“Set me a task!” the demon roared
The well-known story in Disney’s Fantasia of Mickey Mouse summoning a slew of brooms to carry water surprisingly finds its roots in a very old poem, which was in turn inspired by old folktales. The story can be found in Egypt, Ireland and all across the world in various forms. Sometimes the apprentice awakens the inanimate broom, such as in the animation, and other times he instead summons a demon.
The English version of this world folktale tells of such an occurrence.
Within an old tower, set high away from man and machine, an old Sorcerer of great power lived with his young apprentice, a young boy who was known for his impatience. The Sorcerer was not too kind with the lad in turn and often punished him with menial tasks for neglecting his studies.
But on most days the Sorcerer could be found deeply engrossed in his ancient study, where magical artefacts of wonder and beauty were kept away from hands that should misuse them. One such artefact was an old book, chained to the floor with metal bindings and sealed with an old magical lock which could only be opened by a key the Sorcerer kept with him at all times. Within this book were powerful spells, and astounding magic one could only dream of, and all the Sorcerer’s wisdom and power were drawn from this book.
One morning, the Sorcerer was summoned to a gathering of mages. He packed his belongings, took his staff and plopped on his hat, for a Sorcerer could certainly not be seen without his hat! At the door, he bid his pupil goodbye and set off on the long journey. The young boy watched his master walk down the path from the highest window in the tower and once the old wizard was out of sight, he ran for the study to inspect his master’s magical artefacts.
In all his time he was never allowed in this room, only allowed brief glimpses when his master left open the door.
But at night he could hear the magic whisper through the door, he heard the spells cast, watched the light glimmer and glow from within and his imagination ran wild with anticipation. “Oh, when shall I be able to do this?” he wondered, his heart yearning for such power.
Upon opening the door, he felt his heart swell with wonder. Magical trinkets tinkled on the ceiling, where the night sky seemed to shimmer despite the morning sun behind the closed curtains. Shadows danced and whispered over the walls as if alive and jewelled artefacts whirred and ground against golden gears, measuring time and space. His eyes were drawn to the large bejewelled mirror which could show him anything he desired, the pearl white shell that would allow him to hear any conversation in the world and the heavy black crucibles which could turn copper into gold.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a 14 stanza poem on the folktale in 1797.
Overjoyed, the apprentice immediately attempted the crucibles. Putting in flecks of copper he turned the handle, but the copper tumbled out as lead. After a few attempts, he gave up and instead peered into the mirror only to see murky mists swirling within. Frustrated he grabbed the shell only to hear faint murmurs.
“This is impossible!” he cried, slamming the shell down onto the table, “The only way to activate these items is to know the words, and they are all locked up in master’s book!”
He turned to glare at the book and his eyes widened. The book was unlocked! His master had forgotten to lock it! With nary a thought, he rushed to the book and opened it, his heart pounding with unbridled glee. The words were written in black and red ink, shifting and blurring across the page.
He could understand little. Many of the words were impossible to decipher. Placing a finger on the words to hold them in a place he spelt out the six words.
The room immediately fell dark. The wood creaked and groaned against an invisible pressure, his skin went damp and he shivered. A clap of thunder rolled through the room, the sudden lighting blinding him for a moment. All fell silent and the apprentice cracked open his eyes only to wish fervently that he never had. Before him, stood a towering beast with eyes burning like lamps, breath coiling fire and smoke, its body black and slick, dripping thick ooze on the floor and teeth sharp and stained yellow. From all his studies he knew it was the monstrous demon Beelzebub.
“Set me a task!” the demon roared, voice rumbling like rough metal scraping against a hot furnace.
The boy only trembled, voice tight in his throat.
The demon lumbered closer, eyes burning, voice now angry, “Set me a task boy! Or I will strangle you!”
But the lad could still not speak. The evil spirit stepped closer and placed its hands upon his neck, it burned! “Set me a task!”
“Water the flower!” he managed to scream, pointing to a potted plant in the corner of the room, the demon eyed it and slowly lumbered out of the room, black ooze trailing after it. The boy could barely breathe, his heart hammering now with fear. Soon the beast returned with a barrel of water over its shoulder. He poured the full barrel over the plant and left again only to return with another full barrel. Again, and again he brought the water, returning with more and more until the water lapped at the lad’s ankles.
“Stop!” the boy cried, “Stop, you must stop!”
The demon ignored him and continued with his task. Panicked the apprentice tried to grab the demon but was tossed away with barely any effort. He didn't know the words to send the demon back! How do I stop it? And still, it continued to bring more and more water. Soon the boy was chest deep, and still, the demon kept bringing barrels and barrels of water, pouring and pouring until his chin was pressed to the ceiling of the room. The boy cried out again, begging the creature to stop, but it was all in vain as the demon ignored him.
The door was suddenly flung open by the Sorcerer. He'd hastily returned upon remembering he’d forgotten to lock the book. Upon seeing the situation, he immediately called the words to stop the demon. With a snarl and fiery roar, the creature was dragged back screaming into the fiery abyss of its home.
Needless to say, the apprentice was put on mop duty for a good while.