Thursday, January 08, 2009

Goethe's Tales for Transformation

It should come as no surprise that the author of Faust had a long and abiding interest in alchemy and the mythology of renewal and transformation. This collection brings together five stories and a short libretto (conceived as a continuation of Mozart's "The Magic Flute"), most of which touch directly upon themes corresponding to the Great Work.

Some of these pieces are heavily allegorical, particularly "Fairy Tale", a parable of metamorphosis which, as Alice Raphael convincingly illustrates in Goethe and the Philosopher's Stone, draws heavily on Egyptian mythology as understood by Masonic acolytes. Archetypes of Thoth (as Ferryman), the Lily or prima materia, the transforming serpent (which as the ouroboros embodies continuity or eternity, the Elder or lamp-bearer (who hold the key to the Great Work), and others act out a ceremony of transformation, the understanding of which is essential to the philosophical study of hermeticism and alchemy.

"The New Melusina" is the most enchanting tale of the lot, relating a young man's discovery of and betrothal to a beautiful and mysterious gnome princess. "The Counselor" and "The Good Women" (a kind of symposium) explore femininity and male/female duality, with an emphasis on female "constancy" which must have been a matter of discussion and importance to Goethe and his circle. "Nouvelle" is another allegory, this time pertaining to the taming of emotional passions, another significant step in spiritual transformation.

The collection is rounded out with Goethe's continuation of "The Magic Flute", in which the Queen of the Night imprisons Genius, the child of Pamina and Tamino, in a golden sarcophagus upon which a terrible curse has been lain, a curse which is finally overcome by trial and initiation.

The stories collected in this short anthology should appeal to anyone interested in Goethe's Masonic involvement, his lifelong interest in philosophical alchemy, and the aesthetic impact of these studies on his work.