Gottfried Keller’s “The Little Dance Legend”: Pagans Mix Poorly

“The Little Dance Legend” by Gottfried Keller, is perhaps not translateable into a more felicitous idiom. Das Tanzlegendchen is the original title … This story emerges out of the intertextuality that we discussed as a new and fascinating concept, during those tedious undergraduate English courses. In other word, Keller is taking another literary work that he inherits and retelling it.

Gottfried Keller, writer of "The Little Dance Legend"

The story is strange and unwieldly, but not like Borchert’s “Do Stay, Giraffe,” which only remains within the guardrails of intelligibility due to the powers of language itself. Rather, “The Little Dance Legend” owes its strangeness to reflection.

“According to a notation from Saint Gregorius” begins the story, telling us about Musa, a devout Christian seemingly pathologically inclined to dance. There were no limits on her dance. It took place in all settings and times, albeit showing some deference to the occasion. In other words, for example, in church she only make dance-like steps.

A pirouette in the middle of a service finds her transformed into a setting where she’s joined by a noble elder who leads her through an exhausting but beautiful movement. At the end of which, this elder explains that he is King David and that he has come to offer her a divine repose whereby her dancing shall be only more satisfying. The price of this repose is that she must stop all earthly dancing from this moment.

sketch of a key scene in Gottfried Keller's "The Little Dance Legend"
Musa meets King David

She confronts this reward and its cost and is uncertain: “it seemed hard to her to stop dancing henceforth for the sake of an unknown reward.” But she decides to endure this renunciation.

Given her body’s tendency even the powers of her will must be assisted through external means: a chain around her ankles to limit her movement. Her asceticism impresses all of those around her and gains her notoriety and respect. But the renunciation takes its toll on her health, which quickly degenerates, such that within only three years she passes on.

Her rise witnesses freedom from the chain that kept her feet from graceful movement. Those observing swear they saw her dancing into the heavens by the holy music that rings throughout.

She arrives in heaven on a holiday when the Muses were visiting from the underworld. Musa and Cecilia and others greet the nine and encourage them to share their fellowship. All greatly enjoy their company, including David and even Mary. Mary even promises to move heaven and earth in order to allow the Muses to stay in Paradise.

It is at this point that Keller had originally ended the story. But then the following coda was attached:

To express their gratitude the Muses have rehearsed and then begin to perform song. But the Muses have not wholly shed their human forms and the music they make has a disquieting effect: “the whole of Paradise, patriarchs, elders, and prophets, everyone who had ever walked or lain on a greed meadow, lost control of themselves.” An effect that cannot be permitted. The Trinity enters and sends the Muses on their way, never to return.

Note that this story has concluded ambiguously. Although Musa’s found her reward, or so we are told—the narrative in which she plays a role has mostly concluded—the nine Muses engaged in the sort of earthly pleasures that Musa had once known, and, despite their intentions, were condemned therefor.

Curious what short stories I’ve read since Keller?