A Gender-Bent Fairy Tale of Economics: Christoph Martin Wieland’s “The Philosopher’s Stone”

German writer and poet Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) was the son of a pastor and received a thorough education and grounding in the classics, training that Wieland used to enter a literary and intellectual life. This included journeys to various literary salons in Germany and Switzerland, as well as stints as a philosophy professor, occasional tutor to royalty, and academic journal editing. He and his wife, Anna Dorothea von Hillenbrand, enjoyed an apparently happy marriage that resulted in fourteen children. That perhaps explains why Wieland never lost his love for fairy tales—and even tried to write a few gender-bending fairy tales of his own.

These days Weiland is probably best known for translating several Shakespearean plays into German; his epic poem Oberon (1780; heavily revised later edition 1796), later adapted into an opera by Carl Maria von Weber (first performed in 1826); and his Geschichte des Agathon (1776-1777), an early experiment in the psychological novel. Most of his works showed a clear fascination with things of fairy and other, British culture (real and imagined), and, occasionally, what would now be termed transgender issues, all seen in his story “Der Stein der Weisen” or, in English, “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which appeared in his collection of 19 short stories, Dschinnistan (1789), and was later translated into English by fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes.

“The Philosophers’ Stone” tells the story of King Mark of Cornwall, grandson of the more famous King Mark of Tristan and Isolde fame. In an apparent attempt to get Cornwall known for something other than doomed, drugged lovers, the younger Mark has instead decided to focus his efforts on obtaining gold—a bit of a problem, given that the Cornish mines yield mostly tin. That’s a surprisingly realistic touch for a start of a fairy tale, but don’t worry—the story is going to more magical and less realistic places.

In desperation, Mark tries several different tactics: crushing taxes, selling his own subjects into slavery (in this story, treated pretty much as an aside, though certainly not meant to encourage readers to feel much sympathy for Mark), and listening to various con artists, all promising to provide him with gold, either through magic or science. (Not very scientific science by our standards, but science.)

Eventually, a man claiming to be an Egyptian adept of the great Hermes, calling Misfragmutosiris, which is one amazing pseudonym if one that Microsoft Word decidedly does not like and does not want me to ever type again, appears at the court. Misfragmu—you know what, the name’s amazing, but also, too difficult to type, so we’re going to stick with Misfrag, is slightly different than the rest of the con artists: he is reserved, refuses to eat with the rest of the court, talks to a stuffed crocodile, and—most importantly—already seems to have a lot of gold. Clearly, the sort of guy Mark can trust.

Misfrag also has an amazing story of how he entered the great pyramid at Memphis, descended down to the tomb of Hermes, met a couple of dragons, and found a Magic Scroll, which vanished after seven days. I said amazing, not credible or culturally accurate. Mark, not knowing much about Egyptians, Memphis, pyramids, or dragons, believes the story completely—after all, Misfrag is wearing gold, proof of his authenticity, in Mark’s eyes. And he believes Misfrag’s next statement: that Misfrag knows how to create the Philosophers’ Stone, which will allow Mark to create unlimited gold.

As all of this is going on, the king’s lovely wife, Mabille, has started up a flirtation with a rather handsome young knight, Floribell. You would think that everyone involved would remember what happened the last time a handsome young knight fell in love with a woman promised to a King Mark of Cornwall, but apparently, everyone at this court is as uninterested in history as facts about Egypt. To the point where this flirtation is becoming, how to put this delicately, a bit more than a mere flirtation.

Meanwhile, Mark and Misfrag start making the Philosophers’ Stone, a process that requires a lot of precious jewels, and by a lot, I mean virtually every jewel Mark possesses—largely because he doesn’t want to wait the 21 months it would take Misfrag to create the gems. Sometimes, waiting only saves you a few bucks, and sometimes, waiting can save you a lot of money. I’m just saying. Mark hands Misfrag a golden chest full of gems.

By morning, Misfrag has vanished.

Along with the gems.

This is why it’s important to pay attention to history and geography lessons, everyone, so you can tell when people are just making things up and throwing in a couple of random sphinxes just to con you.

Mark, who failed to pay attention to said lessons, is shocked and horrified, but before he can order his army to head out after Misfrag and the gems, he is interrupted by a marvelously handsome young man, who wants him to rub a red stone on his chest. No, his own chest. Mark, who does seem easily enticed by handsome young men, I must note, rubs the stone on his chest at once—and turns into a donkey.

Over on the other side of the castle, that other handsome young night, Floribell, has also vanished with the queen’s jewels—after, both Wieland and I feel compelled to inform you, apparently spending the night with the queen, which allows the queen to be the first person to discover this. Her shock and horror is interrupted by a lovely young woman, who wants her to rub a rose on her chest. Her own chest.

The queen does so—and turns into a goat.

The court spends about four months looking for the king and queen before realizing that they could easily do better, and do so. And this is in a kingdom presumably still within living memory of Mordred, which is saying something.

In the meantime, the royal donkey has made his sad, destitute way out of his royal palace, soon encountering a lovely young peasant woman named Kasilde who rides him to a cave, where a nice young man named Gablitone helps her off the donkey and embraces her, starting off an immediate round of “wow, are we great con artists or what” as the two describe their experiences as Misfrag and—Floribell?

Correct—the handsome knight Floribell was really the lovely young woman Kasilde all along. Misfrag credits her glittering garments; Kasilde credits her gender and drugs for helping her pull off the deception.

A woman dressing up as a knight was hardly a new idea. Wieland may have been inspired by Twelfth Night or As You Like It, or by any of the many French salon fairy tales featuring women who successfully disguised themselves as men and warriors for one reason or another, or by any of the historical tales of women warriors who used men’s armor in battle. What’s remarkable about this particular reveal is how casual it is, and also, how both Kasilde and Wieland claim that Kasilde’s experience as a woman made her a more convincing man. And how Mabille is later delighted to learn of the trick—because it means she no longer has to fear that she was raped. Just drugged and robbed, which is bad enough.

From here, the tale diverges into a speculative account of what might have happened if Mark had obtained a substance that allowed him to transform everything into gold, and thus pump unlimited assets and money into the local economy, and to what I can only term a rather unrealistically ideal description of peasant life in 6th or 7th century Cornwall. The account echoes then-contemporary discussions of the economic effects of the arrival of New World gold a few centuries earlier, and the current economic issues facing Europe—simmering into revolution in nearby France as Wieland wrote. The peasant life—well. This is a fairy tale. It’s all enough to convince Mark that poverty and work as an agricultural laborer might not be such a bad thing after all.

Wieland, of course, was a scholar, not a farmer, and his rather idealized description of peasant life would probably not have rung true to all of his contemporaries. But his point here is less to provide realistic descriptions of poverty, and more to warn against greed, rapid infusion of capital, and crushing taxation—all problems Wieland saw as threatening the social and economic structures of Europe. Like most fairy tales, “The Philosophers’ Stone” ends happily, if not quite with the expected ending of the restoration of the king and the queen—perhaps because that would hardly have been a happy ending for the good citizens. But also because this is a deeply subversive tale, one that examines the evils that kings can do, that argues that happiness is not found in wealth, that notes how easily men in power can be tricked. And one that argues that even fairy tale kingdoms might sometimes be better off without their kings.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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