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.
The apprentice splits the broom in two with an axe – but each of the pieces becomes a whole new broom that takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed. When all seems lost, the old sorcerer returns and quickly breaks the spell. The poem finishes with the old sorcerer's statement that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.
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 animated 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.
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 (Ancient Greek: Φιλόψευδης / Philópseudēs ("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.
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. While the similarities are so great as to make it obvious that Lucian was Goethe's inspiration, there are several minor 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.)
The point of the story is not to impart a lesson or message, but rather 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:Strega Nona
The Man Who Could Work Miracles (and numerous other works by H. G. Wells)
"The Monkey's Paw"
"The Master and his Pupil"
Abhimanyu in Chakravyuha in the Mahabharata
The Sañjīva Jātaka story about the boastful pupil who is killed by the tiger he brought to life with a spell, without yet being taught the counter-spell by his teacher.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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.