“Der goldene Topf” (“The Golden Pot”) is an imaginative tale by the nineteenth century German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Its setting is Dresden, Germany. Here is a summary of its plot.
On Ascension Day, Anselmus, a theological student, accidentally overturned the wares of a old woman who was selling apples and kuchen. Some of the fruit was bruised, and naughty boys eagerly appropriated many of the wares that were rolling along the street. Anselmus tried to appease the witch by giving her the little money that he happened to have, but the witch called him a child of Satan and declared that a crystal would be his doom. (The old woman was a witch. The apples were supposedly her children. When someone bought them, they would jump out of the pocket of the purchaser and return to the witch, so that she could sell them again.)
The people who witnessed this incident were amused at first. However, when they heard the baleful words of the old woman, they stopped laughing and felt sorry for the young man.
Anselmus had planned to celebrate Ascension Day with coffee and beer, while listening to music and looking at the pretty girls; but now he had no money. He sadly walked to the Elbe River, sat down under an elder tree, and began to smoke his pipe. He sadly thought of all the clumsy accidents that he had suffered during the course of his unhappy life.
His sad musings were interrupted by a rustling sound. Then he heard voices and enjoyed the sight of three enchanting snakes of a greenish gold color. At first he thought that it was only the sound of the wind and the flickering of the evening sun, but then one of the snakes extended her head toward him, and her beautiful dark blue eyes looked at Anselm with ineffable longing. A thrill resembling an electric shock passed through the young man’s body, while the elder bush, the wind, and the glittering sun spoke of love.
As the sun sank behind the hills, a voice summoned the snakes, and the three beautiful creatures rushed into the Elbe River.
Anselmus grasped the elder tree and shook it. He loudly appealed to the snake, urging her to show him her beauty one more time. A family witnessed these extravagant actions and concluded that excessive drinking was responsible for his conduct. The gentlemen kindly urged Anselmus to go home and sleep.
As he hastened away, he met Paulmann, who held an important position at the school at which Anselmus studied. Paulmann invited the student to come home with him. So Anselmus and Paulmann took a boat across the Elbe. They were accompanied by two daughters of Paulmann and a school official named Heerbrand.
As they were crossing, the Ascension Day festivities were being celebrated with a display of fireworks. When Anselmus saw the reflection of the fireworks in the water, he thought they were the beautiful snakes. He uttered passionate words and tried to jump into the water. His companions managed to bring him to his senses. He again felt ashamed of himself, but Veronika, one of Paulmann’s daughters, spoke in his defense.
Thereafter, Anselmus was cheerful. When he reached the shore, he gallantly helped Veronika out of the boat. The evening at Paulmann’s house passed pleasantly with singing and piano music. (It is interesting to note that one of the selections had been written by Karl Heinrich Graun, the Kapellmeister of Frederick the Great in the eighteenth century.)
Because of his excellent calligraphy, Heerbrand and Paulmann sent Anselmus to an archivist named Lindhorst to work as a copyist. Lindhorst had trouble finding a competent scribe. It was difficult work because some of the texts were in Coptic and Arabic script.
When Anselmus arrived at Lindhorst’s residence, the bronze doorknocker assumed the shape of the ugly face of the witch whose apple basket he had upset. Then a bell cord which dangled not far from the door of Lindhorst’s residence turned into a giant white snake that wrapped its coils around him. Anselmus also heard the witch utter threatening words. He lost consciousness. When he awoke, he was in his own bed. Paulmann had brought him home.
Paulmann and Heerbrand thought it would be a good idea if Lindhorst and Anselmus met each other, so they took the student to the coffeehouse where Lindhorst was accustomed to eat.
Lindhorst was in an unusual mood. He told a strange story about one of his ancestors who was a fire-lily. The spirit-prince Phosphorus loved her, fought a dragon to preserve her life, and made her his queen. When they explained that Anselmus was the competent scribe who wanted to work for him, Lindhorst briefly expressed approval and hurried away.
Anselmus was encouraged by Lindhorst’s words, but he could not muster sufficient courage to face the bronze doorknocker a second time.
Longing to see the beautiful serpent with blue eyes, Anselmus went daily to the elder tree where she had appeared to him. He always came as day was drawing to a close, but the serpents never came.
One afternoon, Llndhorst saw Anselmus beneath the elder tree and spoke to him. Anselmus was startled because it occurred to him that it was Lindhorst’s voice that had summoned the three lovely snakes on the day when he saw them.
Lindhorst asked Anselmus why he had not come to work. Instead of answering his question, Anselmus explained what he had experienced on Ascension Day. Lindhorst explained that the three snakes were his three daughters and that Serpentina was the name of the one he loved. He also showed Anselmus the three snakes. He had a ring with a magic emerald stone in which Anselmus could see them.
When Lindhorst complained that he had been waiting in vain for Anselmus to come and start working, Anselmus explained why he had been afraid to come. Lindhorst knew the witch and her tricks. He gave Anselmus a flask of liquor and told him to put a little on the witch’s nose if she bothered him when he came to work.
Lindhorst then hurried away. As Anselmus watched, he seemed to turn into a vulture and fly away.
In the meantime, Veronika was deeply in love with Anselmus. In her daydreams, she imagined that he would become a court councilor and that she would become his wife. However, she feared that Anselmus did not love her and that her dreams would never be realized.
From a visitor, she learned about Frau Rauerin, who had marvelous powers. She happened to be the same witch whose wares Anselmus had overturned.
Frau Rauerin proved to be a sadly transformed version of Veronika’s former nurse called Liese. She told Veronika about Anselmus’ love for the snake and warned that Lindhorst wanted Anselmus to marry his daughter. However, she promised to help Veronika as much as she could and instructed her to come again on the night of the autumnal equinox at eleven o’clock.
In the meantime, Anselmus came to work at the appointed hour. When the doorknocker turned into the face of the witch, he put a drop of the liquor on her nose, and it turned back into a doorknocker.
In Lindhorst’s house, Anselmus beheld many wonderful things, including a golden pot, in which he imagined that he saw a vision of Serpentina.
When Lindhorst tested Anselmus’ skill, the result was a failure. Lindhorst viewed it with scorn. However, he gave Anselmus an Arabic text to copy and left the room.
In some mysterious way, Serpentina helped him in his work. He wrote swiftly and beautifully.
Lindhorst returned with a scornful look on his face, but his attitude changed as soon as he saw the results.
He told Anselmus that Serpentina loved him. If they married, the golden pot would be his dowry. However, hostile principles would seek to thwart his happiness.
When the autumnal equinox came, Veronika went to the witch’s house in spite of rain and stormy weather. The witch took Veronica to a spot conducive to witchcraft. A black cat accompanied them, and they brought necessary equipment, such as a cauldron and tripod, as well as a basket full of items suitable for witchcraft.
As the witch cooked her brew, Veronica cowered with fear. She saw all kinds of figures in the cauldron, including Anselmus. Eventually, the witch cried: “It is finished.” Then they heard a noise above and a loud voice told them to go home. The witch fell prostrate, and Veronika fainted.
In the morning, Veronika woke up in her bed. She hoped that it was merely a bad dream. However, the clothes that she had worn the previous evening were wet.
In her bed was a metal mirror which the witch had given her. When she looked at it, she could see Anselm at work.
In the meantime, the work of Anselmus had been so excellent that Lindhorst now gave him a more difficult and more dangerous assignment. A false stroke or a spot on the original would plunge Anselmus into misfortune.
As Anselmus studied the characters, Serpentina came to him in a woman’s form. She told him that the hour of their happiness was drawing nigh. Before she left, she told him the history of her father.
The spirit-prince Phosphorus was king of the magical land of Atlantis; and Serpentina’s father, a descendant of the salamander race, enjoyed his esteem. One day her father heard a fire-lily singing to her daughter, who was a green serpent. The salamander fell in love with the serpent, took her from her mother, and asked Phosphorus to join them in wedlock. (The fire-lily from whom the salamander had stolen the serpent had once been Phosphorus’ queen.)
Phosphorus called the salamander a madman, and told him that if he embraced the green serpent, his fiery nature would destroy her. Impetuous with love, the salamander embraced her in spite of the warning. The green serpent perished, and a winged creature born of her ashes flew away. Insane with grief, the salamander rushed madly about the garden of Phosphorus. Many flowers were burned, and the fiery nature of the salamander was extinguished.
Phosphorus punished him by banishing him from Atlantis. He would live on earth, where he would find a green serpent, marry her, and have three serpent daughters. If three qualified men married the three daughters, his fiery nature would be restored, and he could return to Atlantis.
A golden pot would be the dowry of each of the three daughters. On the day of their marriage, a fire-lily would grow. The groom would soon understand its language and learn the ways of Atlantis, where the couple would then reside.
When Serpentina left, it was already late. Anselmus was alarmed because he had not done any work. To his surprise, the prescribed copy had been completed in some mysterious manner. Lindhorst came in and gave his approval.
However, the witch’s spell was beginning to work. Veronika occasionally entered his thoughts. He was plagued with unwanted visions in which Veronika came to him and declared her love.
At night, on the same day in which Serpentina had come to him and told him the history of her family, Anselmus had a vivid vision of Veronika. The next morning he could not forget about Veronika, and he decided to go for a walk in an effort to clear his mind of these unwanted thoughts.
Paulmann happened to see him. He persuaded his student to come to his house for a visit. When they arrived, Veronika greeted them neatly dressed, just as if she was expecting company. Paulmann momentarily left the room, and the two young people were alone.
Veronika managed to win him over completely. Anselmus began to think that he had been foolish to think that he had been in love with a green serpent and that Lindhorst was a salamander. He agreed to marry Veronika when he became a court councilor.
As soon as this promise had been made, Paulmann returned. It was already twelve thirty; and since Anselmus was supposed to come to Lindhorst’s residence at exactly twelve o’clock, it was to late for him to go to work that day. So Anselmus spent the day at Paulmann’s place. Heerbrand also came and had coffee with them.
In the evening, they drank punch. When he had drunk freely, Anselmus again believed in all the wonders that he had experienced at the residence of Lindhorst and he told the assembled company that Lindhorst was actually a salamander from a magical land. In the lively discussion that followed, Heerbrand agreed with Anselmus, and Paulmann thought that they were crazy. The group also discussed the character of the witch. Anselmus and Heerbrand reprobated her, and Veronika defended her.
Finally, Paulmann removed his toupee in anger and threw it against the ceiling. With alcohol-inspired jubilation, Heerbrand and Anselmus tossed the punch bowl and glasses upward against the ceiling and shouted “May the Salamander live! May the old woman perish!” Veronika was filled with grief and her little sister left the room crying.
At this point, a man entered and told Anselmus to show up for work at the appointed hour. As the man left, the assembled company noticed that the stern gentleman was actually a parrot.
Anselmus ran home. During the night, Veronika haunted his dreams and urged him to resist any fanciful impressions that might assail him when he worked for Lindhorst the following day. Anselmus awoke in a cheerful mood. He marveled at how the punch had affected his mind the previous night.
Lindhorst knew about the proceedings of the previous evening. He claimed that he was present and that he almost got hurt when the punch bowl was thrown against the ceiling.
Anselmus thought that Lindhorst was not telling the truth. In a skeptical mood, he applied himself to his work.
The writing seemed unintelligible, and Serpentina did not help him. In his clumsy attempts to write, he put a spot on the original.
Nearby palm branches then became giant snakes and seized him. A crowned salamander appeared and spoke menacing words. Anselmus found himself trapped in a crystal bottle on a shelf in Lindhorst’s residence.
As Anselmus lamented, he saw five other unsuccessful copyists enclosed in bottles. However, they seemed to think that they were free, and they thought that Anselmus was insane when he complained that he was enclosed in a crystal bottle.
As he languished in his crystal prison, he heard the voice of Serpentina urging him to believe and hope.
The witch also appeared and taunted him. She said she could help him to escape. A rat would eat through the board on which the bottle rested, and then Anselmus would plunge downward to freedom. He would become a court counselor, and marry Veronika.
Anselmus told the witch to go away. He loved Serpentina.
The witch’s black cat then jumped out of an ink-pot that was sitting on the table. The witch fetched the golden pot and told the cat to kill the green serpent. Anselmus struggled in vain to escape the crystal bottle and come to her aid.
Lindhorst then appeared. A terrific fight ensued; and with the help of his parrot, Lindhorst rescued Serpentina. While the parrot overcame the black cat, Lindhorst defeated the witch and turned her into a beet, which the hungry parrot ate.
After the battle, Lindhorst seemed to change into the majestic spirit-prince, who freed him from his confinement. Anselmus immediately rushed into the arms of Serpentina.
In the meantime, Heerbrand and Paulmann brooded over their erratic drunken behavior the day after it happened. Heerbrand blamed Anselmus. He said that the student was mad, and that his madness was infectious.
A few months later, Heerbrand visited Paulmann once more. He announced that he had been made court councilor. Moreover, he wished to marry Veronika and asked Paulmann to give his consent to their marriage. Paulmann agreed, provided that Veronika loved him.
Veronika accepted him as her bridegroom, but she felt that she had to confess to them the sin that lay heavy on her heart. She revealed what had happened on the night of the autumnal equinox, and explained how the witch’s spell had affected Anselmus. She knew about his imprisonment in the crystal bottle and the battle between the witch and Lindhorst, through which Anselmus had been freed from his strange captivity. She was sorry for what she had done and promised to be a good wife.
Upon hearing this, her father thought that she was mad, but her bridegroom defended her. In spite of his irritation, Paulmann gave his blessing to their engagement. They were married a few weeks later.
Hoffmann says that he found it difficult to describe the happiness of Anselmus and Serpentina in Atlantis. With the help of Lindhorst, Hoffmann saw them rejoicing over a splendid lily that grew from the golden pot.
Hoffmann seems to share in a weakness current among writers of the nineteenth century Romantic Movement, namely, a denial of original sin. He says that the lily is knowledge of the holy harmony of all being. It is true that such a holy harmony once existed, but it was ruined by the fall into sin recorded in Genesis 3.
However, it may be that Hoffmann was simply carried away by poetic exaggeration and did not intend his words to be taken as a philosophical statement.
“Der goldene Topf” by E.T.A. Hoffmann