The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

Douglas Gabriel on the Green Snake and Beautiful Lily

Goethe produced his “Tale of Tales” called The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily over 200 years ago and it is still as applicable today as it was then. This “extraordinary masterwork”, as Friedrich Schiller called it, is unique among Goethe’s works. As an initiation fairy tale of transformation the highly symbolic story arose out of Rosicrucian-Alchemical impulses, which also play an important role in Faust and in Goethe’s other writings. Among those influenced deeply by it was Rudolf Steiner, whose Mystery Dramas reflect some of the same themes. Both Goethe’s fairy tale and Schiller’s Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man inspired Steiner to respond to these great works with his own ideas through the Four Mystery Plays he created for the stage in Dornach, Switzerland, in the building he named the Goetheanum.

In June of 1786 Goethe wrote: “I have read with great interest once again the old story of The Chymical Wedding. One day this tale will have to be told anew, but then it will have to be reborn, for it cannot be enjoyed in its old skin.” And this Goethe did when nine years later he penned the wonder fable entitled, The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. In this work, the spiritually creative faculties of Goethe brought about an artistic metamorphosis and a profound enhancement of the Rosicrucian themes first presented in his poem The Mysteries (The Secret Revelations).

In 1794, Goethe meet Schiller in Jena where they had their famous conversation about Goethe’s ability to “see” the archetypal plant. From then on, Goethe had found someone with whom he could share his most intimate ideas and a lasting fruitful friendship was birthed which cultivated their shared ideas on beauty, art, and aesthetics. Schiller shared with Goethe his plans to create a periodical called, The Hours. Goethe responded to this idea by writing to Schiller: “I will, with joy, with my whole heart, be of the company. A close alliance with such excellent men will certainly bring again into active current and circulation much in me that has fallen into stagnation.” Goethe’s initial contribution was entitled, Conversations of German Emigrants, wherein The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily was contained. This was the setting in which the remarkable imaginative pictures of The Fairy Tale were first presented to the world.

The artistic images comprising The Fairy Tale began to appear before Goethe’s creative consciousness during a journey from his home in Weimar to Karlsbad, which he made in the company of Schiller in 1795. In a letter Goethe wrote to Schiller, he said: “Perhaps the idea for a fairy tale story that has come to me will develop further, but in its present form it does not entirely please me. However, if I can sail the little boat out upon the ocean of imagination, there it may yet become a fairly good composition.” In its first rendition it was called: The Forever Glorious Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. It eventually appeared in The Hours at Michaelmas 1795, and received positive reviews that repeatedly asked Goethe to explain the meaning of The Fairy Tale; but alas, Goethe declined to interpret the symbols and the meaning of the characters.

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