Fanasia, Walt Disney, animation

Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: Power Over Wisdom


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an ages-old fairy tale interpreted as a poem by Goethe, made famous today by Disney’s Fantasia, illustrated the dangers of power over wisdom, and the risk of human creations getting out of control.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Goethe
Goethe: “That old sorcerer has vanished. And for once has gone away! Spirits called by him, now banished, My commands shall soon obey.” — Image: Der Zauberlehrling, 44″x36″ oil on canvas, By Margot Serowy.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling)

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

That old sorcerer has vanished
And for once has gone away!
Spirits called by him, now banished,
My commands shall soon obey.
Every step and saying
That he used, I know,
And with sprites obeying
My arts I will show.

Flow, flow onward
Stretches many
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!
Long my orders you have heeded,
By my wishes now I’ve bound you.
Have two legs and stand,
And a head for you.
Run, and in your hand
Hold a bucket too.

     “It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years, a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice…[who] started practicing some of the boss’s best magic tricks before learning how to control them.”  — Deems Taylor in “Fantasia”

Flow, flow onward
Stretches many,
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing.

See him, toward the shore he’s racing
There, he’s at the stream already,
Back like lightning he is chasing,
Pouring water fast and steady.
Once again he hastens!
How the water spills,
How the water basins
Brimming full he fills!

Stop now, hear me!
Ample measure
Of your treasure
We have gotten!
Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.
Master’s word I have forgotten!

Ah, the word with which the master
Makes the broom a broom once more!
Ah, he runs and fetches faster!
Be a broomstick as before!
Ever new the torrents
That by him are fed,
Ah, a hundred currents
Pour upon my head!

No, no longer
Can I please him,
I will seize him!
That is spiteful!
My misgivings grow the stronger.
What a mien, his eyes how frightful!

STORY: E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Soul’s Adventure on New Year’s Eve

Fanasia, Walt Disney, animation
Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Disney’s “Fantasia.”

Brood of hell, you’re not a mortal!
Shall the entire house go under?
Over threshold over portal
Streams of water rush and thunder.
Broom accurst and mean,
Who will have his will,
Stick that you have been,
Once again stand still!

Can I never, Broom, appease you?
I will seize you,
Hold and whack you,
And your ancient wood
I’ll sever,
With a whetted axe I’ll crack you.

An excerpt from Disney’s Fantasia, 1940. Music performed by students of the music conservatory of Tromsø, Norway (2016). Composed and directed by Ole Lind Rørstad.

     The so-called “sorcerer’s apprentice syndrome” can be found at the root of many fantastic stories in which humans could not curb their creations (i.e.robots) which eventually would turn against their makers. — Damian Kalitan

He returns, more water dragging!
Now I’ll throw myself upon you!
Soon, 0 goblin, you’ll be sagging.
Crash! The sharp axe has undone you.
What a good blow, truly!
There, he’s split, I see.
Hope now rises newly,
And my breathing’s free.

Woe betide me!
Both halves scurry
In a hurry,
Rise like towers
There beside me.
Help me, help, eternal powers!

Off they run, till wet and wetter
Hall and steps immersed are Iying.
What a flood that naught can fetter!
Lord and master, hear me crying! –
Ah, he comes excited.
Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I’ve cited
My commands ignore.

“To the lonely
Corner, broom!
Hear your doom.
As a spirit
When he wills, your master only
Calls you, then ’tis time to hear it.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1779. Translation by Edwin Zeydel, 1955

Painting from Margot Serowy Fine Art.

Updated 23 January 2021

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  1. Barbara A. Smith

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is another example of this theme, Power Over Wisdom. Don’the we see it endlessly iterated on the news and in daily life?

  2. Pingback: Mikhail Gorbachev: Failed Politician - Chronicles

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