“The Origin of Fairytales” by Almut Bockemühl

Artwork: “The Three Feathers” by Marion Donehower



“Is The Fairytale is Mightier Than Philosophy?”


“Once upon a time there was a king who had three sons, two of whom were clever and intelligent, but the third one did not talk very much. He was slow and simple minded, so his two clever brothers gave him the only name they thought he deserved: Dumbhead.”  


— From the Fairytale “The Three Feathers” from the Brothers Grimm


This essay “The Origin of Fairytales” by Almut Bockemühl appeared in the 2002 Annual of the Literary Arts and Humanities Section. The important diagram by Friedrich Hiebel that Almut Bockemühl features at the beginning of her essay is referenced in the recent lecture video from our Section meeting on October 6, 2023 titled “The Dark Forest: In Search of Ars Poetica.”


About Almut Bockemühl 

Almut Bockemühl was an interim leaders of the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities of the School for Spiritual Science from 1997–1999, along with her colleagues Frank Berger, Dietrich Rapp, and Martina Maria Sam. She is the author of the book (still only available in German) Märchen und Rosenkreuzer (Verlag am Goetheanum). Our local Section Fairytale Group, facilitated by Marion Donehower, has made extensive use of this book in their meetings. You can purchase the book by clicking this sentence.

Here is what the current leader of the Section, Christiane Haid, says about Almut Bockemühl in Christiane’s essay on the “History of the Section” that you can read on this website.

“Almut Bockemühl started working on fairytales as long ago as 1985. Her focus was less on the educational use of fairytales for children but more generally on the importance of fairytales for the development of the imagination as well as the relationship between fairytales and anthroposophy. Subjects including the Christian esoteric motifs in fairytales, Rosicrucian activity and fairytales and alchemical images in fairytales were the focus of her work. This work resulted in several publications and larger fairytale conferences at the Goetheanum as well as the twice-yearly fairytale colloquia which are still being held. In addition, Almut Bockemühl took the initiative with a group in 1991 to set up annual colloquia on language in poetry. These colloquia also continue to take place and in the last twenty-six years worked on the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin, Nelly Sachs, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Owen Barfield, Georg Büchner, Rudolf Steiner, Durs Grünbein, Rainer Kunze, Rainer Maria Rilke, Novalis, Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Michael Donhauser, Peter Waterhouse, Erika Burkart, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Trakl, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Gottfried Benn, Ossip Mandelstam, Günter Eich, Franz Kafka, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and Christian Morgenstern.”


“The Origin of Fairytales” by Almut Bockemühl

Friedrich Hiebel, the leader of the Section for the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities of the School for Spiritual Science from 1963 to 1983, drew a diagram in an essay on his section’s tasks that names seven areas for the work of the section. Fairytale studies were accorded a place among the other areas in this diagram. [1]

Friedrich Hiebel, “Die Sektion fur Schone Wissenschaften,” in: Was in der Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft vorgeht, no. 12 / 20. March 1966, p.5


How Did the Fairytale Became Literature?

However, fairytale studies have been—and remain—one of the areas in which there has been the least research within the Section. Generally, the fairytale is relegated to pedagogy. After all, Rudolf Steiner emphasized its value for education. Thus, we find it in the curriculum for the Waldorf Schools, where fairytales are regularly told in kindergartens and the first grade. Meanwhile, there are more and more puppet theaters where fairytales are a living and imaginative part of the repertoire. If we ask which fairytales we can tell our children, the fairytale collections published by anthroposophists are among the best.

Originally, in fact, fairytales were not at all meant for children, although children (with their open ears) were certainly present when there was something to be heard. Just before the Second World War, Mihaly Fedics (a Hungarian who was well over eighty) spoke about his childhood:

“Earlier there was no lamp, and the hearth fire shone in the spinning room where the women sat in a circle … The men, too, came into the room. Each of them had a woolen coat they folded up, then laid on the earthen floor of the room so they could sit on it; or, if they preferred, they spread it out and lay on their stomachs. They sang—these men—and told stories there on the ground. The room was silent. I mostly listened from the corner; I kept it all in my head. The men told stories; there were some who simply said something like, “Well, now I will tell a story.” Then, when one was finished, another would speak up, or, if no one spoke, they would call on someone: You tell a story. When I was stacking wood or clearing trees, I told stories, and I learned them, too. There was a large shed here where seventy of us stayed. Throughout the night we told stories in the shed. Whoever told the story would often call out in a loud voice “Bones?” and then continue his story if he heard the answer “Bricks!” But when only two or three answered, he stopped, because some had been overcome by sleep during the fairytale. We had been working the whole day. But as for me—even if he had told stories for an entire week, I wouldn’t have closed an eye . . .” [2]

This is how the fairytale lived in earlier times and in rural areas, down into the twentieth century. Thus, even simple people had access to a rich education of the soul. But the fairytales were not literature; they were narrative material for the people, less meant for the educated upper classes, and certainly far removed from any sort of academic study. In this, they were comparable to the theater of the time.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people began to discover a certain poetry in these folktales. It was the Age of Enlightenment when royal courts set the tone for cultural life. The art of the court was rather artificial for our tastes, and to introduce the fairytale, it first had to be made “courtly.” Thus, the fairytale was dressed up as a short story. They loved the wondrous, the fantastic, stories about fairies—perhaps in counterbalance to dry reason. Fairytales first appeared as literature in Evenings of Delight by G.F. Straparola (c. 1480 – 1557). A century later (also in Italy) there followed the cleverly ironic, baroquely ornate collection by Basile (1575 – 1632). Further milestones are Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703) in France; and J.K.A. Musaus (1735 – 1787) in Weimar, a contemporary of Goethe. Musaus rejected the whole “fairy business,” but he, too, told his tales broadly and with many embellishments.


The Romantic Revolution

With the spiritual impulse of romanticism, a great change in consciousness took place around the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. It brought a wholly new understanding of history. The pioneering significance of the brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), lay in the fact that they were among the first to have a historical sense of language, and, as researchers, to recognize the special stylistic quality of folktales. They were even able to imitate this quality when their source had been distorted into literature.

To this day, Grimms’ Fairytales is the most widely read book after the Bible. Although their collection was hardly a great success when it appeared, it nonetheless served as a model for all our neighboring nations. A generation after Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, there were fairytale collectors throughout Europe: N.F.S. Grundtvig in Denmark, P.C. Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe in Norway, Hylten-Cavallius and George Stephens in Sweden, Elias Lonnrot in Finland, A.N. Afanasiev in Russia, Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic in Serbia, Petre Ispirescu in Romania, K.A. Sapkarev in Bulgaria, J.F. Blade in the Gascogne, and Emile Souvestre in Brittany, to name only a few.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Friedrich von der Leyen founded the series, Märchen der Weltliteratur, published by the Diederichs Verlag in Jena. This series has been continually expanded and supplemented so that the German-speaking reader has access to fairytales from every nation in well-annotated collections, a fact possibly unique in the world.


Approaches to Research

Thus, the fairytale has changed from narrative content to reading material and become a subject for academic research. The research done in the twentieth century by literary scholars, folklorists, and psychologists would fill libraries. Field research has, of course, continued, and an enormous effort has been made to examine the results, catalog them, and organize them according to their motifs. As early as 1910, the Finnish researcher, Antti Aarne, established the basis for a typology, and this was re-edited and substantially expanded in 1928 by the American, Stith Thompson. It appeared first in English.

This classification already distinguished the “true fairytale” (also called the “magical fairytale”) from other narrative genres. Not every folk tradition is a fairytale; there are also sagas, legends, comic tales, fables, and myths. All are imaginative tales, but they differ quite a bit, both as to contents and style. The folk saga, for instance, is most often connected to a realistic event; it names places and names. But something supernatural suddenly breaks into this familiar world from a world on the “other side,” something both terrible and fascinating that throws the situation on this side Into confusion.


An Example from Grimms’ “German Sagas”

“Schildheiss, an ancient castle in a desolate area of forests and mountains in German Bohenua, was to be rebuilt and restored. When the foremen and workers examined the rubble and the foundations, they found many passageways, cellars, and vaults under the earth, more than they expected. In one of these vaults sat a mighty king in a chair, gleaming and glittering with jewels, and to his right stood a lovely young woman, motionless. She held the head of the king, as if he were resting. When the workmen, driven by curiosity and greed, came closer, the young woman turned into a snake that spewed fire, so that they all had to retreat.” [3]

The saga takes place on two intersecting levels. The legend also does this, except that the supersensible intrusion has a religious and devotional character. In the fairytale, on the other hand, there is no “this side” and “other side.” Inner world and outer world exist on the same plane. The fairytale is simultaneously sensory and spiritual—thus it has a pure and, at the same time, comprehensive character. The two parts of the saga and the legend stand in contrast to the unity of the fairytale.

The myth occupies a special, more elevated position. It takes place in a prehuman time and relates the deeds of gods; many myths are myths of creation. In a certain sense, the myth can be viewed as the native soil from which the fairytale grows. The latter always deals with the human being, his paths of development, and his destinies on the earth. In the myth, the stage is being set, so to speak, for the human being.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to draw these conceptual distinctions clearly in English. The English words “tale” and “folktale” have a broader meaning than the German Märchen, while fairytale or nursery story have a narrower meaning. In this discussion I will be concerned only with “fairytales in the true sense” or “ordinary folktales,” both of which are makeshift concepts. Among these are the most widely known fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, The Three Feathers, etc. A peculiarity of this genre (found to the same degree in every nation) is its closed form—a folk fairytale has a beginning and an end, both often characterized by certain formulas; it is built up according to regular rules. We speak of a “will to form” in its outer as well as its inner aspect. We are indebted to the Swiss literary scholar, Max Lüthi, for investigating and describing this form (the stylistics of fairytale language). [4]

The Russian, V. J. Propp [5] specialized in the structure of the fairytale, which he ultimately traced back to structural formulas. He called this structural method the “morphology of the fairytale.”

Another research area is that of folklore. The imaginative ideas in fairytales can be connected to the old cults, rituals, customs, and habits of a people. In the so-called “journeys to the other side” we can see paths of initiation, mainly in the sense of shamanism rather than in the context of the “great mysteries” of earlier cultures. [6] Here, of course, the issue is not the fairytale in its literary form, but more individual motifs or linked motifs that can often be traced even as far back as the mythologies we described earlier as being the native soil from which the fairytale grows.


Freud and Jung

Psychoanalysis has also discovered fairytale-like elements—as early as the work of Freud, but systematically used and developed into a method by C. G. Jung. In the subconscious levels of our soul life there is a storehouse of images—Jung called them archetypes—that often remind us of fairytale motifs, and in certain situations they can wash ashore in our consciousness by way of the dream. It can be helpful in the diagnosis of psychological problems to decipher the messages brought by such symbols. The fairytale has also proved a valuable tool in psychotherapy, but this brings us back to the area of application.

All these varied research approaches have found a forum in the “Europäische Mårchengesellschaft” (EMG) [European Fairytale Society], an academic society founded in the 1950s that holds an annual convention n various European countries and offers many courses, seminars, and storytelling hours. This has done much to popularize academic research on the fairytale. Surprisingly, telling fairytales has recently become increasingly common as a profession, re-enlivened (so to speak) from above after it had practically disappeared below, among the people.


What is Anthroposophical Fairytale Research?

In view of all these activities surrounding the fairytale, we might ask if there is anything new that could be added from the side of anthroposophy, or—to put it better—is there an approach that would be impossible without the help of anthroposophy, and what would that approach have to be?

“Anthroposophy gives us knowledge that is won in a spiritual way. However, it gives us this knowledge only because everyday life and science based on sensory perception and the activity of reason lead to a boundary on the path of life where the soul existence of human beings would have to die if it could not get beyond the boundary. This everyday life and this science do not bring us to the boundary in such a way that we have to stop there; instead, at this boundary of sensory perception the view into the spiritual world is opened up through the human soul itself.” [7]

This second “leading thought” of Rudolf Steiner’s (in GA 26) indicates the goal for all anthroposophical research. This research must differentiate itself from ordinary science, especially through its method. Thus, it cannot just do things that everyone else does; for example, assembling all the citations from Rudolf Steiner concerning a particular theme. This is certainly useful, and it is done in many anthroposophical areas, but, of course, this can’t be called anthroposophical research, nor can speculation using anthroposophical concepts. The “leading thought” presupposed a ” boundary experience” as the beginning of any spiritual science, an experience many scientists have, although they often don’t take it into account.

On the paths of research we are describing, this boundary is the place where we can no longer rely on external material and must, instead, proceed with the help of theories about which we can exchange differing opinions. Here, anthroposophical research can step in, not by adding another new opinion, but by bringing a fundamental change in the methodological approach. That is the thrust of the leading thought cited above.

It begins by directing us inward, and it draws our attention to how we can observe the thought activity within ourselves. Many people experience scientific work as something that dries us up and kills the soul; they think it has to be this way, and they seek other means to satisfy the needs of their “heart and soul.” Here we are at a very critical point, because this can happen almost unnoticed. It is especially easy in fairytale research to confuse and blur the boundary experience with sentimental musings. For Rudolf Steiner, however, the first step toward knowledge “won in a spiritual way” is to make the boundary experience as clear as possible, so that it becomes a matter of destiny as to whether we can cross the boundary or not. But then, as he puts it, “the view into the spiritual world is opened up through the human soul itself.”

What this means about my ability to reason is that the clarity of thought that has brought me to this point should not be abandoned. It should, instead, be transformed by my experience of the boundary into a new quality of thought and consciousness through which spiritual phenomena become comprehensible. This new power of knowledge presupposes that we can distance ourselves from our own thinking enough to see It objectively as only one way of thinking among many others.

Applied to the fairytale, this means that we must assume we are dealing with evidence of another state of consciousness, one in which knowledge is communicated in picture form, although we may have only an intuitive grasp of the wisdom in fairytale symbols. If we cannot slip into such a picture consciousness (at least experimentally), we will never make any real progress with fairytale research.

Anthroposophically speaking, the change from the intellectual or sentient soul to the consciousness soul lies in the possibility of making a conscious choice among different points of view or attitudes of consciousness. By itself, reason cannot conceive of states of consciousness. But we need the power of reasoning we acquired and practiced earlier if we are to make distinctions in the new, more spiritual realm of knowledge.


The Origin of Fairytale from the Perspective of Anthroposophy

Following these more philosophical and methodological digressions, let us turn to one of the basic questions about content in fairytale research.

“Just what is a fairytale? How did fairytales come about? How old are they?”

This is where materialistic science soon discovers it can go no further, for there are no documents or excavations of the sort usually relied on In historical research. In mythology, we can find traces of fairytales that go far back into pre-Christian times; or conversely, there are fairytales (called “mythic fairytales”) that have a strongly mythological quality. But that simply means that fairytales are very old, with roots reaching back Into the myth-forming consciousness of the distant past.

In 1856 notes to Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Wilhelm Grimm wrote:

“Common to all fairytales are the traces of a belief that goes back to the most ancient times, a belief that expresses itself through a pictorial understanding of supersensible things. The mythic element is like tiny fragments of a shattered jewel scattered over the ground and covered by grass and flowers; only an eye that looks more closely will be able to find these fragments. Their meaning has long been lost, but it can still be felt.” [8]

A poetic image, but surely one that fits the facts rather accurately!

Like fairytales, the usages and customs of earlier times (as researched by the folklorist) also grew out of “a belief that expresses itself through a pictorial understanding of supersensible things.” In his descriptions of the history of consciousness, Rudolf Sterner traced this capacity to understand in pictures back to an original state of clairvoyance that existed earlier in humanity. At that time, wisdom was revealed to humanity from the spiritual world. This wisdom was later forgotten; it sank into the depths of the soul and could (or can) be attained again only through the development of an individual ability to think. The meaningful connections among images that sometimes surface in dreams (often referred to in psychoanalysis) can only be understood as a relic of this ancient consciousness.


The Literary Fairytale

The old fairytales arose from this clairvoyant condition of soul that existed long ago, which is why a person of today can never create a fairytale. Nonetheless, attempts at producing something similar have led to the genre of the “literary fairytale.” Even though it doubtless contains a deep wisdom like a genuine fairytale, the famous fairytale by Goethe is nevertheless a literary fairytale. It is one person’s individual artistic creation and not subject to the same determinants found in the folk fairytale.

Here we can add another question of interest to fairytale research, the question of how it happens that the same fairytale motifs exist everywhere in the world. The migrations of these motifs have been traced, and no doubt took place (along the great trade routes, for instance). But this similarity of motifs also can be found among peoples who had no outer connection to one another. Wilhelm Grimm has written about this:

“There are conditions so simple and natural that they occur everywhere, just as there are thoughts that occur as though by themselves. Thus, the same or very similar fairytales can be generated independently in the most vaned places.”

A scientific concept (polygenesis) has been Invented to describe this phenomenon, although we might ask whether this one word doesn’t fill in for a lack of understanding. Even Wilhelm Grimm did not understand why and whence fairytales “are generated.” However, his comparison to thoughts is quite interesting. He connects the polygenesis of fairytale motifs with the fact that thoughts can also be thought independently of one another in various geographical regions. We know that inventions sometimes appear in different places simultaneously. Thus, through his unprejudiced observation, Wilhelm Grimm arrives at a conclusion which Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual research reached from another angle. Grimm sees the parallel between knowledge through images and knowledge through thought. For him, of course, thoughts (like fairytale images) appear “as though without intention and of their own accord.” He doesn’t reflect on the origin of either, and does not see (as Rudolf Steiner does) that the thought is a metamorphosis of imaginative knowledge

We can also recognize that the growth of fairytales has taken place out of the native soil of folk souls in much the same way that the growth of very similar sorts of plants has taken place in different parts of the earth while still adapted to local soil conditions and climate. Here, in this connection with geography, anthroposophy offers yet another rich field for folklore research.


The Influence of the Rosicrucians

Up to this point we have discussed single images and fairytale-like elements in the traditions of various peoples, but not the fairytale as a whole. Wilhelm Grimm spoke of the mythic element as a shattered jewel, the fragments of which are still to be found in the fairytale. However, the fairytale is not at all fragmentary; it has a clear and even very artistic composition In which something quite important is expressed. Rudolf Steiner also points to this. From a practical standpoint, it cannot possibly have “made itself.” So, the question arises: “who assembled the shattered fragments again to form jewels, and when did this happen?”

This question was also quickly answered by a theory, but one that has found little currency—it is the theory that fairytales did not arise among the people at all, but that they came to the people through the decline of something in the culture. I don’t want to enter here into a discussion of the improbabilities inherent in this theory; instead, I will continue our train of thought by referring to a quotation from Rudolf Steiner:

“It is a meaningless idea for people of today to believe they can form fairytales out of their fantasy. The old fairytales (which are the expression of the ancient spiritual secrets of the world) arose when the individuals who formed them for the world overheard and listened to those who could tell them spiritual secrets. Thus, the structure, the composition, is in accord with those ancient spiritual secrets. We can therefore say that in them there lives the spirit of all humanity, the microcosm and the macrocosm.” [9]

Here Rudolf Steiner does not say that the fairytale arose from the people “as if by itself,” nor is it a matter of the decline of something in the culture. And it is quite interesting that Steiner does not refer to single Images, but to the composition. As I understand the process he describes, the fairytales were composed and filled with wisdom by specific individuals who had been inspired to do this using ancient traditions of imagery. In the lecture cited above, Sterner names the “Rosicrucrans” of the late Middle Ages as the ones to whom this refers. We can begin with this as a hypothesis and see whether it is supported by the facts we can observe.

There can be no doubt that the world of the fairytale is a medieval one. People are depicted working as peasants or tradesmen ruled by a hierarchy with a king at the top; the position of the king is surrounded by an almost religious aura. It is most likely that such an environment lent fairytales the form in which they have been handed down to this day. But this is also the world Rudolf Steiner characterized in terms of its place within the history of consciousness in his series of essays At The Gates of the Consciousness Soul, and I refer to these essays so that we don’t leave the mention of the Rosicrucians unresolved.

Steiner writes in these essays about a “cosmic intelligence” In ancient times that revealed the wisdom content of the world to mankind through pictures. This cosmic intelligence sank down onto the earth in the centuries we are discussing from approximately the 10th century to the 15th century. There it was transformed within human souls into the power to form individual thoughts. Steiner speaks of the fact that this intelligence was represented by the spiritual being who bore the name “Michael” in the old wisdom. It was a time of transition when the old was beginning to fall away and the new had not yet developed. Clairvoyant picture consciousness faded away; the sensory world (which people had experienced earlier in a dim way) began to emerge only slowly, as if from a fog at first, and barely grasped by the intellect. Thus, imaginative pictures from the old clairvoyant consciousness permeated ideas from the physical, sensory world and mixed with them. Steiner mentions several medieval sagas as examples of this blended consciousness: for instance, the sagas of “Gerhard the Good,” “Duke Ernst,” and even the Nibelungen saga.

In these sagas, as Steiner writes:

“facts of the physical world are viewed by the human soul in a way that only the spiritual can be viewed. Time and space have a different meaning for the spiritual than they do for the physical. The physical world is depicted in imaginations rather than in thoughts. On the other hand, the spiritual world is woven into the narration as if we were dealing not with another form of existence but with an extension of physical facts.”

Steiner speaks about how the relationship of the human being to the spiritual world thus “threatened to become impossible.” Because Michael is a being who can live only in pure spirituality, he had no way to enter the mixed consciousness of mankind at that time. What we call medieval superstition is related to this situation of consciousness.

In connection with this, Steiner then describes the helpful activity of the “true Rosicrucians,” whom he wanted to see clearly separated from all the charlatanry that took place under that name. Their accomplishment was to keep their spiritual, religious life consciously apart from the material world, where they often had a practical occupation. In this way, Michael found a realm in their souls where he could work without contacting the sensory world. This does not mean that the Rosicrucians did not experience any transition between the spiritual and physical. They felt the active spirit in matter and the starving for matter in the spirit, but these transitions, as described here by Rudolf Steiner, should not be thought of intellectually, only imaginatively and in the right mood. I would say they could not be thought of intellectually based on what we can experience in the present time, where the tendency to “superstition” is also strong.

For then, as for today, help can be found in the activity of objective symbolizing. Rudolf Steiner again and again gave exercises for this. In symbolizing, an object belonging to the sensory world is imagined, but it is given a purely spiritual meaning that can be fully grasped only when the Imagination of the object is extinguished. In this way, symbolizing connects the spiritual with the physical and, at the same time, separates it cleanly from the physical.


The Rosicrucian Schools

Let us now return to the brief remarks by Rudolf Steiner that folk fairytales originate in the Rosicrucian schools. What did he mean? When the Rosicrucians placed the fairytales that they had formed as pure imaginations into the shifting, mixed consciousness of that transitional time, they gave Michael the possibility of gaining entrance into human souls that were permeated with these symbols. That was the mission of fairytales up to the end of the nineteenth century, the very century that saw the Grimm brothers and their successors taking steps to preserve the fairytales in writing. From that time forward, Michael was able to find another way into human souls, a way through the “pure thinking” described by Rudolf Steiner.

Let us recall once again what was stated earlier about the division of folktales into “genres” (fairytale, saga, legend, etc.). In fact, this only applies to Europe, only to the region where the Rosicrucians were active. In oriental fairytales and the fairytales of primitive peoples, the genres are so blended and infused with realistic motifs that it is impossible to separate their elements. Thus the “genuine fairytale” was consciously formed out of the Rosicrucian narrative. And we must realize that it is no mere formality—although it is still treated as such in the academic disciplines—but rather an extremely important matter as to whether a folktale flows from a “mixed” consciousness (like the saga) or represents a “pure imagination” (as in the fairytale).

Even the stylistic comments of a Max Lüthi [11] take on a completely different value when considered from the standpoint of the ” imaginative,” as Rudolf Steiner used the word. For example, Lüthi concluded that there was no background in a fairytale, neither externally in space nor internally in the psyche. The elements of landscape appear only as they function within the framework of the plot, and then disappear again; the characters are pure “figures” without psychological complexity. They appear outwardly as they are inwardly, the good person is beautiful, the bad person is ugly. Everything is on the surface, so to speak, on the level of the image. Drawing on this element of style, he coined the expression, “The fairytale is two dimensional.” Compare this to the way Rudolf Steiner describes an imaginative experience:

“An image is there. Characteristically, we still have the feeling of space (because the thing is like a picture), but only a feeling of space. For the space now being experienced has no third dimension. Nowhere do we experience a third dimension; we experience space only in two dimensions so that our knowledge comes through the image. Therefore, I will also call this knowledge an imaginative knowledge.” [13]

Accordingly, the imaginative experience is not spatial, but two dimensional; what Lüthi describes in terms of style is “imaginative” from the anthroposophical point of view.

It was Rudolf Steiner’s particular goal in life to complement intellectual thinking with an imaginative thinking appropriate for the present time. We can also observe how he sought all his life to find a style of language suited to this imaginative element. If we simply compare his early philosophical works with the late lectures (for example, the imaginations of the seasons), we will notice how much more pictorial his mode of expression has become. On the other hand, it is always in keeping with thinking, as well. The new, imaginative language is the expression of a spiritualized thinking, while the old language, the fairytale language, remains entirely within the image. Therefore, it is no longer directly accessible for us; it needs “interpretation.”


Fairytales in the 20th Century and Today 

The twentieth century (the century of real fairytale research) has worked with a material that is no longer fully part of modern life. The modern instrument of knowledge is thought. Earlier, wisdom flowed directly out of the fairytale; now people think about the fairytale. Steiner explained that the knowledge people of old received instinctively through fairytale images is to be gained today through anthroposophy. In his lecture on the fairytale and Rosicrucianism [14] he illustrated this in broad terms by again and again drawing a comparison with the phrases “Then, people said” and “Today, we say.” The question arises: If that is so, what does it mean when we work today with the old folk fairytales?

Then people thought in pictures; today we have learned to express ourselves intellectually. We have learned this so well because our Intellect is already in the process of dying.

“Once upon a time there was king who was sick, and no one believed he would live. But he had three sons who were saddened by this; they went down into the castle garden and wept. There they were met by an old man who asked them what was wrong. They told him their father was so sick that he might die, for nothing seemed to help. Then the old man said, “I know a remedy—it is the water of life. If he drinks of it, he will get well again, but it is hard to find.”


“The Water of Life” / An Example from the Brothers Grimm

“There was once a King who had an illness, and no one believed that he would come out of it with his life. He had three sons who were much distressed about it and went down into the palace-garden and wept. There they met an old man who inquired as to the cause of their grief. They told him that their father was so ill that he would most certainly die, for nothing seemed to cure him. Then the old man said, “I know of one more remedy, and that is the water of life; if he drinks of it he will become well again; but it is hard to find. . . .”

Is not this the same situation Steiner points to in the leading thought we cited above? Science as well as everyday life leads to a boundary on the path of life “where the soul existence of human beings would have to die if it could not get beyond the boundary.” [16] This is the situation of human beings in the present time.

It is astounding that the old fairytale tellers knew so well about something that is current for human beings today. But in the fairytale, it is, after all, an old man, that is, the stranger from another land, who can offer advice for “today.” The sons now set out on their way, one after the other. We can only tread the “paths of knowledge” alone. At first the path is unfamiliar, but a dwarf stands by the side of the path and asks about the reason for their journey. The two elder brothers find him too insignificant to deserve a response, and they ride past in the direction of their own choosing. Finally, they come into a mountain ravine that grows narrower and narrower until they can move neither forward nor backward. They literally get stuck. But the youngest, who halts his horse by the dwarf and speaks with him, discovers that the water of life flows in the precinct of an “enchanted castle.” To reach it, however, he must pass through a gate that remains closed until it is struck three times with an iron rod; it is guarded by two lions who will devour him if they are not pacified with two “little loaves of bread.” The king’s son receives these helpful items from the dwarf. Thus, without much difficulty, he enters the castle where the water of life can be found, and he proceeds even further into the castle where he finds a beautiful princess to whom he becomes engaged. They agree that he will return in a year.

The complete fairytale is at the end of this essay.]


Boundary Lines / Courage to Trespass

Here we are dealing with the crossing of a boundary, just as we read in the leading thought. On the way, we gain what we need for this crossing if we pay attention to the helpful “dwarf.” The leading thought also says that there is no need to stop at the boundary, for the possibility of crossing it is found along the way. This possibility is given to us when we become conscious of it.

Just these few details from a fairytale show how it can fructify and enrich our conceptual life if we live our way into the appropriate images. Inwardly, we can repeat the gesture of what it means to “go down into the garden” when we take note of what is sick and dying in our own soul life. We are made aware of how certain traits like selfishness and arrogance can hinder us once we have set out on this path. And perhaps we understand, too, that within ourselves we will find the iron rod and little loaves of bread which permit us to pass through the gate into the spiritual world. The rhythmical alternation between thought and Image brings the soul life into motion and finally enables us to find our way into the world where the “water of life” flows abundantly.

The further development of the fairytale tells us that this is not enough, however. In the fairytale, the way back is often the most difficult part. Then it is a matter of incorporating what we have gained into “everyday life and science.” [17] Here the feckless brothers become real enemies. They lie to their father about the youngest brother, who henceforth lives despised, rejected, and alone in the woods. There he patiently waits for a year to pass, after which he can journey once more to the “enchanted castle.” This time there are different conditions for admittance. The connection was established earlier with the king’s daughter who lives there. She has now had a golden road built, upon which she awaits the arrival of her bridegroom. The brothers neither keep the appointed hour nor do they use the right road; instead, they ride alongside it—the one on the right, the other on the left—to avoid knocking off any of the gold (which has only a material value for them). The youngest brother, on the other hand, thinks only of his beloved bride and doesn’t even notice the golden road. Thus, he is joyfully received. This time it is his reverent, meditative mood that gains entry for him. The marriage can therefore be celebrated, which means that a lasting connection takes place between the spiritual In the human being and cosmic spirituality.

From this interpretation of the general plot, you can see that it is not only the individual images that are important, but also the composition. This composition brings us into life itself, with all its tensions and resolutions, obstacles, and moments of deliverance.

Let us once again ask what the meaning of the fairytale is in the present time. It might be found in the fact that a familiarity with fairytales can be a wonderful aid to attaining the change in consciousness necessary for a true spiritual science. It is possible to think even anthroposophical concepts abstractly, and they need to be renewed and enlivened continually if they are to be fruitful for research as well as for practical life. In the effort to do this, the fairytale can become a true “water of life.”


(Translated for the 2002 Section Annual by Douglas and Marguerite Miller; updated for the Section website by Bruce Donehower.)

=== End Notes ===

  1. Friedrich Hiebel, “Die Sektion fur Schone Wissenschaften,” in: Was in der Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft vorgeht, no. 12 / 20. March 1966, p.5
  2. Mihály Fedics, quoted by Karl Rauch (ed.), Märchen der europäischen Völker, Vol. Polen, Slovakei, Ungarn, Heidelberg 1964.
  3. J. and W. Grimm, Deutsche Sagen, selected by P. Marker, Leipzig 1908.
  4. Max Lüthi, Märchen, Stuttgart 1962/1979.
  5. Vladimir Propp, Morphologie des Märchens, Frankfurt 1975.
  6. Heino Gehrts (ed.), Schamanentum und Zaubermärchen, Kassel 1986.
  7. Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophsche Legtsätze, GA 26, Dornach 1954, p. 46
  8. J. and W. Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, ed. by Heinz Rölleke, Bd. 3, Stuttgart 1984, P. 421 and 417.
  9. Rudolf Steiner, Exkurse in das Gebiet des Markusevangeliums, Vortrag “Rosen- kreuzerisches Weistum in der Märchendichtung” [Rosicrucian Wisdom in Fairytales], GA 124, Dornach 1995, p. 207
  10. Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophische Leitsätze, GA 26, Dornach 1954, p. 188ff.
  11. Ibid., p. 193
  12. Max Lüthi, Märchen. Stuttgart 1962/1979.
  13. Rudolf Steiner, Dze Mzsston der neuen Geistesoffenbarung, lecture of December 19, 1911, in: GA 127, Dornach 1975
  14. See footnote 9.
  15. See footnote 8.
  16. See footnote 10, p. 46
  17. Ibid.


The Water of Life

There was once a King who had an illness, and no one believed that he would come out of it with his life. He had three sons who were much distressed about it and went down into the palace-garden and wept. There they met an old man who inquired as to the cause of their grief. They told him that their father was so ill that he would most certainly die, for nothing seemed to cure him. Then the old man said, “I know of one more remedy, and that is the water of life; if he drinks of it he will become well again; but it is hard to find.”

The eldest said, “I will manage to find it,” and went to the sick King, and begged to be allowed to go forth in search of the water of life, for that alone could save him. “No,” said the King, “the danger of it is too great. I would rather die.” But the eldest son begged so long that the King consented. The prince thought in his heart, “If I bring the water, then I shall be best beloved of my father, and shall inherit the kingdom.” So he set out, and when he had ridden forth a little distance, a dwarf stood there in the road who called to him and said, “Hey! Where are you going so quickly?”

“Silly shrimp,” said the prince, very haughtily, “it is nothing to do with you,” and he rode on.

But the little dwarf had grown angry, and he wished an evil wish. Soon after this the prince entered a ravine, and the further he rode the closer the mountains drew together, and at last the road became so narrow that he could not advance a step further; it was impossible either to turn his horse or to dismount from the saddle, and he was shut in there as if in prison. The sick King waited long for him, but he came not.

Then the second son said, “Father, let me go forth to seek the water,” and thought to himself, “If my brother is dead, then the kingdom will fall to me.” At first the King would not allow him to go either, but at last he yielded, so the prince set out on the same road that his brother had taken, and he too met the dwarf, who stopped him to ask: “Hey! Where are you going so quickly?”

“Little shrimp,” said the prince, “that is none of your business!” And he rode on without giving the dwarf another look. But the dwarf bewitched him, and he, like the other, rode into a ravine, and could neither go forwards nor backwards. That’s what happens to haughty people!

Now the youngest son begged to be allowed to go forth to fetch the water, and at last the King was obliged to let him go. When the young man met the dwarf and the latter asked him where he was going in such haste, the young man stopped and gave the dwarf an explanation. He said: “I am seeking the water of life, for my father is sick unto death.”

“Do you know how to find it?”

“No,” said the prince.

“Well,” said the dwarf, “since you have acted so courteously—unlike your haughty brothers!—I will give you information and tell you how to obtain the water of life. It springs from a fountain in the courtyard of an enchanted castle, but you will not be able to make your way to it, if I do not give you an iron wand and two small loaves of bread. Strike thrice with the wand on the iron door of the castle and it will spring open. Inside the castle lie two lions with gaping jaws, but if you throw a loaf to each of them, they will be quieted. Then hasten to fetch some of the water of life before the clock strikes twelve, else the door will shut again, and you will be imprisoned.”

The prince thanked him, took the wand and the bread, and set out on his way.

When he arrived, everything was as the dwarf had said. The door sprang open at the third stroke of the wand, and when he had appeased the lions with the bread, he entered the castle, and came to a large and splendid hall in which there sat enchanted princes. He took the rings off their fingers. A sword and a loaf of bread were lying there, which he carried away. After this, he entered a chamber in which he found a beautiful maiden who rejoiced when she saw him, kissed him, and told him that he had delivered her, and that he should have the whole of her kingdom, and that if he would return in a year their wedding should be celebrated. Likewise, she told him where the spring of the water of life was, and that he was to hasten and draw some of it before the clock struck twelve.

Then he went onwards, and at last entered a room where there was a beautiful made bed, and as he was very weary, he felt inclined to rest a little. So, he lay down and fell asleep. When he awoke, it was striking a quarter to twelve. He sprang up in a fright, ran to the spring, drew some water in a cup which stood near, and hastened away. But just as he was passing through the iron door, the clock struck twelve, and the door fell to with such violence that it carried away a piece of his heel. He, however, rejoicing at having obtained the water of life, went homewards, and again he passed the dwarf.

When the dwarf saw the sword and the loaf, he said, “With these thou hast won great wealth; with the sword thou canst slay whole armies, and the bread will never come to an end.”

But the prince would not go home to his father without his brothers. He said: “Dear dwarf, please can you tell me where my two brothers are to be found? They went out before I did in search of the water of life and have not returned.”

“They are imprisoned between two mountains,” said the dwarf. “I have condemned them to stay there, because they were so haughty.”

Then the prince begged until the dwarf released them; but he warned him, however, and said: “Beware those two brothers! They have bad hearts.”

When his brothers came, the young man rejoiced, and hetold them how things had gone with him, that he had found the water of life and had brought a cupful away with him, and had rescued a beautiful princess, who was willing to wait a year for him, and then their wedding was to be celebrated and he would obtain a great kingdom.

The three rode on together until they chanced upon a land where war and famine reigned, and the king already thought he must perish, for the scarcity was so great. Then the prince went to the king and gave him the loaf, wherewith he fed and satisfied the whole of his kingdom; and then the prince gave him the sword, wherewith the king slew the hosts of his enemies and could now live in rest and peace. The prince then took back his loaf and his sword, and the three brothers rode on. But after this they entered two more countries where war and famine reigned and each time the prince gave his loaf and his sword to the kings, and so in this way he delivered three kingdoms.

After that they went on board a ship and sailed over the sea. During the passage, the two eldest conversed apart and said, “The youngest has found the water of life and not we, for that our father will give him the kingdom the kingdom which belongs to us, and he will rob us of all our fortune.” They then began to seek revenge, and they plotted with each other to destroy the young man. They waited until they found him fast asleep, then they poured the water of life out of the cup and took it for themselves, but into the cup they poured salt sea-water. Now therefore, when they arrived home, the youngest took his cup to his father, the sick king, in order that he might drink out of it and be cured. But scarcely had the king drunk a very little of the salt sea-water than he became still worse than before. And as he was lamenting over this, the two eldest brothers came, and accused the youngest of having intended to poison him, and they said that they had brought him the true water of life, and they handed it to him.

The king had scarcely tasted it, when he felt his sickness departing, He became strong and healthy as in the days of his youth. After that they both went to the youngest, mocked him, and said: “You certainly found the water of life, but you have had the pain, and we the gain; you should have been sharper, and should have kept your eyes open! We took it from you while you were asleep at sea, and when a year is over, one of us will go and fetch the beautiful princess. But beware that you do not disclose aught of this to our father! He he does not trust you, and if you say a single word, you shall lose your life into the bargain, but if you keep silent, you shall have it as a gift.”

The old King was angry with his youngest son and thought he had plotted against his life. He summoned the court together and had sentence pronounced upon his son, that he should be secretly shot. Thus, when the prince went riding forth to the chase, suspecting no evil, the king’s huntsman went also, when the two were quite alone in the forest, the huntsman looked so sorrowful that the prince said to him, “Dear huntsman, what ails you?”

The huntsman said, “I cannot tell you, and yet I should!”

Then the prince said, “Say openly what it is! I will pardon you!”

“Alas!” said the huntsman, “I am to shoot you dead. The King has ordered me to do it.”

Then the prince was shocked, and said, “Dear huntsman, let me live! I give you my royal garments; give me your common ones in their stead.”

The huntsman said, “I will willingly do that! Indeed I should not have been able to shoot you.”

Then they exchanged clothes, and the huntsman returned home. The prince, however, went further into the forest. After a time three wagons of gold and precious stones came to the king for his youngest son, which were sent by the three kings who had slain their enemies with the prince’s sword and had maintained their people with the prince’s bread, and who wished to show their gratitude for it.

The old King then thought, “Can my son have been innocent?” He said to his people: Would that he were still alive! How it grieves me that I have suffered him to be killed!”

“He still lives,” said the huntsman. “I could not find it in my heart to carry out your command!”

Then he told the King how it had happened, and a stone fell from the king’s heart. The king had it proclaimed in every country that his son might return and be taken into favor again.

The princess, however, had a road made up to her palace which was quite bright and golden, and she told her people that whosoever came riding straight along it to her would be the right wooer and was to be admitted. But whoever rode by the side of it was not the right person, and he was not to be admitted.

Now, back at the other kingdom, the oldest son thought that the time was now close at hand to hasten to the king’s daughter and to give himself out as her deliverer, and thus win her for his bride, and the kingdom to boot.

Therefore, he rode forth, and when he arrived in front of the palace, and saw the splendid golden road, he thought: “It would be a sin and a shame if he were to ride over that!” And so, he turned aside and rode on the right side of it. But when he came to the door, the servants told him that he was not the right man, and that he was to go away again.

Soon after this the second prince set out, and when he came to the golden road, he thought: “It would be a sin and a shame if he were to ride over that!” And he too turned aside and rode on the left side of it, and when he reached the door, the attendants told him he was not the right man, and that he was to go away again.

When at last the year had entirely expired, the third son likewise wished to ride out of the forest to his beloved. So, he set out and thought of her so incessantly and wished to be with her so much that he never noticed the golden road at all. His horse rode onwards up the middle of it, and when he came to the door, it was opened and the princess received him with joy, and said he was her deliverer, and lord of the kingdom, and their wedding was celebrated with great rejoicing. When it was over she told him that his father had forgiven him and welcomed him to come home. So, he rode home, told his father the king what had happened—how his brothers had betrayed him, and how he had nevertheless kept silent about it.

The old King wished to punish those two sons, but they had gone to sea, and they never came back as long as they lived.