Jack Zipes on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Sorcerer’s ApprenticeZipes by Jack Zipes enlightens and entertains with enduring, spellbinding tales of sorcery. The title might conjure up images of Mickey Mouse from the Disney film Fantasia, or of Harry Potter. But as this anthology reveals, “sorcerer’s apprentice” tales—in which a young person rebels against, or complies with, an authority who holds the keys to magical powers—have been told through the centuries, in many languages and cultures, from classical times to today. This unique and beautifully illustrated book brings together more than fifty sorcerer’s apprentice stories by a plethora of writers, including Ovid, Sir Walter Scott, and the Brothers Grimm. Zipes recently took the time to answer a few questions about his latest book.

What prompted you to collect all the different “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales?

JZ: We are still living in the Dark Ages, and consequently, five years ago, I wanted to shed some light on what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have called the dialectic of the Enlightenment, and why reason has been obfuscated and overshadowed by superstition, religion, government, and corporate powers in so-called modern “enlightened” times. At one point in my research I came across various versions of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that contradicted the popular Disney tale with which I was most familiar. These were stories in which the apprentice defeated a sordid, power-hungry sorcerer and which showed how knowledge could be used for emancipation and enlightenment. From that point on, I could not stop collecting similar tales that are included in the present anthology.

Why are these tales so significant?

JZ: The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are highly significant because they present magic primarily as a stable value of transformation that allows for self-consciousness and self-fashioning. These unusual tales counter the defamation of magic by religion, science, and the state, and raise the question of the master/slave dialectic that challenges elites and the status quo. In this regard, I have framed this anthology of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales to represent the two major strains of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tradition and their historical development. It begins with tales of “The Humiliated Apprentice,” followed by “The Rebellious Apprentice” stories and Krabat tales. The majority of the tales stem from “The Rebellious Apprentice” tale type. This larger number, compared to the smaller amount of “The Humiliated Apprentice” tale type, is not due to my prejudices but simply to the fact that I did not find as many “Humiliated Apprentice” tales in my vast research as I did “Rebellious Apprentice” tales. The disparity speaks for itself, for the rebellion of apprentices of all kinds is a constant in all societies and in all ages.

What is at the basis of the conflict between the sorcerer and his apprentice?

JZ: Our knowledge of ourselves and the world is attained through experiencing “slavery” and knowing what being in slavery entails. This means that we are all involved in what the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, calls a dialectical bloody battle to death that underlies all types of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales. In most of the oral tales and many of the literary tales about sorcerer’s apprentices, the narrative perspective is what I call the “slave’s perspective,” a voice and view from below, no matter who the collector, mediator, or publisher of the tale may have been. This view is what makes the tales so striking. Though it may be difficult to explore and explain how people, defined and treated as slaves, contributed to the formation of culture from below, it can be done. The renowned American folklorist Richard Dorson drew important historical connections in his collection Negro Folktales in Michigan in dealing with American master/slave tales told by African-Americans. The“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales do not provide a solution to the master/slave conflict; they are not prescriptions or formulas for ending this conflict. What I have tried to demonstrate through collecting tales from various periods, and from different European, Asian, African, and American countries, is how these stories play out essential conflicts whose resolutions determine the nature of what it is to be human and humane.

Why do magic and magical transformation matter so much in people’s lives?

JZ: For a variety of reasons throughout the centuries, people have sought knowledge and power through magic. Tales about the desire for magic, which have evolved from words, fragments, and sentences, are not only wish-fulfillment tales but also blunt expressions of emotions that reveal what the people who tell, write, and listen to the tales lack, and what they want. Most people in the world believe in some kind of magic, whether religious or secular, and want to control “magic,” or “mana,” to escape enslavement and determine the path of their lives. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, all people are stamped by what he calls our habitus—the beliefs, values and customs that mark and shape our thoughts, values, and behavior from birth. To know ourselves and to free ourselves, Bourdieu writes, we must continually confront masters, who, if they do not learn from their slaves, will ultimately have to die in order for the slaves to gain release and freedom.

In what way did Walt Disney warp the tradition of the rebellious apprentice?

JZ: People tend to believe that the ideal, if not definitive, version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the Disney cinematic and literary tale produced as part of the film Fantasia in 1940. This is a misconception, and our unquestioning acceptance of the Disney version, which reinforces notions of humiliation, has ramifications for the abusive way we treat children. In fact, the transformation of the ancient “Humiliated Apprentice” tales into a “charming” children’s tale is one of the ways in which mass-mediated and commodified children’s literature ideologically warps if not perverts folklore to induct children into authoritarian civilizing processes. On the other hand, the oral traditions of anonymous storytelling that favor the “Rebellious Apprentice” tales oppose the oppression of commodified tales. Stories, storytellers, and writers look for the most fitting and artistic modality they can find to articulate views about life and the world. In the formation of what I call a memetic tradition of folk-tale types and fairy tales, there has always been a communal expression of themes that formed tales relevant to be remembered. Many of the themes are connected to beliefs in magic and magical transformation. Indeed, the pursuit of magic often underlies the patterns of folk and fairy tales. In this regard, the themes found in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are organically connected with the customs and beliefs of people who engendered them, and they form never-ending cultural traditions of resistance to the domination of magicians who misuse power. This unique collection of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales sheds light on how young people have rebelled against the oppression and domination of magicians who use magic to control and exploit apprentices. The long history of the“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales that date back to Greco-Roman times reflects how rebellion is key to understanding the relevance of the tales which expose the contradictions in the popularity of the Disney commodified version.

Jack Zipes is the editor and translator of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. He is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. Natalie Frank is an American artist currently living and working in New York City. Her work is held in multiple museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. They are the author and illustrator of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales.