No Comment — December 3, 2007, 9:29 pm

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

A reader writes: “You’re turning everything into a subject for political commentary. Jane Austen? Even Mickey Mouse in his greatest starring role, as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Gimme a break.”

So what is that tale of the absentee sorcerer and his young intern all about? Just fun and games? Material for a few gratuitous flights of fantasy? That may reflect Disney, but certainly not Goethe. The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” – “Der Zauberlehrling” – is a beautiful ballad, one of a great number that Goethe wrote in a productive storm in 1797.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 4/1, p. 874-77 (1797)(Münchener Ausg. 1988). It can be read and appreciated on many levels, certainly. It’s exciting, provocative, entertaining. And true, almost from its first printing it was seen as something suitable for children.

But the story is not just about magic. It’s an admonition. And the subject—the theme for which those spells and charms stand as tokens—is the notion of telling falsehoods in public discourse. You may start this process with good intentions, the narrator tells us, but they will quickly overtake you. The lies have a habit of taking on a life of their own, like those dancing brooms. They will in the end work mischief. They may set the household in an uproar. Or they may bring a nation to war.


Perhaps you see the image already. But there is no doubt that this is the image that Goethe had in mind. Indeed, where did Goethe get this tale? In 1788, his friend Christoph Martin Wieland, a great writer and philosopher and also an accomplished translator from classical Greek, whom Goethe had invited to Weimar and set to work reforming the duchy’s school system, published a translation of the stories of Lucian of Samosata.Christoph Martin Wieland, Lukians wahre Geschichten (1788) in: Werke, vol. 5, p. 629 (H.W. Seiffert ed. 1968). Lucian was a second century Assyrian, from a town on the headwaters of the Euphrates (today deep under the waters behind the Atatürk Dam in Turkey, near the Iraqi border), who wrote a series of brilliant satires in classical Greek. Deep in that collection was a work called Philopseudes (the “Lover of Lies”). Midway through the story, a narrator named Arignotus weighs in and tells of a magician and his apprentice.Lucian of Samosata, “The Lover of Lies” in: Works, vol. 3, p. 319 in the Loeb Library vol. 130. One day the magician leaves and his apprentice invokes the spells he heard his master use. A door opens and closes, and brooms begin to dance… You know the rest of the story. Goethe has worked this material into a ballad, but he is very faithful to it, and there is no doubt that he has followed Lucian’s meaning very carefully.

Goethe picked up from the middle of the story, where the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice appears. It’s a story-within-a-story. But how does the whole narration begin? As is his style, Lucian tells us both at beginning and at the end what the object of his story is.

Can you tell me… what in the world it is that makes many people so fond of lying?…

And our narrator then proceeds to catalogue the reasons why people lie. He gives us the well intended, good natured lie—to avoid hurting the feelings of one who would be harmed by an honest judgment, for instance. The socially expedient lie of the “madam is not at home” variety. The lie borne of patriotism and a desire to advance the interests of one’s country, he says. And even the lie borne of necessity, as clever Odysseus’s lies on his perilous journey home to Ithaca.

But most dangerous, says Lucian, are the public men in whom “this passion for lying is ingrained.”

The balance of the satire is a demonstration of this point. And in the end, after a variety of tales, including that of the sorcerer’s apprentice, Lucian comes to ask some questions. He casts them ironically, of course, but they really couldn’t be more serious.

When the people have heard these lies, have been bewitched and stirred up by them, what is the consequence? Lucian says it is useful to think of the lies as a disease, and their recounting as a rabid dog biting the uninfected. He, too, then risks the infection. Is there is no shield to use against this scourge? And Goethe puts this thought very elegantly, in two of the most quoted lines in the German language: “Die ich rief, die Geister,/Werd ich nun nicht los.” (“The spirits which I have summoned/I now cannot banish.”)

Today the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was published in summary, laying bare another year’s worth of lies from the Bush Administration. Lies which, as usual, were spun with the object of avoiding diplomacy and making war. The same Administration furiously spun lies about the Iraq, leading to a tragic waste of blood and treasure in an invasion and occupation of that country. These are the foreseeable consequences of calculating public lies.

So is there no solution? No master magician to return and set things right? No innoculation to issue? Lucian is very clear on this point. No, there is no sorcerer who will come and make it all better. It is up to us to do so. And in the end it’s about accountability for those who lie, and placing a proper value on the truth. Here is how Lucian finishes the tale:

We have a powerful antidote to such poisons. It is truth… As long as we have zealous use of it, the malicious and foolish lies will not disturb us. We shall have peace.

This is the message at the core of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s a good one for all of us to contemplate today.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:


A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today