The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Wonderful Musician

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

There was once a wonderful musician, who went quite alone through a forest and thought of all manner of things, and when nothing was left for him to think about, he said to himself, “Time is beginning to pass heavily with me here in the forest, I will fetch hither a good companion for myself.” Then he took his fiddle from his back, and played so that it echoed through the trees. It was not long before a wolf came trotting through the thicket towards him. “Ah, here is a wolf coming! I have no desire for him!” said the musician; but the wolf came nearer and said to him, “Ah, dear musician, how beautifully thou dost play! I should like to learn that, too.” “It is soon learnt,” the musician replied, “thou hast only to do all that I bid thee.” “Oh, musician,” said the wolf, “I will obey thee as a scholar obeys his master.” The musician bade him follow, and when they had gone part of the way together, they came to an old oak-tree which was hollow inside, and cleft in the middle. “Look,” said the musician, “if thou wilt learn to fiddle, put thy fore paws into this crevice.” The wolf obeyed, but the musician quickly picked up a stone and with one blow wedged his two paws so fast that he was forced to stay there like a prisoner. “Stay there until I come back again,” said the musician, and went his way.

After a while he again said to himself, “Time is beginning to pass heavily with me here in the forest, I will fetch hither another companion,” and took his fiddle and again played in the forest. It was not long before a fox came creeping through the trees towards him. “Ah, there’s a fox coming!” said the musician. “I have no desire for him.” The fox came up to him and said, “Oh, dear musician, how beautifully thou dost play! I should like to learn that too.” “That is soon learnt,” said the musician. “Thou hast only to do everything that I bid thee.” “Oh, musician,” then said the fox, “I will obey thee as a scholar obeys his master.” “Follow me,” said the musician; and when they had walked a part of the way, they came to a footpath, with high bushes on both sides of it. There the musician stood still, and from one side bent a young hazel-bush down to the ground, and put his foot on the top of it, then he bent down a young tree from the other side as well, and said, “Now, little fox, if thou wilt learn something, give me thy left front paw.” The fox obeyed, and the musician fastened his paw to the left bough. “Little fox,” said he, “now reach me thy right paw,” and he tied it to the right bough. Then he had examined whether they were firm enough, he let go, and the bushes sprang up again, and jerked up the little fox, so that it hung struggling in the air. “Wait there till I come back again,” said the musician, and went his way.

Again he said to himself, “Time is beginning to pass heavily with me here in the forest, I will fetch hither another companion,” so he took his fiddle, and the sound echoed through the forest. Then a little hare came springing towards him. “Why, a hare is coming,” said the musician, “I do not want him.” “Ah, dear musician,” said the hare, “how beautifully thou dost fiddle; I, too, should like to learn that.” “That is soon learnt,” said the musician, “thou hast only to do everything that I bid thee.”

“Oh, musician,” replied the little hare, “I will obey thee as a scholar obeys his master.” They went a part of the way together until they came to an open space in the forest, where stood an aspen-tree. The musician tied a long string round the little hare’s neck, the other end of which he fastened to the tree. “Now briskly, little hare, run twenty times round the tree!” cried the musician, and the little hare obeyed, and when it had run round twenty times, it had twisted the string twenty times round the trunk of the tree, and the little hare was caught, and let it pull and tug as it liked, it only made the string cut into its tender neck. “Wait there till I come back,” said the musician, and went onwards.

The wolf, in the meantime, had pushed and pulled and bitten at the stone, and had worked so long that he had set his feet at liberty and had drawn them once more out of the cleft. Full of anger and rage he hurried after the musician and wanted to tear him to pieces. When the fox saw him running, he began to lament, and cried with all his might, “Brother wolf, come to my help, the musician has betrayed me!” The wolf drew down the little tree, bit the cord in two, and freed the fox, who went with him to take revenge on the musician. They found the tied-up hare, whom likewise they delivered, and then they all sought the enemy together.

The musician had once more played his fiddle as he went on his way, and this time he had been more fortunate. The sound reached the ears of a poor wood-cutter, who instantly, whether he would or no, gave up his work and came with his hatchet under his arm to listen to the music. “At last comes the right companion,” said the musician, “for I was seeking a human being, and no wild beast.” And he began and played so beautifully and delightfully that the poor man stood there as if bewitched, and his heart leaped with gladness. And as he thus stood, the wolf, the fox, and the hare came up, and he saw well that they had some evil design. So he raised his glittering axe and placed himself before the musician, as if to say, “Whoso wishes to touch him let him beware, for he will have to do with me!” Then the beasts were terrified and ran back into the forest. The musician, however, played once more to the man out of gratitude, and then went onwards.

The story is simple: a musician is bored on his way through the wilderness, and so he plays some music because he wishes for a companion. Attracted by the beautiful music, three animals come out of the dark forest and follow him uninvited. The minstrel wants to get rid of them with evil tricks. But the traps he chooses do not last long, only the lumberjack can finally drive the animals away. For him, who only listens and does not want anything from the minstrel, he plays thankfully and beautifully and ... continues on his own path, alone. A really strange story that strongly demands that we represent the whole external event in our inner being, where the dark forest stands for the subconscious, out of which our animal instincts arise.

The symbolism for animals has certainly changed significantly over time. We believe today that the wolf was a power animal, a wise teacher and a spiritual companion during the Germanic era, and that in the Middle Ages it was associated with greediness, insatiable hunger and cruelty. To this day, the hare is fearful in stories and the fox is crafty. But anyone who really observes animals not only recognizes some basic patterns in their behaviour, but also many different characters. Not every fox is equally brave or cunning, and wolves in their pack tend to cultivate compassion and harmonious coexistence more consistently than some people in their family. To what extent do wolf, fox and hare stand here for greed, insidiousness and fearfulness, we want to leave open, but they certainly stand for animal instincts that stick stubbornly to one, even if one does not welcome them or wants to have them. That no real animals can be meant seems clear to us, because the three usually do not make common cause with each other, even if they could talk. And the usual, exaggerated three-time repetition is also already familiar to us from other fairy tales and one’s own mind, because mental change usually takes a lot of time and frequent repetition.

But what attracted the animals? It was the wonderful music of the minstrel. A magic that nobody can escape. And immediately the animals want to be able to play so nicely, they want to cherish the rapture and own what seems desirable to them. Does this sound familiar to you? This thirst for something we do not have or master, and we think it will make us happy? And the thirst is persistent in our behaviour and cannot be easily put in its place. You can suppress it for a while and ignore it, but to really get rid of it, other means are needed. The minstrel first chooses the cunning to get rid of the pressing urges at least in the short term. He cannot kill or chase the animals away, he can only bind them, how they bind us, and for the time being leave them behind. In general, he can only captivate them because they have already bound themselves with their own desire. It was not the final solution, but it gives him enough space and time to meet the right fellow on his way, who can truly help him.

Each animal is tied up in a different way. And if we want to stay briefly with the above-mentioned characteristics of the animals: The greedy wolf gets its paws trapped, as the passion binds us to selfish deeds. The cunning fox is lifted into the air because guile does not have a solid ground under its feet. And the fear? Well, the rabbit runs in a circle until the noose of fear strangles his breath and even life, and he cannot move anymore. This is certainly not about animal abuse, but an excellent picture for human characteristics and their effects!

When the minstrel meets the simple woodcutter, he says: “Finally a man!” For us, the question arose immediately: What distinguishes us humans from the animals? Even science can no longer clearly define the limits, because such “typically human” qualities as compassion, diligence, common sense or personality can be found by impartial observation in many animals and even some plants. So what does the lumberjack have what the animals of the forest do not have? As an antidote to the animal instincts, we might accept some self-knowledge based on reason and apprehension. And if the forest stands for the dark, the unconscious, then the lumberjack is the ordering force in chaos that works with the axe, the sharp blade of knowledge. Also, the lumberjack must have a higher cognition, because he has already left the attachment behind. It is enough for him to listen and enjoy the moment. It does not even occur to him to gain and control the music. He does not want to own anything and does not even have to say a word to the minstrel. He can perceive the moment as it is, without asking for more. And therefore he is aware, and just this awareness and the demonstration of one’s own knowledge are sufficient for the animal instincts to return to where they came from.

But who or what is the minstrel, who was initially so busy with his own thoughts and then felt bored? Yes, those who think a lot also know the boredom, this tormenting vacuum, which is so unpopular with us, that we want to fill it with hectic activity and all the resources of today’s techno-media world. Telephoning while driving, listening to music while jogging, watching TV and talking to others at the same time, feeding the baby while typing SMS... Boredom, which used to be called leisure, is an important thing. Those who allow the boredom can dive into their own dark forest, which is not only a home for animal instincts, but also for harmony, creativity, knowledge and in the end even true peace.

Well, as the title of the fairy tale says, it is a “wonderful” musician, a figure full of wonders and surprises, and probably no ordinary musician. He masters harmony in the form of most delightful music, and thus appears to us as a perfect poetry that, like selfless love, is able to unite the separated. It is not for nothing that he seeks the ordering power in the form of reason. Once rational knowledge and fairy-tale poetry have met, their connection will be fruitful for a long time to come. The woodcutter is not sad that the magical music moves on, because he does not want to hold on to it. And the minstrel, who gratefully moves on, after reason freed him from the animal impulses, no longer feels alone.

Because: “Poetry is truth that lives in beauty.”
Robert Gilfillan (1798 - 1850), Scottish poet

One can go even further in the interpretation of minstrel (in German: Spielmann - lit. playing man) and lumberjack and must not stop at the interaction of poetry and reason in one’s own mind. After all, the development of our mind in the course of a lifetime is quite similar to the great and the whole in the world, nature and the divine.

We are familiar with playing children. Adults may still play with musical instruments or at parties against boredom. But if a construction worker described his work as a game, that would be strange. And if a man plays with life itself, namely with his own ideas, concepts, ideals and feelings, then we are almost afraid of such a man. At the same time, we know it from painting, music or poetry. The art that banishes the playful, only craves for money or fame and is produced as if on an assembly line, loses its true meaning. It will no longer be able to lift us, but pulls us down into the ordinary and materialistic world. In Hinduism, there is the term “Lila” for this playful, the divine play of life. Many Westerners are afraid of this idea and say: “Life is not a game! It is a serious matter!”

Hermann Hesse also dealt with this topic in a very profound way in his book “The Glass Bead Game [Glasperlenspiel]”. There, for example, he has his protagonist say: “’Playing’ has several meanings, but most importantly, it means something that takes the employee particularly seriously and sternly. The game of the child is played with the utmost seriousness. The play of the musicians is celebrated like worship. Any card or parlour game is characterized by the fact that it is less serious than ’life’, but that it has very firm rules, and that each player complies more closely with these rules and submits much more to their sense than most people in ’real’ life do it with the rules of reason... To this sense of the game now stands the seriousness of political beliefs, aspirations... in contrast. What is lacking here is the humility of knowing that one only plays and is a child and has God above him. Instead of acting, thinking, one speaks with an exaggerated, blind, and other raping gravity...”

Withered leaf [Hermann Hesse]

Every blossom wants to fruit,
Every morning wants to be evening,
Eternal is not on earth
As the change, as the escape.
Even the most beautiful summer wants
Once autumn and wilting feel.
Hold, leaf, patiently,
If the wind wants to kidnap you.
Play your game and do not fight back,
Let it quietly happen.
Let the wind that breaks you,
Blow you home.

The minstrel may also be a symbol of the higher intelligence that playfully unfolds the perfect art of poetry and harmony of music. This intelligence wanders through the universe, takes on a variety of forms, connects with a variety of bodies, becomes one of the strangest beings and is always a seeker. The word ’Spielmann’ means a male being, perhaps even the one and eternal spirit, who plays with the variety of transient forms. Why does he play this strange game? He seeks without really knowing what he is looking for. He is driven by thoughts and a strange boredom. Therefore, the mind wanders all on his own through nature, making its wonderful song sound, playing with the forms of life and walking on and on. He plays with the animals and binds them through their own being. He is happy about the man who works hard in nature, who leads a simple life and finds this powerful weapon with which he can overcome the animal instincts.

Playing of the flute [Hermann Hesse]

At a house at night through shrub and tree
A window shimmered softly,
And there in the invisible room
A flute player stood and blew.
It was a song so well-known
It flowed so kindly into the night,
As if every country were home,
As if every path was accomplished.
It was the world’s secret meaning
Revealed in his breath,
And willingly the heart surrendered,
And all time became present.

Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death - (topic: essence of death and reality)
One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes - (topic: normality)
Rapunzel - (topic: spirit-soul-illusion)
Faithful John - (topic: overcoming opposites through reason)
The Wonderful Musician (topic: The great harmony)
The White Snake - (topic: The ring of true love and connectedness)
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs - (topic: soul-desire-ego)
The Girl Without Hands - (topic: The path of suffering to salvation)
Briar-Rose or Sleeping Beauty - (topic: The rigor mortis of nature)
Our Lady’s Child - (topic: The divine sense of nature)
... 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
[Glasperlenspiel] Hermann Hesse, Suhrkamp, Berlin 1951
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /