The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Poor Man and the Rich Man

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2019]

In olden times, when the Lord himself still used to walk about on this earth amongst men, it once happened that he was tired and overtaken by the darkness before he could reach an inn. Now there stood on the road before him two houses facing each other; the one large and beautiful, the other small and poor. The large one belonged to a rich man, and the small one to a poor man. Then the Lord thought, “I shall be no burden to the rich man, I will stay the night with him.” When the rich man heard someone knocking at his door, he opened the window and asked the stranger what he wanted. The Lord answered, “I only ask for a night’s lodging.” Then the rich man looked at the traveller from head to foot, and as the Lord was wearing common clothes, and did not look like one who had much money in his pocket, he shook his head, and said, “No, I cannot take you in, my rooms are full of herbs and seeds; and if I were to lodge everyone who knocked at my door, I might very soon go begging myself. Go somewhere else for a lodging,” and with this he shut down the window and left the Lord standing there.

The term “God” is maybe the most mysterious inheritance that we have accepted from our ancestors. Many speak of it, but no one can say what it actually is. Basically, it is about the truth that man has sought in a living spirit over many thousands of years in order to explain the world around us. It was only in the last few centuries that modern people began to look for truth in dead matter, especially externally, and so the living concept of God has been disappeared more and more from our lives. Interestingly, this started another development, represented in our technical revolution. This is certainly not a coincidence, because our worldview is of course closely linked to our thinking and acting. Now we hope that this development is only one round on the eternal spiral and that the living concepts of ‘spirit’ and ‘God’ will soon find a proper place in our worldview again. The first sentence of the tale may then mean that God used to walk alive among people on earth and was not yet thought of somewhere far away, banished into heaven or the realm of superstition.

The beautiful symbolism that God knocks on our house is widespread in fairy tales. On the one hand, it points to the holy hospitality that one should see God in every guest, and on the other hand to our own being, that we should let the Spirit of God into us. Master Eckhart already said: “Because there is a great evil in the fact that man moves God into the distance; for whether man walks in the distance or in the near: God never goes far, he remains constantly near; and if he cannot stay inside, he does not go further than before the door. [Eckhart p.78]”

Correspondingly, we read in this fairy tale how our material wealth with the matching attachment to external things affects our views and behaviour, so that even today many people hardly allow anything spiritual to touch them and even less get involved with it. Only when their material world is unbearably threatened by illness, loss or other suffering a door can open to let in something higher.

So the Lord turned his back on the rich man, and went across to the small house and knocked. He had hardly done so when the poor man opened the little door and bade the traveller come in. “Pass the night with me, it is already dark,” said he; “you cannot go any further to-night.” This pleased the Lord, and he went in. The poor man’s wife shook hands with him, and welcomed him, and said he was to make himself at home and put up with what they had got; they had not much to offer him, but what they had they would give him with all their hearts. Then she put the potatoes on the fire, and while they were boiling, she milked the goat, that they might have a little milk with them. When the cloth was laid, the Lord sat down with the man and his wife, and he enjoyed their coarse food, for there were happy faces at the table. When they had had supper and it was bed-time, the woman called her husband apart and said, “Hark you, dear husband, let us make up a bed of straw for ourselves to-night, and then the poor traveller can sleep in our bed and have a good rest, for he has been walking the whole day through, and that makes one weary.” “With all my heart,” he answered, “I will go and offer it to him;” and he went to the stranger and invited him, if he had no objection, to sleep in their bed and rest his limbs properly. But the Lord was unwilling to take their bed from the two old folks; however, they would not be satisfied, until at length he did it and lay down in their bed, while they themselves lay on some straw on the ground. Next morning they got up before daybreak, and made as good a breakfast as they could for the guest. When the sun shone in through the little window, and the Lord had got up, he again ate with them, and then prepared to set out on his journey.

You can see here that poor people have it easy sometimes. The saying goes: “It is difficult to be satisfied with a little, but to be satisfied with a lot is even more difficult.” In practical life, of course, it is primarily about intellectual poverty, which means not clinging to personal possessions. Otherwise, even a mendicant monk could manage to cling more to his begging bowl than a businessman to his company. So we read here of the great ideal of poverty, namely to have selfless compassion for all beings and willingly give everything that is desired. How difficult it is in life, especially in our materially rich world, everyone has surely already experienced. Then you might ask yourself: Should you give the beggar something, even though you already suspect a trickery or that the money immediately flows into alcohol? Do you donate aid organizations that make millions in profits with it? Moreover, is money really a universal remedy that brings good long-term benefits? Such questions are often difficult to answer, especially as long as you expect a special profit from the donation and actually turn it into a moral business: I give money and get a clear conscience. Yes, that is not easy and reminds us of the famous saying from the Bible: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be hidden; and your father, who sees into the hidden, will repay you publicly.” Perhaps one could also translate it like this: “Give with reason and compassion and not with selfish intention!”

This is where the father, the ruling spirit, comes into play, who rewards those gifts that weaken our ego or at least prevent it from growing. This requires a great deal of trust, because as soon as you expect a personal gain, you have already lost. It happened to the greedy rich man in our fairy tale who wanted to hold onto his property. Let’s now read what happens to the humble poor:

But as he was standing at the door he turned round and said, “As you are so kind and good, you may wish three things for yourselves and I will grant them.” Then the man said, “What else should I wish for but eternal happiness, and that we two, as long as we live, may be healthy and have every day our daily bread; for the third wish, I do not know what to have.” And the Lord said to him, “Will you wish for a new house instead of this old one?” “Oh, yes,” said the man; “if I can have that, too, I should like it very much.” And the Lord fulfilled his wish, and changed their old house into a new one, again gave them his blessing, and went on.

The poor did not expect profit, and so they are granted three wishes. Does anyone still believe in wishes nowadays? Well, at least we wish each other all the best for birthdays or other celebrations. But do we still believe in the working power of thoughts? Usually we are just a plaything of our thoughts. Therefore, some wishes come true and some don’t.

Nevertheless, we all know from everyday experience: The power of our thoughts can move the body, keep it healthy, but also make it sick. Then one speaks of a psychosomatic illness. However, when a patient tries to heal in the same way with the power of thoughts, it usually fails. Why? We often forget the most important thing about the power of thoughts, something that is known as merit. If the necessary causes do not exist, even the hardest will cannot force an effect. The same law of cause and effect prevails here as it is explained in physics. Therefore, the poor people in our fairy tale had the necessary merit to be granted the three wishes for their happiness. And how do you achieve this necessary merit? In India one speaks of the so-called karma, which we accumulate in life through thoughts, words and actions. In practice, it is about intellectual abilities, a potential similar to a battery, which one charges in a way that our wishes can come true. That’s why we go to school for many long years nowadays and try hard at work. In this way, above all, egoism, desire and other passions are charged, with which our many desires for material wealth can be fulfilled. The old fairy tales, however, speak more of another kind of merit that can be achieved on the path of the well-known virtues of humility, contentment, compassion, truthfulness and justice. Goethe also writes about this spiritual connection between merit and happiness in [Faust II]:

How closely linked are Luck and Merit,
Is something fools have never known.
Had they the Wise Man’s Stone, I swear it,
There’d be no Wise Man for the Stone.

In our fairy tale, the rich man also imagines that he has something that others do not. Only this imagination makes him rich. For this, he looks through the window of his senses at the poor who live “across from him”. It is a strange joy, on which our ego feeds, which is quickly gone in the flow of time.

The sun was high when the rich man got up and leaned out of his window and saw, on the opposite side of the way, a new clean-looking house with red tiles and bright windows where the old hut used to be. He was very much astonished, and called his wife and said to her, “Tell me, what can have happened? Last night there was a miserable little hut standing there, and to-day there is a beautiful new house. Run over and see how that has come to pass.” So his wife went and asked the poor man, and he said to her, “Yesterday evening a traveller came here and asked for a night’s lodging, and this morning when he took leave of us he granted us three wishes -- eternal happiness, health during this life and our daily bread as well, and besides this, a beautiful new house instead of our old hut.” When the rich man’s wife heard this, she ran back in haste and told her husband how it had happened. The man said, “I could tear myself to pieces! If I had but known that! That traveller came to our house too, and wanted to sleep here, and I sent him away.” “Quick!” said his wife, “get on your horse. You can still catch the man up, and then you must ask to have three wishes granted you.”

Merit and happiness do not remain hidden in the world. Therefore, Mother Nature gave us the envy, so that we will strive and want to gain what we see as good in others. But the big question is: by what means? Here, too, nature teaches us and guides us with appropriate experiences. So now, the rich man tries to force the three wishes. Can it work? Can you force God? Yes and no. Because, if you create the necessary causes, you can even force God.

Meister Eckhart said: “The thought sometimes occurred to me that man can come to the point of being able to force God in timeliness. If I were to stand up here and say to someone: “Come up!” That would be difficult (for him). But if I said: “Sit down there!” That would be easy. So does God. When man humbles himself, God cannot withhold himself in his own goodness from sinking and pouring himself into the humble man, and to the least of all man he communicates himself most of all and gives himself completely to him. What God gives is his being, and his being is his goodness and his goodness is his love. [Eckhart p.259]”

This topic also runs through many old Indian stories, and there, too, it is mainly about penance and asceticism, with which one can fulfil all wishes. An interesting example is the story of Ravana in the Ramayana, who practiced the harshest asceticism and even sacrificed his body to fulfil his great desire for world domination. Above all, he sacrificed his heads, of which he had several [Ramayana 7.10]. We would say: Typical head person! That is a most memorable symbolism. Because we are trying to do the same thing today in the material field. Of course, it works, but as long as the spiritual foundation is not reliable, it is said that all these desires are built on sand, like the world domination of Ravana.

The rich man followed the good counsel and galloped away on his horse, and soon came up with the Lord. He spoke to him softly and pleasantly, and begged him not to take it amiss that he had not let him in directly; he was looking for the front-door key, and in the meantime the stranger had gone away, if he returned the same way he must come and stay with him. “Yes,” said the Lord; “if I ever come back again, I will do so.” Then the rich man asked if might not wish for three things too, as his neighbour had done? “Yes,” said the Lord, he might, but it would not be to his advantage, and he had better not wish for anything; but the rich man thought that he could easily ask for something which would add to his happiness, if he only knew that it would be granted. So the Lord said to him, “Ride home, then, and three wishes which you shall form, shall be fulfilled.”

Therefore, it now happens that God also grants three wishes to the rich man, but already knows that he lacks the necessary merit and spiritual purity so that the wishes cannot bring him happiness. Yes, sometimes it is really better when our wishes remain unfulfilled, similar to the situation with small children whose reason is not yet ripe. You shouldn’t make every wish come true for them either, otherwise you will raise little gluttons who will then grow bigger and bigger. There are certainly enough people in our world who want to force great happiness in life with a lot of rational understanding but little reason.

The rich man had now gained what he wanted, so he rode home, and began to consider what he should wish for. As he was thus thinking he let the bridle fall, and the horse began to caper about, so that he was continually disturbed in his meditations, and could not collect his thoughts at all. He patted its neck, and said, “Gently, Lisa,” but the horse only began new tricks. Then at last he was angry, and cried quite impatiently, “I wish your neck was broken!” Directly he had said the words, down the horse fell on the ground, and there it lay dead and never moved again. And thus was his first wish fulfilled. As he was miserly by nature, he did not like to leave the harness lying there; so he cut it off, and put it on his back; and now he had to go on foot. “I have still two wishes left,” said he, and comforted himself with that thought. And now as he was walking slowly through the sand, and the sun was burning hot at noon-day, he grew quite hot-tempered and angry. The saddle hurt his back, and he had not yet any idea what to wish for. “If I were to wish for all the riches and treasures in the world,” said he to himself, “I should still to think of all kinds of things later on, I know that, beforehand. But I will manage so that there is nothing at all left me to wish for afterwards.” Then he sighed and said, “Ah, if I were but that Bavarian peasant, who likewise had three wishes granted to him, and knew quite well what to do, and in the first place wished for a great deal of beer, and in the second for as much beer as he was able to drink, and in the third for a barrel of beer into the bargain.” Many a time he thought he had found it, but then it seemed to him to be, after all, too little. Then it came into his mind, what an easy life his wife had, for she stayed at home in a cool room and enjoyed herself. This really did vex him, and before he was aware, he said, “I just wish she was sitting there on this saddle, and could not get off it, instead of my having to drag it along on my back.” And as the last word was spoken, the saddle disappeared from his back, and he saw that his second wish had been fulfilled. Then he really did feel warm. He began to run and wanted to be quite alone in his own room at home, to think of something really large for his last wish. But when he arrived there and opened the parlour-door, he saw his wife sitting in the middle of the room on the saddle, crying and complaining, and quite unable to get off it. So he said, “Do bear it, and I will wish for all the riches on earth for thee, only stay where thou art.” She, however, called him a fool, and said, “What good will all the riches on earth do me, if I am to sit on this saddle? Thou hast wished me on it, so thou must help me off.” So whether he would or not, he was forced to let his third wish be that she should be quit of the saddle, and able to get off it, and immediately the wish was fulfilled. So he got nothing by it but vexation, trouble, abuse, and the loss of his horse; but the poor people lived happily, quietly, and piously until their happy death.

It is now very vividly described how the thoughts of the rich man get entangled in the superficial problems of the world and cannot find the great thing that makes us really rich and happy. To those who cannot tame their thoughts, they become an enemy. Then we lose our reason, which could easily carry us, like the rich man loses his horse, and have to laboriously walk with the heavy ego on our backs. After all, what good is a saddle without a horse? What use is the will without merit or thinking without reason?

Of course, we are hardly familiar with the symbolism of the horse these days. It has been replaced by the car, which has now become the epitome of freedom. For us, the saddle is the comfortable car seat with belt and airbag that promises us safety and power. So the saddle could also be a symbol for our ego in this fairy tale, which wants to dominate everything and commands it according to its own will, even if we are only riding a dead horse and the connection to reason or real life has been lost. Then of course, it becomes even more difficult to find the really big thing in life, because our thoughts keep getting lost in worldly worries. Therefore, the man scolds his wife, who sits on her high horse at home and orders him around, in which he recognizes the cause for his torture. In this way, his second wish also goes wrong. However, nature, our feminine side, leads us further here and clearly shows: “What use are all the riches in the world to me if I cannot get down from the insatiable ego.” That is why she speaks to her man, the spirit, which symbolizes our masculine side: “You have wanted me up here, now bring me down again!” At least the third wish with the painful experience could have a healing effect on the future development of the rich man. Yes, nature always means well for us, and above all in suffering and loss lies the grace of experience that enables us to learn. The poor had obviously already learned it and stayed content and happy in the new house. Because only in abundance we can see how true our virtue is.

The Golden Bird - (topic: reason)
The Twelve Brothers - (topic: spirit, passion and nature)
The Seven Ravens - (topic: The seven principles of nature)
Little Snow-White and the seven dwarfs - (topic: Ego and passion)
The Six Servants - (topic: Supernatural abilities)
The Poor Man and the Rich Man (topic: the curse of wealth)
Gambling Hansel - (topic: Delicate game with the world and nature)
Clever Grethel - (topic: Uncontrollable passion)
The Wolf and The Seven Little Kids - (topic: desire)
The Valiant Little Tailor - (topic: a healing way)
The Wise Servant - (topic: Search for wisdom, Reformation)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[Eckhart] Meister Eckhart, Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, Diogenes 1979
[Faust II] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust Teil 2, 1832
[2019] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /