This retelling of The Spirit in the Bottle from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


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.

Once 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."

This 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.

The 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 graduate.

His 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."

The 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.

"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."

The 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."

The 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."

The 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.

People 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."

The 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."

"You're 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."

The 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.

"Except 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.

"But 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."

I'm 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.

As 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:

"With foot-beat of the swift oak
Heaven and earth rung;
'Stout Guardian of the Door'
His name in every tongue."

The 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 ground!

"Where are you?" the scholarly woodcutter cried.

"I am down here amongst the roots of the oak tree," the voice answered. "Let me out, let me out."

The 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 creature cried.

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.

"Do 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 earned."

"If 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."

"We shall see," Mercurius replied.

"Don't 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."

Well, 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.

The 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!"

"No," 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 again."

"Set me free," said the spirit, "and I will give you so much that you will have plenty all the days of your life." "No," the boy replied. "You intend to cheat me as you did the first time."

"You are spurning your own good luck, " said the spirit. "You have proven yourself my master. I will do you no harm but reward you richly."

Now, 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.

"Your 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."

"All 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."

The spirit thanked the boy for his release.

The boy thanked the spirit for his present of the sticking plaster, and returned to where he had left his father eating his dinner.

"Where 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."

"Easy, 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.

The 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?"

"Don't be angry," said the son. "I'll soon pay for the axe."

"You 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."

The boy sat quietly for a little while, then said, "Father, as I can really work no more, why don't we take a holiday?" "Eh, 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."

"But 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 with me."

The 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." The 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 me."

"Well, then," said the boy, "give me what you have and I will lend you the rest."

Then 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."

"I know that already as I've already been over to visit him," answered the old man. "He wants one taler, six groschen."

"Give 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.

With 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.

Retelling by by j. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm version of the tale.

Copyright 1998 j Kearns

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