This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on March 20, 2017
Professor Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. His most recent book is: Grimm Legacies: The Magic Power of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales (2015), and he received an NEH fellowship for his work on the origins of European fairy tales. Professor Zipes is also the author of the influential analysis of Children’s Literature, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. This post is based on a talk exploring some of the most interesting themes in his upcoming book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales, published by Princeton University Press in April 2017.
Warping “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” or How Little People Are Belittled in Fairy Tales Twisted Against Them, by Jack Zipes
One of the most disturbing features in the development of children’s literature involves warping. For instance, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a fascinating example of how a particular tale type has been changed over time and warped by filmmakers, publishers, and writers to humiliate children instead of encouraging them to be curious and develop their imagination and critical thinking.
This tale has generally been associated with the title “The Magician and his Pupil,” ATU 325, in Uther’s The Types of International Folktales. The focus in most of the variants of this tale type is on the competition between an apprentice and his master. The type is somewhat related to other tales about shape-shifters, except here the master/apprentice conflict is the determining factor in the plot. Generally speaking there are three phases to the plot. A poor family seeks to apprentice their son to a magician/ogre/devil so that he can successfully learn an “art,” which will enable him to earn a living; once the apprenticeship is concluded in the sorcerer’s house, the father must be able to recognize his son from other apprentices, often transformed into animals or birds if the powerful sorcerer will allow the young man to return to the family; thanks to the advice or help of a mysterious stranger or the son himself, the father is successful, and upon the boy’s return to the family, he makes money by using his art of transformation, but out of jealousy and revenge, the magician captures him and seeks to kill him. However, the apprentice escapes and triumphs in a battle to death with the magician. The apprentice, transformed as fox/cat/tiger bites off the head of the sorcerer transformed as rooster/chicken.
Folklorists have traced the origins of the tale type to similar motifs in stories from the ancient Mongolian Siddhi Kür, the Turkish History of the Forty Vezirs, Hesiod’s Catalogues of Women’s Fragments, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and “The Second Kalendar’s Story” in The Arabian Nights. For the most part, the European oral and literary tales depict a young man who seeks to liberate himself from an older man who has taught him the art of transformation and stealing. The apprentice often receives some help from the magician’s daughter or a princess. The oral and literary dissemination of the tale type throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia was great and included a well-known Grimms’ tale, “The Nimble Thief and his Master.” The other variants that circulated in practically all European countries share many similar features that reflect not only a generational struggle but also a conflict that countless young people experienced either as apprentices or journeymen. The conditions throughout Europe under which young boys worked in the nineteenth century were difficult and exploitative, and these tales indicate that learning a trade also meant learning how to survive and assume an identity by obtaining knowledge (magic) that would surpass that of the master.
However, survival also meant in other versions learning how to submit to the magic power of tyrants and other authorities as can be seen in a minor variant of tale type ATU 325. In two excellent studies, Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000) and William Hansen’s Aradne’s Thread (2002), the authors both cite Lucian’s comic Philopseudes (The Lover of Lies, c. CE 150) as one of the main sources of the offshoot of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which I call “The Humiliated Apprentice”; Anderson summarizes the tale type as follows:
A young Greek called Eucrates is touring Egypt and in the course of a trip on the Nile encounters Pancrates, an amazing magician, to whom he is apprenticed; the latter does not require any domestic servant, but instead enchants household objects, a broom and a pestle, to undertake domestic tasks on their own. Eucrates overhears the spell and in the sorcerer’s absence is able to activate the magical servant. Unfortunately he is also unable to stop its activities once started, having only overheard the first half of the spell; splitting the animated pestle with an axe only divides it into two servants instead of one. Only the returned sorcerer can put a stop to the now three magical servants, and having done so he disappears. Eucrates still knows his half of the spell, but dare not use it for fear of the consequences. Thereafter, he travels on to Memphis, and the great stone colossi of Memnon delivers him an oracle. (Anderson, p. 104).
It is impossible to determine how this short satirical tale, which is not as popular as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” spread over the next several centuries either through oral tradition or print. By the time some version had reached the great German writer Johann von Goethe, he published a brief poem called “Der Zauberlehrling,” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” 1797), which is a simplistic imitation of Lucian’s more comical story. Here the apprentice is the speaker of the poem which deals with his desperation and frustration when he calls forth ghosts who flood the absent sorcerer’s house. When the sorcerer returns, he calmly banishes the ghosts. This poem, which is not particularly interesting, was translated into English a few times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was somewhat popular in Germany and the rest of Europe, where other similar prose versions were disseminated.
In 1896-97, Goethe’s poem was transformed into a symphonic poem by the French composer Paul Dukas with the title The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and with the subtitle “Scherzo based on a ballad by Goethe.” This adaptation was highly significant because Walt Disney used Dukas’s music in his animated version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in 1940. It was a key part of the film Fantasia and part of Disney’s effort to resurrect the popularity of the scrawny Mickey Mouse that had declined during the 1930s. In this film, which soon became a popular picture book in the 1940s, Mickey is portrayed as a powerful wizard’s servant, sweet, cuddly, and silly, who must do menial tasks like sweeping floors, chopping wood, and carrying water from the well to scrub the floors. When the sorcerer has to leave the house, Mickey takes his hat and puts it on his head. He soon begins to command the broom to do all his chores, and at one point he rests, falls asleep, and dreams that he is the greatest sorcerer in the world while the broom keeps carrying water from the well and floods the house. Desperately Mickey tries to stop the broom by chopping it with an axe. However, he only creates more brooms and a huge flood. When the sorcerer returns, he immediately restores everything with one command. Angrily he swats Mickey with the broom and sends him off to work. In the Disney picture book, the ending is slightly different; he frowns and says, “Don’t start what you can’t finish.” Then Mickey trudges off to work like a slave.
The Disney film and book are significant in the oral and written tradition of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” because this variant warps and infantalizes the tale type. By this I mean the major current of storytelling that depicted a smart apprentice triumphing over an evil despot and that had been primarily intended for adults, including Goethe’s poem, was transformed into a children’s warning story about a young apprentice’s submission to a wizard who keeps the secrets of knowledge and power to himself. The ideological message, already apparent in Lucian’s story, is reinforced by Disney’s version: young people are to obey omnipotent people, and if they try to use the knowledge and power of their mentors before they have been fully formed by these magicians, they will bring demons into the world and create chaos.
Following the release of Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and then thousands of picture books that singled out “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” over the years as a charming story for children, there was some controversy at first. For instance, upon leaving the theater after watching Fantasia in 1940, the well-known journalist Dorothy Thompson felt that she had been brutalized by the film and drew a comparison with the Nazi terror in Europe. Neil Gaber writes, “Thompson’s complaint was that Disney and Stokowski seemed to extol the savagery of nature at the expense of man. (What Thompson missed was that Walt was extolling not so much nature as his own power to re-create the savagery on screen.) In Thompson’s eyes, Disney’s nature was so overwhelming that man had no choice but to succumb” (Gabler, p. 343). From another more contemporary perspective, Nicholas Sammond points out that the sorcerer’s name in the film is announced as Yen Sid, which is Disney spelled backward, and he argues that Disney projects himself as the manager of miracles and the socialization of children throughout “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: “Applied to Mickey, this magic of management, and the sorcerer’s private amusement at the mouse’s attempt at mastery, suggested the humanization of developmental regimes. Likewise, the seeming horror of the child’s failure at mastery was ultimately resolved through the timely intervention of the parental figure. Where the movie-going parent might feel anxiety at the social weight placed on the act of child-rearing, Disney offered up the figure of Walt and the ‘Disney magic’ as a resource in the process” (Sammond, pp. 177-178).
Given the time period in which the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was produced as the key segment of Fantasia, there are ample parallels that one could draw to demonstrate that this little film that became a picture book celebrated the authoritarianism of political dictators like Hitler; the popular need for strong political leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin; the narcissism of powerful filmmakers like Disney; the use and control of miraculous technology by arrogant technocrats, and so on. However, what has been neglected in the studies of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is Disney’s warping of a tradition of storytelling that celebrated the contention and rebellion of young people faced with tyrannical holders of power/magic and their murderous ways. Moreover, it has rarely been noticed that Disney’s film and children’s picture book influenced publishers and writers to continue to foster authoritarianism and child abuse consciously and unconsciously as can be seen in such books as Richard Rostron’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1941), illustrated by Frank Lieberman, Marianna Mayer’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Greek Fable (1989), illustrated by David Wiesner, and Nancy Willard’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1993), illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, and in numerous other books. All of them carry the same demeaning message to belittle children who seek knowledge of magic and want to experiment with it. What is disturbing and questionable is the portrayal of the sorcerer as godlike and the possessor of absolute knowledge. From an ideological perspective most of the tales depict wizards, who “own” total knowledge of magic, and are male benefactors whose power is unquestionable. They are to be obeyed without question while the apprentices, mainly boys, are humiliated if they try to learn by themselves. The struggle between master and pupil is always won by the master in this tale type. Fortunately, the major tale type of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” still holds sway in children’s and adult literature such as the Harry Potter novels, numerous other stories that deal with wizards and sorcerers, and political protests throughout the world in which young people question and contest the power of absolute dictators. What “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as wise and age-old fairy tale wants to continually to remind us is that, in the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s brutal antagonistic dialectic of master/slave, young slaves will persist and use knowledge to create more humane conditions and do away with the cruel power of dictators.
Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 2000).
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Random house, 2006).
Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.