The following is my summary of the fairy tale 'The Spirit in the Glass Bottle', which was documented by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm in their fairy tale collections.
A poor woodcutter toiled morning through to night. Overtime, he saved enough money to send his only child to school. He hoped a well-educated son would be able to support him later in life.
The boy proved to be a gifted student. He excelled in his studies and received high praise from every teacher. Sadly, his father couldn’t afford the cost of tuition for long. The student left his course early and went home. He consoled his father and said he would find a way to make ends meet, despite having cut his lessons short.
As the woodcutter prepared for a day of chopping and piling wood, the student offered to lend a hand. The father doubted his son’s strength, adding he could only afford one axe. Undeterred, the boy advised his father to borrow an axe from their neighbour; the boy could use the axe until he had money to buy his own.
They began their labours deep in the woods the following morning. With a borrowed axe in hand, the student worked tirelessly. His spirits were still high when the sun reached its zenith. Rather than sit for lunch, he decided he would take a stroll through the trees. His father criticised him for wanting to waste energy during break, but the boy ignored his warnings. Taking a share of food, he went to look for birds’ nests.
He walked happily in the shade of the trees and eyed the branches overhead for nests. Before long, he came across a mighty-looking oak that must have been centuries old. It was so big, five men could have spanned its girth.
As the student wondered how many birds’ nests the tree would yield, he heard a tiny cry. The voice, which seemed to be coming from somewhere beneath the ground, was begging for freedom. Unable to trace it, the student called for the creature’s whereabouts. When the voice said it was stuck under the roots of the tree, the student started to push past the dirt and dead foliage. He eventually found a small, glass bottle.
Inside was something that resembled a frog. Up and down it jumped, all the while crying to be let out. The student, seeing no reason to do otherwise, opened the bottle. From its spout erupted a spirit that grew larger and larger and became half the size of the great oak tree.
The spirit, who had been sealed inside the bottle as punishment, called himself Mercurius. During his long imprisonment, he vowed he would take revenge and deal his wrath the moment he was released. The student should expect nothing less than a broken neck.
Unfazed, the student challenged the spirit. If what the spirit said was true, he would have the power to make himself small again. Keen to demonstrate his abilities, the spirit shrank himself back inside the bottle, which the student swiftly stoppered and discarded back beneath the tree. The student was about to leave when he heard the spirit’s pitiful cries. Again the spirit pleaded for freedom.
Since the spirit had already threatened to take his life, the student refused. Desperately, the spirit offered the student a lifetime of wealth. Since the spirit had already tricked him once, the student refused. The spirit persevered and insisted he would bestow unbelievable riches upon the boy – it would be foolish to pass on such a chance.
The student reconsidered. He weighed the risks and decided they were worth taking. Confident that the spirit wouldn’t get the better of him, he pulled the cork off the bottle.
The spirit regained his monstrous form and in his huge hand appeared a scrap of cloth, which he presented to the student. He claimed that one end had the power to heal wounds, whilst the other could change steel or iron to silver.
Deciding to put this to the test, the student used his axe to split the trunk of a nearby tree. He covered the gash with the cloth and watched as the bark repaired itself anew. Satisfied, he and the spirit bade one another goodbye.
When the student returned to his father, he was scolded for being late. Saying he could make up for lost time didn’t help; his father condemned his attitude. Nonetheless, the student was eager to put the spirit’s gift to use. He declared he could fell a tree with one swing. The axe hit the tree, but because it had been turned into silver by the spirit’s cloth, the blade bent horribly. The student accused his father of borrowing a poorly-made tool.
Knowing he would have to pay their neighbour for the broken axe, the woodcutter told his son off for being so careless. The student offered to cover the cost, but his father scoffed and reminded him that he hadn’t a groschen to his name. As far as his father was concerned, his academic achievements counted for nothing when it came to woodcutting.
After a time, the student said he could work no longer and asked to go home. There was still much to do, so the woodcutter refused. Unlike his son, he hadn’t the luxury for idleness. He told the boy to return to the house alone, but this wasn’t possible. It was the student’s first outing into the woods, so he didn’t know the way back. The father’s temper cooled and he agreed to go home with his son.
At the house, the woodcutter instructed the boy to go to the village and sell the broken axe. The student found a goldsmith, who valued the axe at four hundred talers. Since the goldsmith didn’t have such a large sum of cash at hand, the student was given three hundred talers and owed one hundred talers.
Once home, the student learnt from his father that their neighbour sought one taler and six groschen for the axe. The student advised doubling the sum, for they now had money to spare. He gave his father one hundred talers, ensuring the woodcutter could live the rest of his life in comfort. The woodcutter was astounded and wondered how the boy came upon such riches. He listened as his son spoke of the spirit in the glass bottle.
With the rest of his fortune, the student returned to study and finished his education. He kept the spirit’s cloth and because of its magical ability to heal wounds, he went on to become a world-famous doctor.
Read the complete story by purchasing a collection of Brothers Grimm
fairy tales that has been professionally translated from the original
German. The following books were consulted to write this summary:
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Brothers Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. Jack Zipes (London: Vintage, 2007).
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, ed. Lily Owens (New York: Gramercy Books, 2006).