedy, we feel, shows us how an individual is entangled in this or that fateful life-situation.

However, the source of fairy tale mood and fairy tale poetry lies still deeper than the complexities of tragedy. For one thing, we can feel that tragedy concerns itself — as do other artistic creations — with an individual who in a certain period of life, at a certain age, is exposed to some kind of misfortune. We take it for granted that when tragic drama affects us, it is because a human being is brought through his own unique experiences to what is happening; we realize that it is one single person with his own special destiny that we must come to understand. Here, as in other works of art, we meet a particular, circumscribed sphere of life.

It is altogether different, we feel, when we come knowingly to fairy tale poetry and its mood. The effect of a fairy tale on our soul is spontaneous, elementary, and therefore remains unconscious. When we try to get a feeling for it, however, we can find that what a fairy tale expresses is not about one person in a particular situation in life, is not a limited portion of life, but rather something so integrated in human experience that it has to do with the comprehensive truth of all mankind. It is not about some special individual who finds himself at a certain time of life in a singular dilemma; what the fairy tale describes lies so completely in everyone's soul nature that it represents actual experience to children in their early years to persons of middle age and even to old men and women.

Throughout our whole lifetime the fairy tale happenings picture our most profound experiences of soul, even though the style is light, playful and picturesque. The artistic enjoyment of a fairy tale, in its correspondence to inner soul experiences, can be compared — a rather bold comparison — to the relationship of an enjoyable taste on the tongue to the hidden, complex proceedings in the rest of the body, where the food takes up its task of nourishing the organism. What lies in that further process, after our pleasure in its taste, is not at all evident to our observation or understanding. Both things seem at first to have little to do with each other; no one is able to say, from savoring a food, what its particular use will be in the life processes of the body. And so it is with our joy in the art of the fairy tale. It is far, far removed from what is happening at the same time, all unconsciously, deep in the soul. There the essence of the fairy tale is pouring forth, satisfying the soul's persistent hunger for it. Just as our body has to have nutritive substances circulating through the organism, the soul needs fairy tale substance flowing through its spiritual veins.

Using the methods of research described in my books as a way to approach the higher worlds, you will discover, at a certain level of spiritual knowledge, the spiritual processes working unconsciously in the depths of the soul. In our ordinary life we are aware of these spirit impulses within our soul only when they surface as gentle dreams, caught at rare times by our waking consciousness. Now and then we may have such a special waking up that we realize: You are emerging out of a spiritual world where there is thinking and where there are intentions, and where something was happening down in the unapproachable grounds of your existence that was somehow akin to daily happenings; this something seems an intimate part of your own being but is completely hidden from your waking, everyday life.

It is often the same story with the spiritual researcher, even when he has progressed as far as experiencing a world of spiritual beings and spiritual deeds. However much further he then advances, he nonetheless reaches again and again the same edge of a world out of whose deep unconsciousness there come towards him spiritual impulses, impulses connected with himself. They appear to his spiritual gaze like a Fata Morgana but they do not yield themselves up to him completely.

This very peculiar experience is what awaits one on looking into the unfathomable spiritual relationships belonging to the human soul. It is fairly easy to follow attentively and understand certain intimate soul happenings, for example, the emotional conflicts that also lie there within the soul and that are revealed in art, in tragic drama. But far more difficult are the quite common human conflicts, which in our daily life we simply cannot imagine are there, and yet every one of us undergoes them at every period of our life.

One such soul conflict discovered by spiritual research takes place without the ordinary consciousness being aware of it: our waking up every day, when the soul leaves the world it has been in during sleep and slips down into the physical body. As I said, we have normally not the slightest knowledge of this, yet every morning our soul is engaged in a battle that the spiritual researcher can catch only to a slight degree: it is the battle of the single, lonely human soul meeting the gigantic powers of nature. Thunder and lightning and everything else in the elements that we have to confront out in the world unload their great strengths on us as we stand there more or less helplessly. All that tremendous power, however, even when we meet it head on, is a small thing compared to the unconscious battle at the moment of waking up, when our soul — alive only to itself up to then — has to unite with the pressures and substances of a purely physical body. The soul needs this organism in order to use the bodily senses that are governed by the laws of nature and to use also the bodily limbs in which the powers of nature prevail. There is something like a yearning in the soul to dip down into this sheer natural state, a yearning satisfied each time by waking up, and yet at this very moment there is a shrinking back, a feeling of utter helplessness in the face of the eternal opposition existing between the soul and the nature-related physical body, into which one awakens. It may sound strange that this daily battle takes place in the depths of our soul — but then it takes place in complete unconsciousness. The soul knows nothing of what it has to undergo every single morning, but nevertheless it is burdened by the conflict, which affects its very nature and its individual character.

There is something else happening in these depths, which can be caught on the wing by spiritual research; it occurs at the moment of falling asleep. The human soul withdraws from the sense world and from the bodily limbs and has more or less left behind the physical body in the physical-sense world. Then there comes to the soul what one may describe as an awareness of its inwardness. At that moment it begins to experience unconsciously the inner battles caused by its constraint in a physical body in the waking state, where it has to act in consequence of its entanglement in matter. It is aware of its bent toward the burdensome sense-world, which, however, represses its morality. In falling asleep and during sleep, the soul is alone with itself and pervaded unconsciously by so moral an atmosphere that it can hardly be compared to the morality we know in ordinary life. Besides other impressions, it is this that the soul experiences when it is outside the physical body and living a purely spiritual existence between falling asleep and waking up.

We should not imagine that all these occurrences in our soul are simply absent when we are awake. Spiritual research can show one very interesting effect as an example: we do not dream only when we believe we are dreaming but we actually dream the whole day long. In truth, our soul is full of dreams all the time, even though we don't notice it, for our waking consciousness is more forceful than the dream consciousness. As a somewhat weak light is extinguished altogether in the presence of a stronger one, our day-consciousness extinguishes what is continually running parallel to it, the dream experience in the depths of our soul. We dream all the time, but we are seldom conscious of it. Out of those abundant and unconscious dream experiences — an infinitely greater number than our waking perceptions — a few rise up like single drops of water shaken out of an immense lake; these are the dreams we become conscious of. But the dreaming that stays unconscious is perceived by the soul spiritually. In its depths many things are being experienced. Just as chemical processes that we are unaware of take place in the body, there are spiritual experiences taking place within us in unconscious regions of the soul.

We can throw more light into these hidden depths of soul life by adding something else to the facts we have mentioned. It has often been emphasized, and especially so in my last lecture, [Raphaels Mission im Lichte der Wissenschaft vom Geiste (January 30, 1913); The Mission of Raphael (unpublished MS).] that in the course of evolution on earth, human soul life has undergone a complete change. When we look far, far back into the past of humankind, we find the soul of ancient man having totally different experiences from those today. In earlier lectures we spoke about early mankind's primitive clairvoyance; we will speak further about it in the future. We look out at the world today in the wide-awake condition of soul that is normal, taking in sense impressions from outer stimuli, working on them with our intelligence, reason, emotions, and will forces — but this form of consciousness is merely the one that holds good for the present day. This modern consciousness has developed out of the earlier forms in ancient days that we can call — in the best sense of the word — clairvoyant; people were able in certain intermediate conditions between waking and sleeping quite normally to experience something of the spiritual worlds. At that time a person, even though he could not become really conscious of himself, would not find the experiences we have been describing as taking place in the depths of the soul at all unfamiliar or strange.

In ancient times the human being could more fully perceive his union with the spiritual world outside himself. He saw how everything going on in his soul, the happenings deep in his soul, were related to certain spiritual realities alive in the universe. He saw these realities moving through his soul, felt closely related to the spirit-soul beings and realities of the universe. This was a characteristic of mankind's primeval clairvoyance. In ancient times, not only artists but quite primitive people frequently had a feeling that I am going to describe, which today we arrive at only in quite special moods.

It can really happen that, living gently in the depths of the soul, as gently as anything can be, there is an experience of the spiritual realities mentioned above, one that does not come to consciousness. Nothing of it is perceived in the wide-awake life of the day. But something is there in the soul, just as hunger often is there in the physical organism, and just as we have a need for something to satisfy our hunger, we have also a need for something to satisfy this delicate need in our soul.

It is at this moment that one feels urged either to come to a fairy tale or a legend that one knows, or else, perhaps, if one has an artistic nature, to create something of the kind oneself, even though one senses that all the words one could theoretically use would only reach a kind of stammering about such experiences. This is how the fairy tale images arise. The nourishment that satisfies the hunger we spoke of is just this conscious filling of the soul with fairy tale pictures. In the earlier times of mankind's evolution, the human soul was closer to a clairvoyant perception of its inner spiritual experiences; often, therefore, the simple country folk felt this hunger more distinctly than we do today, and this led them to search for nourishing pictures arising out of their creative soul life; we find these today in the fairy tales coming down to us as folk traditions in various parts of the world. In those earlier times the human soul felt its connection to spiritual existence and felt more or less consciously the inner battles it had to undergo, even without understanding them. The soul formed these into pictures and images which had only a distant resemblance to what was happening in its depths. But still one can feel that there is a connection between the happenings of a fairy tale and the unfathomable, profound experiences of the soul.

It is evident — many can confirm this — that the heart of a child often succeeds in creating for itself a comrade or “friend” who is present only for that child and who stays at its side through all its coming and going. Probably everyone knows children with such invisible spirit-friends. These unseen playmates you have to imagine as being with the child wherever he is, sharing all his joys and sorrows. And then you see someone coming along, a so-called “intelligent” person, who hears about this invisible playmate and tries to talk the child out of it, even believes it's a healthy thing he's doing — but it has a bad effect on the child's feeling-life. A child will grieve for his soul-comrade and if he is susceptible to spiritual-soul moods, the grief will be weighty and can develop into a pining away or sickliness. This is actual experience, related to deep, inward happenings of the human soul.

We can take to heart, without dispelling the fragrance of such a tale, the Grimms' story of the child and the paddock (a small frog). A little girl lets the paddock eat with her out of her bowl of bread and milk; the paddock only drinks the milk. The child talks to the little creature as to another human being, saying one day, “Eat the bread crumbs as well, little thing.” The mother hears this, comes out to the yard, and kills the paddock. And now the child loses her rosy cheeks, wastes away and dies.

In this tale we can feel an echo of certain moods that really and truly are present in the depths of our soul. They are there not only at certain periods of our life, but whether we are children or adults, we recognize such moods because we are human beings.

Every one of us can feel reverberating in us how this something we experience but don't understand, something we don't even bring to consciousness, is connected with the effect of the fairy tale on our soul like the taste of food on our tongue. And then the fairy tale becomes for the soul very much like nutritious food when it is put to use by the whole organism. It is tempting to search in these deep-lying soul experiences for what reverberates in each different tale. Of course it would be a tremendous task over a long time, given the great collections of fairy tales from everywhere in the world, to probe into them just for this. However, what can be looked at in a few tales can be used in a general way for all of them, if the few are genuine fairy tales.

Take one of the stories that the brothers Grimm collected, “Rumpelstiltskin”. When a miller claims that his daughter can spin straw into gold, the king has him bring her to the castle in order to test her art. She comes to the king, is locked in a room with a bundle of straw and “there sat the poor miller's daughter and for the life of her could not tell what to do”. As she begins to weep, there appears a little man who says, “What will you give me if I spin the straw into gold for you?” The girl gives him her necklace and the little man spins the straw into gold. The king next morning is astonished and delighted but wants more; she should spin straw into gold again. She is locked in another room with even more straw, and when the little man appears again and asks, “What will you give me if I spin the straw into gold for you?” she gives him her ring. By morning all the straw is spun into glittering gold. But the king is still not satisfied. The manikin comes again, but now the girl has nothing more to give him. “Then promise me, if you should become queen, to give me your first child,” says the little man, and so she promises. And when, after a year, the child is there and the manikin comes and reminds the queen of her promise, she begs him to wait. “I will give you three days' time,” he replies. “If you know my name by that time, you shall keep your child.” The miller's daughter sends messengers far and wide. She must find every name and also the particular name of the little man. Finally, after several wrong guesses, she succeeds in naming the little man by his right name: Rumpelstiltskin.

No other work of art gives us the feeling of utmost inner joy as the fairy tale with its unsophisticated pictures, yet we can also know the deep soul experience from which such a tale arises. It is a prosaic but accurate comparison to say, we can know a great deal about the chemistry of our food and still take pleasure in something delicious we're eating. And so we can know and understand something about these deep inner soul experiences in us that are felt but not “known” — and that emerge as the pictures of fairy tales.

Indeed our solitary soul, this miller's daughter, is a lonely thing, both in sleep and in waking life, even though she is harbored in our body. The soul feels (but unconsciously) the great antithesis she has to live in; she experiences (but does not understand) her unending task, her own anchorage in divine worlds.

The soul will always be aware of other insignificant abilities in comparison to those of outside nature. Nature is the mighty enchantress, who can transform one thing into another in a trice — something the soul would like to be and do.

In everyday consciousness, one can submit with a good grace to this disparity between the human being and the omnipotent wisdom of the spirit of nature. In the depths of the soul, however, things are not so simple. The soul would certainly come to grief if she did not surmise that within her own conscious being a still deeper being is present, something she can trust, something she might be able to describe like this:

You, Soul, are still at such an imperfect stage — but there is something in you, another entity, who is far more clever than you, who can help you to accomplish the most difficult tasks and give you wings to rise up and look over wide perspectives into an infinite future. Someday you will be able to do what is still impossible, for there is something within you that is far, far greater than the part of you now that “knows”; it will be a loyal helper if you can enter into an alliance with it. But you must truly be able to form a concept of this creature who lives within you and is so much wiser, cleverer, more skilful than you are yourself.

When you try to imagine this conversation of the soul with itself, an unconscious conversation with the more capable part of the soul, you can then try to catch this nuance in the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale: what the miller's daughter had to experience in not being able to spin straw into gold and then finding a loyal helper in the little manikin. It is impossible to blow away the fragrance of those pictures, even when we know their origin, deep down in our soul life. Let us take another tale. Please forgive me if it is connected with things that seem to have a personal coloring; it is not meant to be personal. It makes it somewhat easier to explain if I add this small personal note.

In my book Occult Science [ An Outline of Occult Science, Anthroposophic Press, New York, 1972.] you will find a description of the evolution of the world. I don't intend to speak about it now — possibly on another occasion. During this evolution of the world our earth has passed through certain stages as a planet in the universe, and these stages can be compared to the stages of life in the individual human being. Just as individuals go through one life after another, the earth itself has had various planetary stages or embodiments. In spiritual science, for certain reasons, we speak about the earth — before its “earth” stage began — as having a “moon” stage and before that, a “sun” stage. There was a sun evolutionary period as a planetary pre-stage of our earth in the primordial past; an ancient sun was still united with the earth, from which — at a later stage — it split away. The moon also split away from what originally was the sun. Our sun today is not the original one but only a piece of it; we can speak of an ancient sun-stage of the earth and also of our present sun. Spiritual research can look back to the time in earth evolution when the second sun, our present one, developed as an independent body in the universe. In searching for the existence at that time of beings actually perceptible to the senses, it finds only the lower species up to the level of the fishes.

You can read all this in more detail in Occult Science, and there you will be able to understand it. The actual details, however, can be found only through the scientific methods of spiritual research. At the time they were discovered and I wrote them down (more precisely, they were not discovered just when I wrote them down but they were, one can say, discovered for me and I wrote them down in Occult Science) the following fairy tale was quite unknown to me — and this is the personal note I wanted to add. I can verify the fact that it was unknown then, for I found it much later in Wundt's Elements of Folk Psychology and traced it then back to its source.

Before I give you a short summary of the fairy tale, let me say this: Everything the spiritual researcher finds in the spiritual world — and what was just described had to be found in the spiritual world, for otherwise it would no longer exist — everything in that world is very much connected with the human soul. In the very deepest roots of our soul we are united with that world. It is always at hand; we enter it unconsciously as soon as we fall asleep in a normal way. In our union with that world, our soul holds within itself not only its sleep experiences but also all those experiences related to world evolution as we have described them. It is a paradox but one can say that the soul knows unconsciously that it experienced the stream of evolution from the original sun to its daughter, the sun we see shining in the sky, and to the moon that is also a child of the original sun. Moreover, the soul can recognize that it was living through a soul-spiritual existence at that time, for it was not yet united with earthly substance. It could look down then on earthly happenings, for example, when the highest animal organisms were the fish-prototypes, at the time when the present sun and moon developed by separating from the earth. In the unconscious, the soul is connected with these happenings.

Now look at this short folk tale that can be found among several primitive peoples: There was once a man who was made of resin. He worked only at night. If he had worked in the daytime, the sun would have melted him. One day, however, he did go outside, for he wanted to catch some fish. And lo! the man made of resin melted away. His sons made up their minds to take revenge. They shot off their arrows. They shot so well that the arrows formed figures, towering one above the other. They became a ladder, reaching right up into the sky. The two sons climbed up the ladder, one by day, the other by night. And one son became the sun, the other son became the moon.

It is not my custom to explain such tales with abstract, intellectual ideas. Everyone can realize, however, through spiritual research how the human soul is deeply connected with everything happening in the world, how the soul can be understood only through spiritual means, and how it hungers to enjoy the picture-images of its unconscious experiences — this is truly different. If you feel this, you will also feel, vibrating like an echo of this folk tale, just what human souls experienced at the time of the primordial sun and then at the origin of the sun and moon during the time of fish-development in earth evolution. It was for me a most important event — and this is the personal note — to discover, long after these things were described in Occult Science, this particular tale. Even though I would never wish to explain it in an abstract way, a certain feeling comes over me when I look at the evolution of the world, a feeling that is twin-brother to the one I get from immersing myself in the wonderful picture-images of the folk tale.

We can look at another story, this one from the Melanesian Islands. Before we hear it, let us recall that according to spiritual research the human soul is closely connected to the present-day happenings and facts of the universe. It may be too picturesque, but nevertheless quite correct from the spiritual-scientific standpoint, to describe the life of the soul when it leaves the body in sleep as completely related to and united with the whole universe. One possibility of remembering or understanding this relationship of our ego, for example, to the cosmos, at least to something significant in the cosmos is to look at the plants. They can grow only when they have the light and warmth of the sun. They are rooted in the earth and consist, as spiritual science tells us, of a physical body interwoven by an etheric body. This is not enough, however, to cause the plants to unfold and blossom; they must also have the forces of the sun shining down on them.

Looking at the human body during sleep, we see to some degree its equivalence to a plant. Our sleeping body is like a plant, in that it has the same power to grow. But the human being has freed himself from the cosmic order in which the plant is caught. A plant has to wait for sunlight to come to it, the rising and setting of the sun. It is dependent, as we humans are not, on the external cosmic order. Why are we not? Because of a fact that spiritual research has discovered, that the human ego, which in sleep is outside the plant-like body, unfolds for the body what the sun unfolds for the plant. The sun pours its light over the plant; the human ego shines too, resting spiritually over the sleeping body. And the human ego is related to the life of the sun; it is itself a kind of sun for the plant-like human body, engendering its growth during sleep, repairing its various forces that have been used up during the daytime. In perceiving this, we realize how much like the sun our ego is. As the sun moves across the sky — of course I am speaking of its apparent movement — the effect of the sun's rays changes according to the constellations of the zodiac from which they come to earth. In the same way, spiritual science shows us ever more clearly that the human ego passes through the various phases of its experience; the physical body is influenced according to each aspect. We perceive the sun's effect on earth, with the help of spiritual science, according to whether it is passing through Aries, or Taurus, or any other constellation. Rather than refer to the sun in general terms, it is preferable to describe the effect of the sun from one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac. As we consider the sun's passage through the constellations, we become aware of its relationship to the ever-changing ego.

All this is described much more fully in Occult Science; it can be acquired as spirit-soul knowledge. We can perceive it as something that takes place unconsciously in the depths of the soul and yet takes place as an inward involvement with the spiritual powers of the cosmos alive in the planets and constellations.

Let us compare these secrets of the universe, disclosed by spiritual science, with the following Melanesian tale, which I will sketch very briefly.

In the road is a stone. The stone is the mother of Quatl, and Quatl has eleven brothers. After Quatl and his brothers were created, Quatl began to create the world. But in this world that Quatl created, there was no change of night and day. Quatl heard about an island where there was a difference between the day and the night. He traveled to that island and brought a host of beings back to his own land. And through the power of these beings, those in Quatl's land came into the alternation of sleeping and waking. Sunrise and sunset occurred for them as soul happenings.

It is amazing what vibrates as echo from this story. If you read the whole thing, you will find that every sentence vibrates with the tones of world secrets, just as our soul vibrates in its depths when it hears how spiritual science describes those secrets. It is true: the source of fairy tale mood and fairy tale poetry lies in the depths of the human soul! The tales are simply pictures using external happenings to help characterize the soul experiences we have described; the pictures are nourishment for the hunger arising from these experiences. This must also be true: we are quite distant from the experience but nevertheless we can feel them echoing in the fairy tale picture-images.

When all this has been said, we should not be surprised to find that the most beautiful and characteristic fairy tales have come to us from those very early times when human beings had a certain clairvoyant consciousness. Because of this, they were able to come close to the wellsprings of fairy tale mood and poetry; it is not at all strange that from those parts of the earth where souls are closer to spiritual sources than in the western world, for example in India or the Orient, fairy tales can have an especially distinctive character.

Furthermore, in German we find Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's and Household Tales, which they collected by listening to their relatives or other more or less simple, unsophisticated people telling stories that remind us of the ancient European sagas; even the fairy tales contain elements of the great stories of heroes and gods. We should not be surprised to hear that the most significant fairy tales have now been proven older than the sagas. The hero stories, after all, describe someone at a certain time of life in a particular difficulty, while the fairy tales show us what is relevant to every single person at every period of life from his first breath to his last. Then we understand how a fairy tale can press into itself the deep-seated soul experience on awakening from sleep, of feeling completely inadequate in the face of the powers of nature; how, too, one feels equal to it only with the consoling knowledge that something greater than oneself is present in the soul that may even allow one to triumph over the forces of nature.

When you have a feeling like this, you will understand why there are so many giants that have to be dealt with in the tales. Indeed, they make their appearance without fail as an image out of the soul's mood on waking up — of its wanting to enter the body and seeing the “gigantic” forces of nature alive there. The battle the soul has to undergo is exactly what corresponds — though this cannot be understood perhaps with the intellect — to the various descriptions of people having to fight giants. The soul realizes when confronted by battles with giants that it has only one advantage — and that is its cleverness. This is the soul's perception: You can slip into your body but what can you do about those tremendous forces of the universe? Why, there's one thing the giants don't have that you do have ... cleverness! reason! Unconsciously this lives in the soul even when it realizes the small strength it has; we find that the soul, put into this position, can express itself in the following pictures:

A man was going along the road. He came to an inn, went in, and asked for a bowl of milk soup. Flies by the dozen were buzzing around; some fell into the soup, the others he swatted. When he counted a hundred dead flies on the table, he boasted, “A hundred with one blow!” The innkeeper hung a medallion around his neck that said: He killed a hundred with one blow.

The man went further and came to a castle where the king was looking out of his window. When he caught sight of the wayfarer and his medallion, the king thought to himself, “This is a fellow I can make use of!” The king hurried out and took the man into his service to do a certain task. “There is a pack of bears coming ever and again into my kingdom. Look! if you've killed a hundred with one blow, you can put an end to those bears.” The man said, “I'll do it!” But first he demanded his wages and plenty of food before the bears should arrive, for he thought he might as well enjoy his life for a while, in case it should be cut short. Now came the time when the bears were expected; he collected together all the sweet things bears like to eat, and laid them ready.

The bears came, ate up everything they found and were so well stuffed that they had to lie down to sleep off their greed. And now as they lay helpless, the man came and finished them off. When the King arrived, the man told him, “I simply chopped off their heads while they jumped over my stick!” The King was delighted with this brave fellow and gave him a still harder task. “Look! The giants will soon be coming back into my kingdom. You must help me with them.” The man promised and when the time came, he collected a great amount of good things to eat, which he took along with him, besides a young lark and a piece of cheese. Sure enough, he met the giants and began to boast about how strong he was. One of them said, “We'll show you how much stronger we are!” Taking up a stone, he squeezed it into a powder. “Do that likewise, little man, if you're as strong as we are.” The other giant aimed an arrow up into the sky, shot it off, and only after a very long time, it dropped down again. “Do that likewise, little man, if you're as strong as we are.” At that, the man who had killed a hundred with one blow told them, “I can do better than that.” He took up a stone, stuck his piece of cheese on it and said, “Watch me press water out of the stone!” Sure enough, when he squeezed, water squirted out of the cheese. The giants were astonished. Then the man took the lark and let it fly upwards, saying, “Your arrow came back, but mine will go up so high that it never comes back!” Sure enough, the lark did not return. The giants were so astonished that they decided that they would have to overcome him with cunning, for it seemed that they couldn't manage it with strength. However, they failed to get the better of the man with cunning, for he got the better of them. They lay down together to sleep and in the dark the man put over his head a pig's bladder that was blown up and filled with blood. The giants told one another, “We can't overcome him when he's awake, so we'll have to wait until he sleeps.” As soon as he was asleep, they attacked him with great blows on the head and broke the pig's bladder. The blood gushed out; the giants were sure they had finished him off. Therefore they laid themselves to rest and slept so peacefully that it was easy for the man to put an end to them.

Just as it is in dreams, this fairy tale peters out in a somewhat vague, unsatisfactory way; nevertheless we do find in it the conflict of the human soul with the forces of nature, first with the “Bears” and then with the “Giants.” But something more is in the fairy tale. The man who “killed a hundred with one blow” stands out so clearly that we feel something vibrating in the unconscious depths of our soul to the utter trust he had in his cleverness, even in the face of those powerful forces he found so “gigantic.” It is wrong to try to explain in abstract detail the picture-images created with such artistry, and this is not the intention here. Nothing actually can disturb the character of a fairy tale if you feel how it echoes our inward soul processes. And these inner processes — however much one knows about them, however much as spiritual science itself can know about them — you do become ever and again entangled in them; then, experiencing them in a fairy tale, you see them in their most elemental, primary form. Knowledge of these soul-happenings, when it is present, does not destroy the ability to transform them into fairy tale magic.

It is certainly stimulating for the spiritual researcher to discover in fairy tales just what the human soul has need of when confronting its innermost experiences. The fairy tale mood can never be disturbed, for research that is able to arrive at the wellsprings of the tales in subconscious life will find there something that becomes poorer for the ordinary consciousness when it is described abstractly. The fairy tale itself is the most perfect description of these deepest of soul experiences. Now one can understand why Goethe put into the manifold eloquent picture-images of his Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily the rich experiences of life that Schiller expressed in abstract philosophical terms. It was pictures that Goethe wanted to use — even though he was otherwise very much given to thought — in order to express his most profound perception of the subconscious roots of human soul life.

Because fairy tales belong to our innermost feeling and emotional life and to everything connected with it, they are of all forms of literature the most appropriate for children's hearts and minds. It is evident that they are able to combine the richest spiritual wisdom with the simplest manner of expression. One has the feeling that in the magnificent world of art there is no greater art than this one, which traces the path from the unknown, unknowable depths of the soul to the charming and often playful fairy tale pictures.

When what is most difficult to understand is able to be put in the most clearly perceptible form, the result will be great art, intrinsic art, art that belongs at a fundamental level to the human being. Human nature in the child is linked to the life of the whole world in such a primary way that children must have fairy tales as soul-nourishment. The expression of spiritual force can move much more freely when it comes towards a child. It should not be entangled in abstract, theoretical ideas if the child's soul is not to become dry and disturbed, instead of remaining linked to the deep roots of human life.

Therefore there is nothing of greater blessing for a child than to nourish it with everything that brings the roots of human life together with those of cosmic life. A child is still having to work creatively, forming itself, bringing about the growth of its body, unfolding its inner tendencies; it needs the wonderful soul-nourishment it finds in fairy tale pictures, for in them the child's roots are united with the life of the world. Even we adults, given to reason and intelligence, can never be torn away from these roots of existence; we are most connected with them just when we have to be fully involved with the life of the time. Therefore at various parts of our life, if we have a healthy, open-hearted mind, we will happily turn back to fairy tales. Certainly there is not a single age or stage of human life that can take us away from what flows out of a fairy tale, for otherwise we would be giving up the deepest and most important part of our nature; we would be giving up what is incomprehensible for the intellect: a sensing within ourselves, a sense for what is pictured in a simple fairy tale and in the simple, artless, primordial fairy tale mood.

The brothers Grimm, and other collectors like them, devoted long years to bringing the world the somewhat civilized fairy tales they had gathered out of the folk tradition. Although they had no help from spiritual science, they lived wholeheartedly with these tales, convinced that they were giving human beings what belonged intrinsically to human nature itself. When you know this, you will understand that although the age of reason did its best for a hundred years or so to alienate everyone, even children, away from fairy tales, now things are changing. Fairy tale collections like the Grimms' have found their way to every person who is alive to such things; they have become the property and treasure of every child's heart, yes, property of all our hearts. This will grow even stronger when spiritual science is no longer considered just a theory but becomes a mood of soul, one that will lead the soul perceptively towards its spiritual roots. Then spiritual science, moving and spreading outwards, will be able to confirm everything that the genuine fairy tale collectors, fairy tale lovers, fairy tale tellers wanted to do.

To sum up what spiritual science would like to say today in describing the fairy tale, we can take the poetic and charming tribute that a devoted friend of the tales [Ludwig Laistner (1848 – 1896)] liked to use in his lectures, some of which I was able to hear. He was a man who understood how to collect the tales and how to value them.

“The fairy tale is like a good angel, given us at birth to go with us from our home to our earthly path through life, to be our trusted comrade throughout the journey and to give us angelic companionship, so that our life itself can become a truly heart- and soul-enlivened fairy tale!”




Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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