E. T. A. Hoffmann’s weird and crazy novella The Golden Pot: A Modern Fairytale, a landmark of fantasy literature, was published two hundred years ago. The branch that grew out of this story includes Carroll’s Alice books, George MacDonald’s dream novels, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – the kinds of stories things and people are constantly transforming into other things and people, where it is not entirely clear which parts of the story are dreams and which are “real,” or if there is even a difference.
Anselmus, a college student in Dresden, and a nebbish, or perhaps a schlemiel, in quick succession is cursed by a witch and falls in love with a green snake with “magnificent dark-blue eyes” who appears with her two snake sisters in a tree on the banks of the Elbe.
All was silent, and Anselmus saw in the three gleaming, shimmering snakes gliding through the glass towards the river; with a swishing, rushing sound they plunged into the Elbe, and as they vanished into its waves a crackling green flame shot up and flew obliquely towards the town, fizzling out as it went. (First Vigil – The Golden Pot has not Chapters but Vigils).
Most Hoffmann characters who wander into another state of being are under the influence of something and Anselmus has been smoking his “health tobacco.” The snakes turn out to be the daughters of a wizard-salamander who is from Atlantis, where – anyways a bunch of crazy nonsense follows.
Normal people, like Anselmus, just walking around in their everyday city, suddenly slip into a fairy tale world that has somehow overlaid the everyday world. So lots of metamorphoses, people into birds and door-knockers; birds into flowers; flowers into birds:
Once more Anselmus was astonished by the magnificence of the conservatory, but he could now perceive that many of the strange flowers hanging on the dark bushes were in fact insects resplendent in gleaming colours, flapping their little wings and dancing and flitting in a swarm as though caressing one another with their probosces. As for the rose-pink and sky-blue birds, they had turned into fragrant flowers… (Eighth Vigil)
Hoffmann’s great discovery was that he could his assemble this hodgepodge of esoteric symbols, taken from myth or alchemy or Freemasonry but stripped of their original meaning. He could arrange some so that they created meaning of their own, his meaning. “You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought,” writes the narrator in one of several interruptions addressed “outright” to the reader (Fourth Vigil).
And the fact is that it does not matter much if the reader finds any coherent meaning at all. The sense of wonder and delight is all there.
I have been quoting from the Oxford World’s Classics The Golden Pot and Other Tales, tr. Ritchie Robertson. The post’s title is from the Seventh Vigil; I have mangled it a bit, but the spirit is right.