The Sorcerer's Apprentice

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

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Tovenaarsleerling S Barth.png
Illustration from around 1882 by F. Barth [de]
Folk tale
NameThe Sorcerer's Apprentice
Also known as"Der Zauberlehrling"
Aarne-Thompson groupingATU 325 (The Sorcerer's Apprentice; The Magician and his Pupil) and ATU 325* (The Apprentice and the Ghosts)
Published in"Der Zauberlehrling" (1797), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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 fully trained. The floor is soon awash with water, and the apprentice realizes that he cannot stop the broom because he does not know the magic required to do so.

The apprentice splits the broom into many pieces with an axe, but each of the pieces becomes a whole broom that takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed. At this increased pace, the entire room quickly begins to flood. When all seems lost, the old sorcerer returns and quickly breaks the spell. The poem concludes with the old sorcerer's statement that only a master should invoke powerful spirits.

German cultureEdit

Goethe's "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 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 (Die ich rief, die Geister, / Werd' ich nun nicht los), which is often used to describe someone who summons help or allies that the individual cannot control, especially in politics.


The story of the Sorcerer's Apprentice is classified in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index as ATU 325 (The Magician and his Pupil) or ATU 325* (The Apprentice and the Ghosts).[1]

Folklorist Stith Thompson suggested an Oriental origin for the tale, supposedly India.[2] He also remarked on the popularity of the tale, which has spread throughout Asia and Europe, to Africa and the Americas.[3]

Similar storiesEdit

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 his apprentice about the need to be able to properly control such magic once summoned. 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".


Lover of Lies (Ancient Greek: Φιλοψευδής, romanizedPhilopseudḗs, lit. 'Lover 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. Eucrates and several other visitors tell various tales, intended to convince him that supernatural phenomena are real. Each story in turn is either rebutted or ridiculed by Tychiades.[4]

Eucrates recounts a tale extremely similar to Goethe's "Zauberlehrling", which had supposedly happened to him in his youth. It is, indeed, the oldest known variation of this tale type.[5] 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.)

Other related storiesEdit

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. Linguist Patrice Lajoye argues for a parallel between the Brythonic legend of Taliesin and a Russian fairy tale, Le savoir magique, collected by Alexander Afanasyev[6] with both stories being classified as ATU 325.[7] As referenced by Joseph Jacobs in his English Fairy Tales,[8] Joseph Tunison (1849–1916) analysed several apocryphal medieval tales of Roman poet Virgil, including one where Virgil summons and banishes an evil entity.[9] Scholarship acknowledges the popularity of the tale type in Yiddish folklore.[10]

In mythologyEdit

In folk and fairy talesEdit

In literatureEdit

In modern mediaEdit

In popular cultureEdit

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.

In literatureEdit

Literary adaptations of the tale include several fiction and nonfiction books, including novels by Elspeth Huxley and Hanns Heinz Ewers. Nonfiction books with this title include a travel book, Sorcerer's Apprentice by Tahir Shah. Christopher Bulis wrote the 1995 novel The Sorcerer's Apprentice based on the TV series Doctor Who.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels alluded to Goethe's poem in The Communist Manifesto, comparing modern bourgeois society to "the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."[12]

The story was given a literary treatment as a short story, titled The Magician and His Pupil, by one A. Godin, and published in the American magazine Short Stories (1897). The tale was later published as part of a compilation of literary fairy tales named The Diamond Fairy Book.[13]

In live-action televisionEdit

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a 1962 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents featuring Brandon deWilde as mentally-troubled youth Hugo, coveting the magic wand of a kindly magician.

The poem's story is alluded to in several episodes of the fairy-tale drama Once Upon a Time, especially in "The Apprentice". A variation of the Dukas piece also plays in certain scenes. The apprentice himself is a recurring character, while the sorcerer is shown to be Merlin.

In filmEdit

There is a live action film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010), featuring a scene based on Goethe's poem (and the Fantasia version), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Nicolas Cage.

In animationEdit

"Top Secret Apprentice", a segment of the Tiny Toon 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, save for a line by Buster in the end.


The animated 1940 Disney film Fantasia popularized the story from Goethe's poem, and the 1897 Paul Dukas symphonic poem based on it,[14] 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[15]) 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.

In video gamesEdit

The Fantasia version appears in the video game series Kingdom Hearts, with the sorcerer Yen Sid serving as an adviser to the heroes, teaching Mickey, Sora, and Riku the Keyblade skills needed to guard the universe from his former friend Xehanort's plan. A world based on the Fantasia version also appears throughout the series, serving as Yen Sid's home.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The Sorcerer's Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales. Edited by Jack Zipes. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2017. pp. 7-8 and 97-100. ISBN 978-0-691-17265-1
  2. ^ Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. University of California Press. 1977. p. 69. ISBN 0-520-03537-2
  3. ^ Thompson 1977, pp. 69–70
  4. ^ Lucian of Samosata (1905). "The Liar". The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Volume III. Translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  5. ^ Luck, George (1999). "Witches and Sorcerers in Classical Literature". In Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart (eds.). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 141. ISBN 0-8122-1705-5.
  6. ^ "Le savoir magique" (Contes 193, 194). Afanasyev, Alexander. Contes populaires russes. Tome III / [réunis par] Afanassiev. Paris: Imago. 2010.
  7. ^ Lajoye, Patrice (2012). "Celto-slavica. Essais de mythologie comparée". Études Celtiques. 38: 197–227. doi:10.3406/ecelt.2012.2354, specific pp. 204–205.
  8. ^ Jacbos, Joseph. English Fairy Tales. London: G. P. Putnam and Sons. 1890. p. 251.
  9. ^ Tunison, Joseph Salathiel. Master Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, as he seemed in the Middle Ages, a series of studies. Cincinnati: Clarke. 1890. pp. 28–35.
  10. ^ Elijah's Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales. Selected and retold by Howard Schwartz. New York, Oxford: The Oxforn University Press. 1994 [1983]. pp. 300-301. ISBN 0-19-509200-7
  11. ^ Jātaka story no. 150, Sañjīva Jātaka, The Jataka, Volume I, tr. by Robert Chalmers, 1895, available online at
  12. ^ Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (1848). The Communist Manifesto.
  13. ^ [no known authorship] The Diamond Fairy Book. Illustrations by Frank Cheyne Papé and H. R. Millar. London: Hutchinson. [1897?] pp. 185-199.
  14. ^ Knight, David B. (2006). Landscapes in music: space, place, and time in the world's great music. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 104.
  15. ^ Fantasia (2001) DVD commentary

Further readingEdit

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