Return to the fairy tales - book two
THE SPIRIT IN THE BOTTLE
A retelling by J. Kearns
Lifting the glass bottle to the sunlight, he saw the bottle was filled with what looked like pond water, which began to turn reddish. In it was a creature shaped like a frog that was springing up and down. "Let me out, let me out!" the creature cried.
nce there was a woodcutter who was very poor.
The only skill he knew was chopping wood, and as there were many
woodcutters, and the skill required for cutting wood was less a matter
of trained talent and more to do with brute strength, the pay one got
for chopping wood was very little. At least there was always wood
needing to be chopped so the woodcutter was very rarely without work.
Early in the morning, when it was still dark, he would rise and go out
to chop wood, and he wouldn't return until late at night. Poor as he
was, the woodcutter managed to put away a little money here and there,
which would seem impossible as he earned so very little. Still, he did
manage to save a little by skipping not just luxuries (which he
couldn't afford anyway) but many necessities. When he had saved enough
he sat down with his son late one night, after he had come home from
his work woodcutting, and told him, "I was unable to go to
school. Neither did my father go to school, or his father's father. We
have all worked as woodcutters, which is menial labor and little
better than slavery. You are my only child and I wish for you to have
a better life. I have saved money so you can go to school and get an
education. With an education, you will be able to learn an honest
trade that will give you a brighter future than woodcutting. Who
knows, you might even make enough money that when my limbs have grown
stiff with old age, and I am obliged to stay at home, you will be able
to support me."
is usually the hope of most parents, that they can help their children
to do better in life than they have. It also used to be expected that
children would take care of their parents when they were too old to
work, for otherwise the elderly would have no help at all.
son of the woodcutter, on the little money his father had saved, went
to school. He studied hard and turned out to be such a diligent
learner that his masters praised him. He stayed in school a long time,
but was not yet ready to graduate when the money on which his father
had sent him to school was all spent. The boy, who had loved school
and had come so far in it, was obliged to return home to his father
and ask for more money so he could remain in school long enough to
father could only shake his head sadly. "Son, I'm sorry," he
said, "but I have no more money to give you. Times were hard
before. But now times are so very harsh that I can't earn anymore than
what it takes to buy us our daily bread."
son was stoic about this. He probably had learned in school about the
philosophy of Stoicism, founded long before by a man named Zeno, who
taught that men should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief,
and submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity. There are many
schools of philosophy, and the school of the Stoics is just one of
them. But it's one thing to learn about stoicism, and another thing to
practice stoicism. One need never have heard of stoicism in order to
practice it, if it is simply one's attitude about life. This is how
the son naturally was; he was naturally a stoic, at least in part. He
allowed himself to feel grief and joy, which is something the school
of Stoics didn't do. Actually, it is far healthier to permit yourself
to feel your emotions, if you ask me. Knowing how to feel your
emotions is part of living a full life.
"Dear father," the son said, "don't trouble yourself
about not having the money for me to finish my studies. If it is God's
will, it will turn to my advantage. I shall soon accustom myself to no
longer being in school. Since things are so hard, what I should do is
go into the forest with you and help earn money for us to live on by
chopping or stacking wood."
father protested. Though he could no longer afford to send his son to
school, he was unwilling to see his son take up the hard business of
woodcutting. He still had in his mind the dream of his son graduating
and learning a trade, even if he didn't have the money to make this a
reality. "Look at your hands and compare them to mine," he
told his son. "My hands are rough and callused from chopping wood
all my life. The muscles in my back and arms are hard as the wood I
chop. Your hands are soft because you've used them to wield a pen
rather than an axe. Your body wouldn't be able to bear such hard
physical labor. Besides, I have only one axe and no money to buy
another for you to use."
son, however, insisted on helping his father with the woodcutting. "Just
go to our neighbor," he told his father. "He will lend us
another axe until I have earned one for myself."
father borrowed an axe from a neighbor, and the next morning, at the
break of day, the woodcutter and his son went out into the forest
together. The son helped his father cut wood and was quite merry and
brisk about it.
used to tell time without clocks. If the sun is right over your head,
then you know it is noon. At midday, when the sun was right over the
heads of the woodcutter and his son, the woodcutter said, "It's
time for us to rest and have our dinner. After we've eaten we'll be
able to work twice as hard."
son took his piece of bread and told his father, "You go ahead
and rest while you eat. As for me, I'm not tired. I think I'll walk up
and down a little in the forest and look for bird's nests."
being foolish," the father said. "If you don't rest you'll
be tired. I don't understand why you would want to look for birds'
nests. Stay and sit beside me."
son, however, insisted. He went into the forest, eating his bread as
he walked along, and he was feeling very happy as he peered in among
the green branches of the trees to see if he could discover a bird's
nest anywhere. He walked on this way until he came to a great oak tree
far larger than any oak tree he'd ever seen. It must have been
hundreds of years old. If he, now that he was a woodcutter, had cut
the tree down, he would have been able to tell how old it was by
counting the rings of the tree's trunk, but this was not the kind of
tree you cut down. No, it was too huge--not even five men spanned
could have surrounded it--and it was too old, too wizened-looking,
even almost dangerous in appearance. No one would have thought of
cutting down such an oak tree.
maybe Charlemagne," our schoolboy thought. Charlemagne was a
mighty emperor who spread Christianity across Europe. This wasn't
because he believed in Christianity, but because he used it as a tool
to subjugate the many warring peoples. It's said that in 772
Charlemagne crossed the River Eder and the River Diemel and destroyed
the Irminsul, the sacred pillar of wood, the all-sustaining pillar of
the Saxons. Irminsul is another word for Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
Yggdrasil was an Ash tree, not an Oak," the schoolboy reminded
himself. "It was St. Bonifice who is said to have downed the Oak
of Donar, a tree sacred to the Norse god Thor."
not sure, nor was our schoolboy, we should take either the story about
St. Boniface cutting down the Oak of Donar, or Charlemagne cutting
down the Irminsul, literally. But it is true that trees were once very
important in many different religions, and are still very important to
a number of people.
for the oak tree, it was the tree of the Druids, their king of trees,
and is known as one of the seven Chieftain trees. As the scholarly
woodcutter stood looking at the tree, he remembered a poem, "The
Battle of the Trees," in which the Oak was mentioned, and as he
stood there he recited that portion aloud:
foot-beat of the swift oak
Heaven and earth rung;
'Stout Guardian of the Door'
His name in every tongue."
scholarly woodcutter's son was wondering how many birds had made their
nests in the old Oak over the years when it seemed to him he heard a
smothered voice say, "Let me out, let me out." He looked
around, but there was no one else to be seen. From where did the voice
come? Why, it seemed to him the voice was coming from out of the
are you?" the scholarly woodcutter cried.
am down here amongst the roots of the oak tree," the voice
answered. "Let me out, let me out."
schoolboy began to loosen the earth under the tree. Searching among
the roots, he found a glass bottle in a little hollow. The glass
bottle was about a foot deep, flat inside, and six inches square.
Around its neck was a strip of white paper with a name written on it
in a an ink red as blood. Lifting the glass bottle to the sunlight, he
saw the bottle was filled with what looked like pond water, which
began to turn reddish. In it was a creature shaped like a frog that
was springing up and down. "Let me out, let me out!" the
schoolboy, thinking no evil, unstoppered the bottle. No sooner had he
done this then, much to the boy's surprise, the creature began to
increase in size, filling the bottle. Feeling as though he'd put too
much porridge in a pot, so that it threatened to boil over, the
woodcutter's son tried to stop up the bottle but the creature was
already pressing its way out of it. He tossed the bo xttle down, the
water from inside it running all over the leafy carpet of the forest,
and from the water rose the creature much larger than before. It grew
so fast that in a few moments there stood before the schoolboy a
terrible fellow half as big as the oak tree.
you know," the spirit cried out in an awful voice, "what
your reward is for releasing me? Do you think I was shut up in that
bottle for any reason but punishment? I am Mercurius, and whoso
releases me, him must I strangle. You shall have the reward you have
I'd known that I would have left you shut up," answered the boy. "But
I promise you this, for all you can do my head will stand fast."
shall see," Mercurius replied.
be so hasty," the woodcutter's son answered. "Are you truly
Mercurius? I don't believe for an instant it was you that was shut up
in that little bottle. You are far too big. If you really are
Mercurius, you should have no trouble fitting your self in that bottle
again. If you are able to do it, I will believe then you are who you
say you are, and you may do as you will with me."
what an uncomplicated task that would be for Mercurius. Drawing
himself together, he made himself as small and slender as he had been
at first, so that he crept through the same opening, and right through
the neck of the bottle into it again. No sooner was he inside then the
boy snatched the bottle up and thrust the cork back in its place.
boy was hiding the bottle again in the roots of the oak, when the
deceived spirit called out to him again, "Ah, do let me out, ah,
do let me out!"
the schoolboy answered, "not a second time. He who has once tried
to take my life shall not be set free by men, now that I've caught him
me free," said the spirit, "and I will give you so much that
you will have plenty all the days of your life."
the boy replied. "You intend to cheat me as you did the first
are spurning your own good luck, " said the spirit. "You
have proven yourself my master. I will do you no harm but reward you
if I was that scholarly boy, I don't think I would have let out the
spirit a second time. I wouldn't have trusted the spirit. But the boy
decided he would do it, because the spirit just might keep his word,
and if the spirit did not he felt certain he could trick the spirit
again into not getting the better of him. He took out the cork, and
the spirit rose up from the bottle as he had done before, and
stretching himself out became as big as a giant.
reward," the spirit said, and handed the boy a little rag that
looked just like a sticking plaster, which in modern terms is a
band-aid. "If you spread one end of this over a wound then the
wound will heal, and if you rub steel or iron with the other end then
the metal will be changed into silver."
right, let's see if it does as you say," the scholarly woodcutter
replied. He went to the tree, tore off a piece of the bark with his
axe, and rubbed the tree's wound with one end of the plaster.
Immediately, the bark grew back together and the tree was healed. "Now,
it is all right," the boy observed, then said to the spirit, "and
we can part."
spirit thanked the boy for his release.
boy thanked the spirit for his present of the sticking plaster, and
returned to where he had left his father eating his dinner.
have you been racing about?" the woodcutter demanded to know. "Have
you forgotten your work?" The woodcutter was so upset he said
something which he shouldn't have. Ranting on, he told the boy, "I
always said that you would never come to anything."
father," the woodcutter's son said. "I will make it up. I
will soon hew that tree there, so it will split." Then, the boy
took his plaster, rubbed the axe with it, and dealt the tree a mighty
blow, but as the iron of the axe had changed into silver, the edge of
it was bent. "Hey, father, what is this? Look at what a bad axe
you've given me. It's become quite crooked," the woodcutter's son
joked with him.
father was dismayed. "What have you done? Now I'll have to pay
for the axe to be repaired before we return it to our neighbor, and I
haven't the money. That is all the good I have got by your work.
Didn't I tell you that woodcutting wasn't for you?"
be angry," said the son. "I'll soon pay for the axe."
blockhead!" cried the woodcutter. "With what will you pay
for it? You have nothing but what I give you. These are students'
tricks that are sticking in your head. You have no idea what the real
world is like, or the value of money and work."
boy sat quietly for a little while, then said, "Father, as I can
really work no more, why don't we take a holiday?"
what's that?" answered his father. "Do you think I'll sit
with my hands lying in my lap like you? I've got work to do, but you
may take yourself off home."
father, I'm here in this wood for the first time," the boy
pleaded with the woodcutter. "I don't know my way alone. Do go
woodcutter's anger having abated now, he let himself be persuaded to
take his son home. Once there, he told his son, "Go and sell the
damaged axe, and see what you can get for it. I'll have to make up the
difference in order to pay the neighbor."
schoolboy took the axe, but rather than going to the blacksmith who
might have reason to buy iron, he went instead to a goldsmith. When
the goldsmith had gotten over his amazement at the silver axe, he
tested it, laid it in the scales, and told the boy, "The silver
is worth four hundred talers. I'm afraid I don't have that much with
then," said the boy, "give me what you have and I will lend
you the rest."
the schoolboy went home to his father and told him, "I've got the
money. Go and ask the neighbor what he wants for the axe."
know that already as I've already been over to visit him,"
answered the old man. "He wants one taler, six groschen."
him two talers, twelve groschen. That is double and enough. See? I
have money in plenty." And the woodcutter's son gave his father a
hundred talers. "You shall never know want now," he assured
his father. "You can live as comfortably as you like." Then
the boy told his father all about what had happened in the forest, and
how he, trusting in his luck, had made such a packet.
the money that was left over from selling the silver axe, the
woodcutter's son was able to return to school. He learned more, and
graduated, then went on learning more until he was about the most
educated man you could ever meet. And as he could heal all wounds with
his sticking plaster, which he had got from Mercurius, he became the
most famous doctor in the world.
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The Spirit in the Bottle
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Retelling by by j. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm version of the tale.
Return to the fairy tales - book two