“Goethe in Paradise”

Artwork: Das Paradies (Jena Stadtmuseum)

This essay appears as the Afterword to the recently published new translation of The Fairy Tale by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The Anthroposophical Movement came into existence through Goethe . . . “
— Rudolf Steiner, from a lecture September 25, 1920, Dornach.


“Goethe in Paradise”

Essay by Bruce Donehower

A significant moment in the biography of Rudolf Steiner occurred when he received from his teacher Karl Julius Schröer a copy of Goethe’s 1795 The Fairy Tale (often referred to as The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily) as a twenty-first birthday present in 1882. As we know from several of Rudolf Steiner’s remarks, Goethe’s Kunstmärchen played a decisive role in the development of Steiner’s inner life. Schröer played a similarly important role in Steiner’s biography, as a teacher and as a friend.

“When I went to call at Schröer’s little library, which was also his study, I felt that I was in a spiritual atmosphere in the highest degree beneficial to my inner life” (66), Steiner wrote in The Course of My Life. And, in a letter dating from this period in Vienna, 1881, Steiner confessed: “I thank God and a fortunate destiny that I have become acquainted with a man here in Vienna—a person who, with the exception of Goethe, naturally—may be counted as the most knowledgeable on Faust, a man whom I revere as a teacher, scholar, poet, and human being. His name is Karl Julius Schröer.” (Lindenberg 70)

Schröer was a somewhat intriguing adjunct to the Technische Hochschule in Vienna that Steiner attended at the time. A professor of literature, he gave lectures in what was then called “die schöne Wissenschaften” (beautiful sciences). This included literature, history, and the art of public speaking. In the midst of a stream of scientists, he piloted the bark of the humanities, one might imagine.

For Steiner, his example was decisive, particularly in regard to shaping the young Steiner’s acquaintance with Goethe and Goethe’s Fairy Tale. Schröer brought Goethe to life for Steiner’s imagination, and he later helped his young student to secure an important position as editor of Goethe’s scientific writings—a decisively important early step in Steiner’s career¹.

Most importantly, however, Schröer brought Goethe to life as a poet, dramatist, and human being—a flesh and blood inhabitant of a particular locale in a particular century with a particular circle of friendships and concerns—so much so, that Steiner felt part of the world that Goethe inhabited. As Emil Bock characterized it: sometimes only four or five students attended Schröer’s lectures, but often there were only three persons present: Schröer, Steiner, and Goethe (48).


1 “Schröer lived completely and inwardly as a citizen in the settled past of the age of Goethe. Everything that came after Goethe was for him a descent from an unsurpassable height. Through his lectures and conversations, Schröer took Steiner with him on a journey through that time. Steiner saw the sublimity and achievement of German Classicism through Schröer’s eyes, and, like Schröer, he viewed the present as a period of decline” (Lindenberg 70). “In the ideas and representations of the age of Goethe, in the language of German Classicism, Steiner found confirmation of his own striving and a sense of relatedness” (71). “At least until 1890, Steiner lived completely encapsulated in the protective shell of these ideals. He could find nothing positive in the offerings of his present reality to connect with; Fichte and Goethe were his primary points of contact” (72).


“A Tale of Nothing and Everything”

The bond of friendship and devotion that Rudolf Steiner felt for his teacher greatly fired the young man’s interest in Goethe’s Fairy Tale, although at first Steiner could make little sense of it.

We know from remarks by Rudolf Steiner that The Fairy Tale remained a puzzle to him for several years. I would imagine that any 20-year-old trained in the discipline of mathematics and nineteenth-century science and inclined by temperament to spend his free time reading German philosophy would react this way. The tale, after all, does not engage us on that level of intellectuality. Schröer, the elder humanist and Professor of Literature, understood this, one might suspect, when he gave his young student the present. Perhaps, like any good college professor, he intuited that over time this seed tale and humorous geste of early romanticism would have the power to effect a transformation in his student. And indeed, it did. As Steiner later admitted, The Fairy Tale was the “archetypal seed” (Urzelle) of the anthroposophical movement²—to say nothing, in this essay, about its decisive importance to Steiner’s Mystery Dramas—that is another story entirely³.


2 “On the evening of September 25, 1920, Rudolf Steiner gave a preliminary address for the opening of the first Anthroposophical Course to be held in the Goetheanum building. Recalling the lecture he had given in Berlin on September 29, 1900, when he spoke in detail about Goethe’s Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, he stated: “I may say, it is actually so that it [the Goethe Fairy Tale] is the archetypal seed of this Movement (das war eigentlich doch, ich möchte sagen, die Urzelle dieser Bewegung!). It is important to be aware of this, because tomorrow we take a significant step here at the Goetheanum. It is truly beautiful, not least for myself and for what I have had to do in connection with our Movement, that on this occasion we relate this Movement to its inception. The Anthroposophical Movement came into existence through Goethe, and tomorrow we begin something of extraordinary importance in this building that bears his name.” (The Time is at Hand!, 53 – 54)
3 “In 1910 Rudolf Steiner wrote his first drama, which he called A Rosicrucian Mystery. Later titled The Portal of Initiation, this play was performed for the first time in Munich, August 15, 1910. Before the performance began, Steiner was present in the foyer of the Schauspielhaus, greeting friends, amongst whom was Mathilde Scholl who had travelled from Cologne in order to attend this premiere. Steiner spoke to her warmly, saying: “I know how long and deeply you have loved the Goethe Fairy Tale, and today I am happy to tell you that you will see it performed on the stage.” Strictly speaking, while this remark applies to the first seven scenes of The Portal of Initiation, which are a transformation of The Fairy Tale into twentieth century dress, it can also be regarded as a characterization of the fundamental source of all four plays forming the tetralogy of his dramas.” (The Time is at Hand!, 38 – 39)


The Fairy Tale that perplexed young Rudolf Steiner stands at the end of a seldom-read novella of framed stories titled Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (Conversations of German Refugees), a work patterned on Renaissance narratives such as Boccaccio’s Decameron in which persons self-isolate because of plague and social upheaval. Briefly summarized: a privileged German family, in hasty retreat, accompanied by friends and hangers-on, has crossed the Rhine river in order to escape marauding French troops. Although in English the title-word Ausgewanderten sometimes gets translated as emigrants or emigrés, these people are more like refugees in flight and fright for their lives as their former world of comfort and social certainty disintegrates. The looming backdrop to this flight and isolation is the French Revolution—the Covid-19 crisis of that era, one might argue.

On the far side of the river, the refugees pause to catch their breath. The flames of war are visible behind them. The future is uncertain. As humans do, they turn on themselves and bicker. In order to preserve what civility and society yet remain, the matriarch who leads them, the Baroness of C, proposes a stratagem: like Scheherazade, she suggests that they tell stories. In this way, she hopes to preserve the bonds of friendship. Thus inspired, the small group soldiers on with the equipment of their imaginations, while outside the enchanted boundary of their story-making society, history rages. As noted, in the Renaissance Italy of Boccaccio, the historical crisis was plague; here the crisis is the French Revolution and its aftermath, the political upheaval that marks the birth of the modern nation state—and by extension, our world of scientistic materialism in which we see so many strange admixtures of superstitions, conspiracy fears, disruptive technologies, and ideologies4. 

One by one, the homeless ones tell stories until it is time for the final tale. The old man who tells it, the Abbé (the prototype of the old man with the lamp in The Fairy Tale), wanders around in contemplation before commencing. He promises: “It will be a fairy tale that will remind you of nothing and of everything.” It also will challenge the conservative tastes of the group’s intrepid leader, the Baroness of C., who stated forthrightly her Age of Enlightenment premises that she preferred a story “with few characters and events, imaginative and well-constructed, true to life, natural, and commonplace.”

Perversely, the Abbé dishes up just the opposite, a mystical riddle of a Kunstmärchen that has confounded interpretation ever since—a shaggy dog tale, one might call it—a riddle wrapped in an enigma, as they say—which presents a realm of archetype and imagination, humor and wit. It is evocative and yet curiously hermetic and self-sustained, and also funny. Goethe never gave the definitive nod to its meaning. In fact, he sometimes showed amusement that readers attempted to find a serious secret hidden in the tale.

The Abbé, Goethe’s mouthpiece, instructs us to enjoy this as a work of imagination “without demands.” The Abbé’s remarks, prefatory to the telling of The Fairy Tale, are in fact a gentle rebuke to the Baroness’ anxiety for narrative closure. It is a rebuke as well to anyone who tries to understand The Fairy Tale as allegory or “key to all mythologies,” to use a phrase from a well-known English novel. The Abbé’s preface invites us to receive The Fairy Tale as an excursion into the picture language of Imagination. He exhorts his audience to enter his narration playfully—without a crib sheet, in other words.


4 For a discussion of how the idea of conspiracy theories and secret brotherhoods influenced the imagination of writers such as Schiller at this time, see Die Brüder des Marquis Posa: Schiller und der Geheimbund der Illuminaten.


Under the Sign of Friendship

The Fairy Tale came to birth as a result of the friendship between Goethe and Schiller, and friendship is a dominant theme in the Tale. Schiller was the first and primary audience for the work. As is well known, it was the friendship between these two individuals, Goethe and Schiller, that inaugurated the period in European literature known as Weimar Classicism.

To draw our attention to the power and importance of friendship, Goethe placed what for him was a symbol of friendship in the middle of the Tale. This symbol is the ouroboros, the snake that consumes its own tail. Often read as a reference to alchemy or as the alchemical principle Mercurius, we might instead first view this symbol in the way that Goethe himself understood it before “bringing in all sorts of ideas from the outside” (Offenbarung 11). In her introductory essay, Zur Entstehung des Märchens von 1795, Katharina Mommsen drew attention to this point when she cited a passage from a letter that Goethe wrote to a friend in 1814. Goethe wrote:

As a symbol of eternity, the snake that closes on itself as a circle, recommends itself to our attention. I like to view this as a symbol of a fortunate earthly life. What more can a human being desire, but that it be granted him to connect the beginning with the end, and how may this occur but through the continuance of affection, trust, love, and friendship. (222)

Mommsen, nearly a hundred years after Steiner commented on the friendship between Goethe and Schiller as the genesis point for the Tale, agrees with Steiner’s thesis: that it is the friendship and conversation between these two individuals and the support and understanding that each gave to the other that inspired Goethe to add the enigmatic Fairy Tale as a conclusion to his novella. Readers have racked their brains ever since, attempting to unravel the Tale’s esoteric meanings, but there was one original reader who received it as an Open Secret and who understood it as such, apparently, and benefited from it transparently: Schiller.

At the time, Schiller labored mightily under the burden of Kantian philosophy, and one result of this preoccupation was the Aesthetic Letters, which Goethe read in manuscript and discussed with him. As Mommsen remarks, Goethe saw, however, that his friend had become too much like the powerless giant in The Fairy Tale. Goethe, never so seduced by transcendental arguments, wished to re-awaken Schiller to his vocation as a poet, and the Tale in that sense is a pedagogical story (such as a teacher might tell to awaken some dormant capacity in a young student.) And, indeed, this pedagogical story had the desired result. The period of literature known as Weimar Classicism, like the re-enlivened garden of the sterile Lily, blossomed and bore fruit.

Goethe in Paradise

A story comes down to us from a small book written in 1838 that makes a lively addendum to this history. The anecdote was published in Breslau by Dr. Carl Schönborn, Director and Professor of the Magdelena Gymnasium, in a small volume entitled Zur Verständigung über Göthe’s Faust. On page 15, Schönborn cites some intelligence “from a very reliable source,” which, whether factual or not, is amusing.

Schönborn recounts an event that occurred in June 1795 while Goethe and Schiller were together in the university town Jena just prior to Goethe’s journey to Karlsbad in July. During the journey by carriage to Karlsbad, and while in Karlsbad, Goethe turned over the idea of The Fairy Tale and began to compose it as the final story in the Unterhaltungen. While in Jena, Goethe witnessed the following scene when strolling at twilight in a parkland area of Jena known as Paradise (Paradies).

Goethe, in Paradise, took a walk along the bank of the Saale river, to and fro, and saw on the far side of the stream a beautiful woman sitting on a grassy lawn with trees. Nature had gifted her with a lovely singing voice, and she sat in a white dress with a colorful turban amidst other women. Goethe could hear her singing across the river. In the vicinity of Paradise, there lived an old man, who, for a small sum of money, would ferry anyone who wished across the river in a small boat. As the twilight deepened, a pair of laughing students came along and boarded the old fisherman’s boat, which carried them unsteadily across the river. That evening there awoke in him, as Goethe once mentioned, the ideas for the fairy tale of the green snake.

Goethe’s Tale is many things. As the Abbé intended, it can act upon us in a transformative way—perhaps like a philosopher’s stone—to dissolve and separate, inspire or confuse. It appeals to the hovering imagination of the poet more than to the settled logic of the philosopher. It smiles upon us with the same conclusion that Schiller arrived at in his Aesthetic Letters, a companion and fellow traveler to Goethe’s Fairy Tale—it smiles with the suggestion that we are most freely human when at play5.

What better gift to receive for a twenty-first birthday?

Bruce Donehower, Ph.D.
May 2, 2021


5 “And so at long last, to state it clearly and completely: man plays only when he is a man in the full sense of the word, and he is only a complete man when he plays.” (Schiller, Letter 15)


Works Cited and Consulted

Allen, Paul Marshall and Joan Deris. The Time is at Hand! Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1995.

Bock, Emil. Rudolf Steiner: Studien zu seinem Lebensgang und Lebenswerk. Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 1961.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Conversations of German Refugees. Trans. Jan van Heurck in Cooperation with Jane K. Brown. New York, Suhrkamp, 1989.

—. Das Märchen. Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 1979.

Lindenberg, Christoph. Rudolf Steiner: Eine Biographie. Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 1997.

Mommsen, Katharina. “Zur Entstehung des Märchens von 1795.” Goethe Märchen. Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1984.

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Trans. Keith Tribe with an Introduction and Notes by Alexander Schmidt. New York, Penguin Classics, 2016.

Schings, Hans-Jürgen. Die Brüder des Marquis Posa: Schiller und der Geheimbund der Illuminaten. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1996.

Schönborn, Carl. Zur Verständigung über Göthe’s Faust. Breslau: Georg Philipp Aderholz, 1838.

Steiner, Rudolf. “Goethes Geistesart in ihrer Offenbarung durch sein Märchen von der grünen Schlange und der Lilie: Neue Bearbeitung aus dem Jahre 1918 des Aufsatzes “Goethes geheime Offenbarung,” der 1899 zu Goethes Geburtstag im Magazin für Literatur erchienen ist.” Goethes geheime Offenbarung. Dornach, Schweiz: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1982.

—. The Course of My Life. Trans. Olin D. Wannamaker. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1951.


An earlier version of this Afterword originally appeared in an issue of the Newsletter of the Literary Arts and Humanities Section of the School for Spiritual Science in North America.

Written by Bruce Donehower
May 31, 2021