Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Goethe, Johann W

(1749-1832) German poet, scientist and philosopher, the single greatest influence on the development of literature in Germany (and to a large extent throughout Western Europe) at that time, particularly affecting Romanticism; he was raised to the nobility in 1782 as von Goethe. Although his name is immutably linked with his verse tragedy based on the Faust legend, this was but one element of a complex of compositions that JWG experimented with and developed throughout his life.

His first productive period came during the 1770s, at the height of the Sturm und Drang movement of literary pyrotechnics. In 1775 he had been invited to the court of Karl August, Duke of Weimar, which court saw the flowering of literature in Germany. Heavily influenced by the Classics and the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), JWG established himself with the tragic novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; rev 1787; trans Richard Graves as The Sorrows of Young Werther 1779 UK), and completed several plays based on the Classics; these included Götter, Helden und Wieland ["Gods, Heroes and Wieland"] (1774), which lampoons Alceste (1773) by Christoph Wieland (1733-1813) and involves a Frame Story where Wieland, magically transported to witness his ancient Greek characters (see Greek and Latin Classics), is astonished at the vibrancy of the old world. The combination of these interests, plus JWG's own thirst for knowledge, led to his initial thoughts on the character of Faust, and he drafted an early version of the play during 1773-1776. The text of this version was discovered in 1887 and published as Goethes Faust in ursprünglicher Gestalt ["Goethe's Original Faust"] (1887) ed Erich Schmidt (1853-1913), a text usually known as the Urfaust. The play continued to evolve; a later draft was published as "Faust, ein Fragment" in Schriften ["Writings"] (coll 1790), but it was only through the persuasion and encouragement of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) that JWG drew sufficient inspiration to complete the first part of FaustDer Tragödie erster Teil (1808) – and eventually the second part, Der Tragödie zweiter Teil (1832). The English-language translation first appeared as Faust: A Tragedy (trans Warburton Davies 1838 2 vols UK) in a limited edition of 50 copies.

The composition of the play stretched over 60 years, and incorporates all the moods and development of JWG's writings. The basic plot is about the testing of the human spirit. The Devil, in the shape of Mephistopheles, obtains permission from God to tempt Faust. Faust is dissatisfied with the state of human knowledge and understanding and desires to know more, and stands as the central Underlier figure expressive of this paradigmatically "Western" theme. He summons the spirit of the Earth (see Goddess), which proves too powerful to control. Faust almost commits suicide but reconsiders, and soon after meets Mephistopheles (or Mephisto), with whom he makes his pact (see Pacts with the Devil). Mephisto agrees to support Faust in his pursuit of scientific knowledge provided Faust continues to develop morally and spiritually; any slip on Faust's part and Mephisto will claim him. Mephisto, of course, endeavours to trap Faust by every means of temptation, and there are graphic descriptions of witches' Sabbats and all manner of supernatural creatures and beasts from Legend. Although Faust frequently falters as his sexual desires take over, his thirst for scientific advancement never fails. For all its supernatural trappings the play may be considered a form of proto-Science Fiction, and certainly reflects the spirit of the age in its shift from Superstition to science, a change in which JWG played a significant part. It includes the creation of a synthetic man (see Homunculus) which cannot exist outside its medium but which has a powerful intellect, sufficient to guide Faust through his trials and dilemmas.

Faust is a towering achievement, and has overshadowed most of JWG's other works, especially those in the field of Supernatural Fiction. Although he was not a direct member of the Romantic movement (see Romanticism), his works were a significant influence, including his version of Reynard the Fox, "Reineke Fuchs" (1794 in Goethes Neue Schriften; trans as History of Reynard the Fox 1840 UK), and his Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796 4 vols; trans Thomas Carlyle as Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship 1824 UK) and its sequel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821; trans as Wilhelm Meister's Travels 1824 UK). The latter includes a number of stories which JWG had written earlier; e.g., "Die Neue Melusine" ["The New Melusina"] (written 1807; first published in Taschenbuch für Damen anth 1817), which offers a twist on the Melusine legend (see Lamia). A barber falls in love with a beautiful lady who is in reality a Dwarf. The barber agrees to be transformed into a dwarf but soon realizes his mistake. As in Faust, regardless of the sexual urge, life will win out over Love.

During the turbulent literary period of his lifetime – the modern novel and short story were taking form – JWG was instrumental in contributing key works that either influenced these developments or became acclaimed examples of the new forms. These included Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten ["Conversations with the German Emigrants"] (1795), a set of seven tales told within a Frame Story about a group of refugees from the French Revolution seeking shelter in a castle. In addition to the Ghost Stories "Die Sängerin Antonelli" ["Antonelli the Singer"] and "Der Klopfgeist" ["The Knocking Ghost"], the volume includes "Das Märchen" (trans as "The Tale" in Popular Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations 1823 UK; as The Tale chap 1877 US; vt The Parable chap 1963 US; most recently as "The Fairy Tale" in Spells of Enchantment anth 1991 ed Jack Zipes), an extremely complex form of Fairytale, essentially an Allegory for the survival of life and the attainment of happiness. Another example is "Novelle" (in Ausgabe letzter Hand ["Collected Works"] 1828; trans as Goethe's Novel chap 1837 UK), which typifies the nouvelle, or story with a surprise ending. Although essentially nonfantastic it has the form of a Fairytale.

JWG's work and influence were key to the development of fantastic fiction in Germany beyond its Gothic roots, especially through the Romantic movement and the works of Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and E T A Hoffmann, which in turn influenced the course of fantastic fiction throughout the West. [MA]

Other editions: Translations and editions of JWG's works have appeared in profusion. The main collected volumes are Novels and Tales (coll 1854 UK) and Goethe's Works (coll 1885 5 vols US).

further reading: JWG's autobiography is Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit ["My Life and Family: Poetry and Truth"] (1811-1814 3 vols; trans as Mémoires de Goethe 1823 France; trans from the French as Memoirs of Goethe 1824 UK; with 4th vol added 1833; the whole trans by John Oxenford [1812-1877] as Autobiography 1848-1849 UK); this includes the fairytale "Der Neue Paris" ["The New Paris"] written as early as 1763. Also revealing of JWG's views in his later years is Gespräche mit Goethe (1837 2 vols; 1838 vol 3; trans Margaret Fuller as Conversations with Goethe 1839 UK) by Johann Eckermann (1792-1854). Other books of note are The Life and Work of Goethe (1932) by J G Robertson, Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays (coll 1967) ed Victor Lange, Goethe and the Novel (1976) by Eric Blackall and Figures of Identity: Goethe's Novels and the Enigmatic Self (1984) by Clark S Muenzer.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.