The Sorcerer's Apprentice  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (German: Der Zauberlehrling) is a poem by Goethe, written in 1797. The poem is a ballad in fourteen stanzas.



The poem begins as an old sorcerer departs his workshop, leaving his apprentice with chores to perform. Tired of fetching water by pail, the apprentice enchants a broom to do the work for him — using magic in which he is not yet fully trained. The floor is soon awash with water, and the apprentice realizes that he cannot stop the broom because he does not know how.

Not knowing how to control the enchanted broom, the apprentice splits it in two with an axe, but each of the pieces becomes a new broom and takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed. When all seems lost, the old sorcerer returns, quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. The poem finishes with the old sorcerer's statement that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.

German culture

Der Zauberlehrling is well-known in the German-speaking world. The lines in which the apprentice implores the returning sorcerer to help him with the mess he has created have turned into a cliché, especially the line Die Geister, die ich rief ("The spirits that I called"), a garbled version of one of Goethe's lines, which is often used to describe a situation where somebody summons help or uses allies that he cannot control, especially in politics.


The acclaimed animated dialogue-free 1940 Disney film Fantasia popularized the story from Goethe's poem, and the Paul Dukas symphonic poem based on it, in one of eight animated shorts based on classical music. In the piece, which retains the title "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Mickey Mouse plays the apprentice, and the story follows Goethe's original closely, except that the sorcerer ("Yen Sid", or Disney backwards)) is stern and angry with his apprentice when he saves him. Fantasia popularized Goethe's story to a worldwide audience. The segment proved so popular that it was repeated, in its original form, in the sequel Fantasia 2000.

Similar stories

Some versions of the tale differ from Goethe's, and in some versions the sorcerer is angry at the apprentice and in some even expels the apprentice for causing the mess. In other versions, the sorcerer is a bit amused at the apprentice and he simply chides him. The sorcerer's anger with the apprentice, which appears in both the Greek Philopseudes and the film Fantasia, does not appear in Goethe's Der Zauberlehrling.


Philopseudes (Greek for "Lovers of lies") is a short frame story by Lucian, written c. AD 150. The narrator, Tychiades, is visiting the house of a sick and elderly friend, Eucrates, where he has an argument about the reality of the supernatural. Several internal narrators then tell him various tales, intended to convince him that supernatural phenomena are real. Each story in turn is either rebutted or ridiculed by Tychiades.

Eventually Eucrates recounts a tale extremely similar to Goethe's Zauberlehrling, which had supposedly happened to him in his youth. The similarities are so great as to make it obvious that Lucian was Goethe's inspiration, there are several differences:

  • The sorcerer is, instead, an Egyptian mystic, a priest of Isis called Pancrates.
  • Eucrates is not an apprentice, but a companion who eavesdrops on Pancrates casting his spell.
  • Although a broom is listed as one of the items that can be animated by the spell, Eucrates actually uses a pestle. (Pancrates also sometimes used the bar of a door.)

However perhaps the most important difference is the moral of the story. In Der Zauberlehrling and in the story's iteration in the 1940 animated film Fantasia, it is generally presumed that the story embodies some maxim or moral, and that it is something along the lines of "don't meddle with things you don't understand" or offers a metaphor for modern society where youth and inexperience is enthroned, resulting in an increasingly out of control mess being made, and in need of 'our betters' to return and take charge once more. In Philopseudes, however, the intention is simply to ridicule tall tales.

Other related stories

Similar themes (such as the power of magic or technology turning against the insufficiently wise person invoking it) are found in many traditions and works of art:

The title in popular culture

Following Goethe's poem and Dukas' symphonic piece and the film Fantasia, the term "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" has had numerous iterations as the title of various media pieces. These include several novels and nonfiction books, including novels by Elspeth Huxley, Hanns Heinz Ewers, and François Augiéras. It is also the title of a Doctor Who novel by Christopher Bulis. Nonfiction books with this title include a travel book by Tahir Shah, and a chess book by David Bronstein and Tom Fürstenberg.

Among the various radio and television episodes with this title, the title is used for a CBBC show in which a professional magician chooses his apprentice. There is also a BBC radio play of the same name starring Paul Rhys and Harry Towb originally broadcast in 2007 and re-broadcast on BBC Radio 7.

The Sorceror's Apprentice, is a 1962 public domain episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents featuring Brandon De Wilde as mentally-troubled youth Hugo, after the magic wand of a kindly magician.

"Top Secret Apprentice", a segment of the Tiny Toons Adventures episode broadcast on February 1, 1991, is a modern version of the story, with Buster Bunny messing around with Bugs Bunny's cartoon scenery machine and getting himself into a big heap of trouble. Like the Fantasia segment, there is no dialogue.

There is also a live action film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, featuring a scene based on Goethe's poem (and the Fantasia version), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Nicolas Cage.

A key episode in Ursula Leguin's "Earthsea" series concerns a young trainee magician summoning spirits in a piece of magic which he cannot control, with very serious consequences - which, though different in concrete details, is evidently inspired by the above.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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