The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

The Forest Dweller


At the dawn of civilization, quite some time before human creatures began wandering over the face of the earth, there were forest dwellers. They lived close together fearfully in the dark tropical forests, constantly fighting with their relatives, the apes, and the only divine law that governed their actions was — the forest. The forest was their home, refuge, cradle, nest, and grave, and they could not imagine life outside it. They avoided coming too close to its edges, and whoever, through unusual circumstances while hunting or fleeing something, made his way to the edges would tremble with dread later when reporting about the white emptiness outside, where the terrifying nothingness glistened in the deadly fire of the sun.

There was an old forest dweller who decades before had been pursued by wild animals and had fled across the farthest edge of the forest. He had immediately become blind and was now considered a kind of priest and saint with the name Mata Dalam, or “he who has an interior eye.” He had composed the holy forest song chanted during the great storms, and the forest dwellers always listened to what he had to say. His fame and mystery rested on the fact that he had seen the sun with his eyes and lived to tell about it.

The forest dwellers were small, brown, and very hairy. They walked with a stoop, and they had furtive, wild eyes. They could move both like human beings and like apes and felt just as safe in the branches of the forest as they did on the ground. They had not yet learned about houses and huts. Nevertheless, they knew how to fabricate many kinds of weapons and tools, as well as jewelry. They made bows, arrows, lances, and clubs out of wood and necklaces out of the fiber of trees that were strung with dried beets or nuts. They wore precious objects around their necks or in their hair: a wild boar’s tooth, a tiger’s claw, a parrot’s feathers, shells from mussels. A large river flowed through the endless forest, but the forest dwellers did not dare tread on its banks except in the dark of night, and many had never seen it. Sometimes the more courageous ones crept out of the thickets at night, fearful and on the lookout. Then, in the faint glimmer of dusk, they would watch the elephants bathing and look through the treetops above them and observe the glittering stars with dread as they appeared to hang in the manifold interlaced branches of the mangrove trees. They never saw the sun, and it was considered extremely dangerous to see its reflection in the summer.

A young man by the name of Kubu belonged to the tribe of forest dwellers headed by the blind Mata Dalam, and he was the leader and spokesman for the dissatisfied young people. In fact, ever since Mata Dalam had grown older and become more tyrannical, the malcontents had made their voices heard in the tribe. Until then, it had been the blind man’s uncontested right to be provided with food by the other members of the tribe. In addition, they came to him for advice and sang his forest song. Gradually, however, he had introduced all sorts of new and burdensome customs that were revealed to him, so he said, in a dream by the divine spirit of the forest. But several skeptical young men asserted that the old man was a swindler and was concerned only with advancing his own interests.

The most recent custom Mata Dalam had introduced was a new moon celebration in which he sat in the middle of a circle and beat a drum made of leather. Meanwhile the other forest dwellers had to dance in the circle and sing the song “Gulo Elah” until they were exhausted and collapsed on their knees. Then all the men had to pierce their left ears with a thorn, and the young women were led to the priest, who pierced each of their ears with a thorn.

Kubu and some other young men had shunned this ritual, and they endeavored to convince the young women to resist as well. One time it appeared that they had a good chance to triumph over the priest and break his power. It was when the old man was conducting the new moon ceremony and piercing the left ear of a woman. A bold young man let out a terrible scream while this was happening, and the blind man chanced to stick the thorn into the woman’s eye, which fell out of its socket. Now the young woman screamed in such despair that everyone ran over to her, and when they saw what had happened, they were stunned and speechless. Immediately the young men intervened with triumphant smiles on their faces, and when Kubu dared to grab the priest by his shoulders, the old man stood up in front of his drum and uttered such a horrible curse, in such a squealing scornful voice, that everyone retreated in terror. Even the young man was petrified. Though nobody could understand the exact meaning of the old priest’s words, his curse had a wild and awful tone and reminded everyone of the dreadful holy words of the religious ceremonies. Mata Dalam cursed the young man’s eyes, which he granted to the vultures as food, and he cursed his intestines, which he prophesied would roast in the sun one day on the open fields. Then the priest, who at this moment had more power than ever before, ordered the young woman to be brought to him again, and he stuck out her other eye with the thorn. Everyone looked on with horror, and no one dared to breathe.

“You will die outside!” the old man cursed Kubu, and from the moment of this pronouncement, the other forest dwellers avoided the young man as hopeless. “Outside”—that meant outside the homeland, outside the dusky forest. “Outside”—that meant horror, sunburn, and glowing deadly emptiness.

Terrified, Kubu fled, and when he saw that everyone retreated from him, he hid himself far away in a hollow tree trunk and gave himself up for lost. Days and nights he lay there, wavering between mortal terror and spite, uncertain whether the people of his tribe would come to kill him or whether the sun itself would break through the forest, besiege him, flush him out, and slay him. But the arrows and lances did not come; nor did the sun or lightning. Nothing came except great languishment and the growling voice of hunger.

So Kubu stood up once again and crawled out of the tree, sober and with a feeling almost of disappointment. The priest’s curse was nothing, he thought in surprise, and then he looked for food. When he had eaten and felt life circulating through his limbs once more, pride and hate surged up in his soul. He did not want to return to his people anymore. All he wanted now was to be solitary and remain expelled. He wanted to be known as the one who had been hated and had resisted the feeble curses of the priest, that blind cow. He wanted to be alone and remain alone, but he also wanted to take revenge.

So he walked around the forest and pondered his situation. He reflected about everything that had ever aroused his doubts and seemed questionable, especially the priest’s drum and his rituals. And the more he thought and the longer he was alone, the clearer he could see. Yes, it was all deceit. Everything had been nothing but lies and deceit. And since he had already come so far in his thinking, he began drawing conclusions. Quick to distrust, he examined everything that was considered true and holy. For instance, he questioned whether there was a divine spirit in the forest or a holy forest song. Oh, all that too was nothing. It too was a swindle. And as he managed to overcome his awful horror, he sang the forest song in a scornful voice and distorted all the words. And he called out the name of the divine spirit of the forest, whom nobody had been allowed to name on the pain of death — and everything remained quiet. No storm exploded. No lightning struck him down!

Isolated, Kubu wandered for many days and weeks with a furrowed brow and a piercing look. He went to the banks of the river at full moon, something that nobody had ever dared to do. There he looked long and bravely, first at the moon’s reflection and then at the full moon itself and all the stars, right in their eyes, and nothing happened to him. He sat on the riverbank for entire moonlit nights, reveling in the forbidden delirium of light, and nursed his thoughts. Many bold and terrible plans arose in his mind. The moon is my friend, he thought, and the star is my friend, but the blind old man is my enemy. Therefore, the “outside” is perhaps better than our inside, and perhaps the entire holiness of the forest is also just talk! And one night, generations before any other human being, Kubu conceived the daring and fabulous plan of binding some branches together with fiber, placing himself on the branches, and floating down the river. His eyes glistened, and his heart pounded with all its might. But this plan came to naught, for the river was full of crocodiles.

Consequently, there was no way into the future but to leave the forest by way of its edge — if there even was an edge to the forest at all — and to entrust himself to the glowing emptiness, the evil “outsider.” That monster, the sun, had to be sought out and endured, for — who knew? — in the end maybe even the ancient lore about the terror of the sun was just a lie!

This thought, the last in a bold, feverishly wild chain of reflections, made Kubu tremble. Never in the whole of history had a forest dweller dared to leave the forest of his own free will and expose himself to the horrible sun. And once more he walked around for days carrying these thoughts with him until he finally summoned his courage. Trembling, on a bright day at noon, he crept toward the river, cautiously approached the glittering bank, and anxiously looked for the image of the sun in the water. The glare was extremely painful to his dazzled eyes, and he quickly shut them. But after a while he dared to open them once more and then again and again, until he succeeded in keeping them open. It was possible. It was endurable. And it even made him happy and courageous. Kubu had learned to trust the sun. He loved it, even if it was supposed to kill him, and he hated the old, dark, lazy forest, where the priest croaked and where the young courageous man had been outlawed and expelled.

Now he made his decision, and he picked his deed like a piece of ripe sweet fruit. He made a full hammer out of ironwood and gave it a very thin and light handle. Then, early the next morning, he went looking for Mata Dalam. After discovering his footprints, he found him, hit him on the head with the hammer, and watched the old man’s soul depart through his crooked mouth. Kubu placed his weapon on the priest’s chest so that the people would know who had killed him, and using a mussel shell, he carved a sign on the flat surface of the hammer. It was a circle with many straight rays — the image of the sun.

Bravely he now began his trip to the distant “outside.” He walked straight ahead from morning till night. He slept nights in the branches of trees and continued his wandering early each morning over brooks and black swamps and eventually over hills and moss-covered banks of stone that he had never seen before. As they became steeper, he was slowed down because of the gorges, but he managed to climb the mountains on his way through the infinite forest, so that he ultimately became doubtful and sad and worried that perhaps some god had prohibited the creatures of the forest from leaving their homeland.

And then one evening, after he had been climbing for a long time and had reached some higher altitude where the air was much drier and lighter, he came to the edge without realizing it. The forest stopped — but with it the ground stopped, too. The forest plunged down into the emptiness of the air as if the world had broken in two at this spot. There was nothing to see but a distant, faint red glow and above, some stars, for the night had already commenced.

Kubu sat down at the edge of the world and tied himself tightly to some climbing plants so that he would not fall over. He spent the night cowering in dread and was so wildly aroused that he could not shut his eyes. At the first hint of dawn, he jumped impatiently to his feet, bent over the emptiness, and waited for the day to appear.

Yellow stripes of beautiful light glimmered in the distance, and the sky seemed to tremble in anticipation, just as Kubu trembled, for he had never seen the beginning of the day in the wide space of air. Yellow bundles of light flamed up, and suddenly the sun emerged in the sky beyond the immense cleft of the world, large and red. It sprang up from an endless gray nothingness that soon became blue and black — the sea.

And the “outside” appeared before the trembling forest dweller. Before his feet the mountain plunged down into the indiscernible smoking depths, and across from him some rose-tinted cliffs glistened like jewels. To the side lay the dark sea, immense and vast, and around it the coast ran white and foamy, with small nodding trees. And above all of this, above these thousand new, strange mighty forms, the sun was rising, casting a glowing stream of light over the world that burst into flames of laughing colors.

Kubu was unable to look the sun in its face. But he saw its light stream in colorful floods over the mountains and rocks and coasts and distant blue islands, and he sank to the ground and bent his face to the earth before the gods of this radiant world. Ah, who was he, Kubu? He was a small dirty animal who had spent his entire dull life in the misty swamp hole of the dense forest, fearful, morose, and submitting to the rule of the vile, crooked gods. But here was the world, and its highest god was the sun, and the long, disgraceful dream of his forest life lay behind him and was already being extinguished in his soul, just as the image of the dead priest was fading. Kubu climbed down the steep abyss on his hands and feet and moved toward the light and the sea. And over his soul in fleeting waves of happiness, the dreamlike presentiment of a bright earth ruled by the sun began to flicker, an earth on which bright, liberated creatures lived in lightness and were subservient to no one except the sun.

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  1. ameros
    In original, the line: "Every phenomenon on earth is symbolic, and each symbol is an open gate(...)" sounds: "Jede Erscheinung auf Erden ist ein Gleichnis und jedes Gleichnis ist ein offenes Tor geschwächt ist die Seele wenn sie bereit ist in das innere der Welt zu geben vermag Foto und ich und Tag und Nacht alles eines sind." which indicates that "parable" ("Gleichnis") is a better word that "symbol". So it should be: "Every phenomenon on earth is a parable and every parable is an open gate(...)"
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