The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The White Snake

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of the most secret things was brought to him through the air. But he had a strange custom; every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bring him one more dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant did not know what was in it, neither did any one know, for the King never took off the cover to eat of it until he was quite alone.

This had gone on for a long time, when one day the servant, who took away the dish, was overcome with such curiosity that he could not help carrying the dish into his room. When he had carefully locked the door, he lifted up the cover, and saw a white snake lying on the dish. But when he saw it he could not deny himself the pleasure of tasting it, so he cut off a little bit and put it into his mouth. No sooner had it touched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one another of all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating the snake had given him power of understanding the language of animals.

The fairy tale begins with a mystical king who is described here as the epitome of wisdom. He attains this wisdom from a strange food, a white snake. The symbolism for snakes could not be more contradictory and eludes any rigid categorization. Sometimes it is a miracle medicine, sometimes dangerous poison, sometimes strength and agility, sometimes deceit and malice. In Europe, we know the serpent from the staff of Aesculapius, a symbol that stands for the wonderful and selfless help of the doctor. In the Indian epics, the serpent is an elemental force that holds and sustains the earth. In yoga, it is also a deep-rooted energy that rests in every living thing. But at the same time you could talk about the dangerousness of the poisonous snake... Well, that’s how it goes when it comes to something alive. The power itself is neither good nor bad, it is changing and constantly in motion just like life itself. It depends on the situation and the motives of those involved, whether something is good and wholesome, or rather the opposite. A white snake at least points to something pure and healing, which has special abilities or can lend them. And again, this fairy tale is not so much about being proud of a particular ability and feeling special about it, but more about how it’s used.

We certainly know from our own lives that it is not enough for us to simply listen to and serve a wise king. Once human curiosity awakens, there is no stopping it, and we are urged to attain the great wisdom for ourselves. But what does it mean to understand nature? At the time, when this fairy tale arose in the “Dark Middle Ages” there were other opinions than today. There are many ways to understand nature and find wisdom. Even in modern research, we learn a lot from nature. Although we do not directly understand their language, but we find formulas and equations that describe the lives of animals and plants. This is also a possible way, but it depends on how we use our knowledge. And this is exactly the point, where wheat and chaff are separated. Is it about selfish dominance and maximum profits without thinking of the consequences that do not directly affect us? Or do we recognize our bonds to nature, gratefully return what we receive, and practise compassion?

Now it so happened that on this very day the Queen lost her most beautiful ring, and suspicion of having stolen it fell upon this trusty servant, who was allowed to go everywhere. The King ordered the man to be brought before him, and threatened with angry words that unless he could before the morrow point out the thief, he himself should be looked upon as guilty and executed. In vain he declared his innocence; he was dismissed with no better answer.

In his trouble and fear he went down into the courtyard and took thought how to help himself out of his trouble. Now some ducks were sitting together quietly by a brook and taking their rest; and, whilst they were making their feathers smooth with their bills, they were having a confidential conversation together. The servant stood by and listened. They were telling one another of all the places where they had been waddling about all the morning, and what good food they had found; and one said in a pitiful tone, “Something lies heavy on my stomach; as I was eating in haste I swallowed a ring which lay under the Queen’s window.” The servant at once seized her by the neck, carried her to the kitchen, and said to the cook, “Here is a fine duck; pray kill her.” “Yes,” said the cook, and weighed her in his hand; “she has spared no trouble to fatten herself, and has been waiting to be roasted long enough.” So he cut off her head, and as she was being dressed for the spit, the Queen’s ring was found inside her.

The servant could now easily prove his innocence; and the King, to make amends for the wrong, allowed him to ask a favour, and promised him the best place in the court that he could wish for. The servant refused everything, and only asked for a horse and some money for travelling, as he had a mind to see the world and go about a little.

What does the ring of the queen mean? If we regard the ring as a symbol of unity and connectedness, the story indicates that there was a breach somewhere in the kingdom. It is correct that the servant comes immediately under suspicion. Al­though he was not involved in the disappearance of the ring, but in terms of the forbidden bowl, he was not reliable, since he could not tame his curiosity and thus deceived his king. But he draws the consequences and renounces a career at court. His path is not quiet service, but adventure and curiosity. In doing so, he does not brag about his newfound ability to hear the voices of nature, but uses it only as occasion arises. Likewise, the king acted at the beginning of the fairy tale. So we see, there is already something of a king in the servant.

When his request was granted he set out on his way, and one day came to a pond, where he saw three fishes caught in the reeds and gasping for water. Now, though it is said that fishes are dumb, he heard them lamenting that they must perish so miserably, and, as he had a kind heart, he got off his horse and put the three prisoners back into the water. They quivered with delight, put out their heads, and cried to him, “We will remember you and repay you for saving us!”

He rode on, and after a while it seemed to him that he heard a voice in the sand at his feet. He listened, and heard an ant-king complain, “Why cannot folks, with their clumsy beasts, keep off our bodies? That stupid horse, with his heavy hoofs, has been treading down my people without mercy!” So he turned on to a side path and the ant-king cried out to him, “We will remember you one good turn deserves another!”

The path led him into a wood, and here he saw two old ravens standing by their nest, and throwing out their young ones. “Out with you, you idle, good-for-nothing creatures!” cried they; “We cannot find food for you any longer; you are big enough, and can provide for yourselves.” But the poor young ravens lay upon the ground flapping their wings, and crying, “Oh, what helpless chicks we are! We must shift for ourselves, and yet we cannot fly! What can we do, but lie here and starve?” So the good young fellow alighted and killed his horse with his sword, and gave it to them for food. Then they came hopping up to it, satisfied their hunger, and cried, “We will remember you one good turn deserves another!”

The youth shows compassion, which is not entirely impartial. For what would he have done if the horse had asked for mercy and assistance? But if we are honest, there is no such thing as impartial help. We act in the appropriate situations as we deem necessary. But we are never independent. If we help one, another must suffer. In no situation we can avoid violence or death, just as assistance and goodness are omnipresent. Sometimes we realize that, but most of the time we focus only on our intentions. Already with every breath millions of small creatures die in our bodies, because our immune system is also partisan. In the long run we cannot avoid crushing the ants or small snails while crossing a meadow. So what matters at the end? Probably the intention. It makes a big difference whether we want to help the raven unselfishly or kill the horse for selfish motives. When the servant sacrificed the duck, it was because he feared punishment. Now, on his way of development, the youth is acting out of selfless motives.

And now he had to use his own legs, and when he had walked a long way, he came to a large city. There was a great noise and crowd in the streets, and a man rode up on horseback, crying aloud, “The King’s daughter wants a husband; but whoever sues for her hand must perform a hard task, and if he does not succeed he will forfeit his life.” Many had already made the attempt, but in vain; nevertheless when the youth saw the King’s daughter he was so overcome by her great beauty that he forgot all danger, went before the King, and declared himself a suitor.

What is often described in the fairy tale as a marriage between a beautiful bride and a brave bridegroom is in the higher sense the connection with the true companion. And what is the true companion? The inner truth, the oneness with the creation, this highest goal in life. It is obvious that the way to this goal is painstaking, and we also need help to deal with apparently unsolvable tasks. Whether we receive the necessary help depends also on whether we are willing to give and help. And it is also important if we are willing to face the seemingly impossible tasks at all. Because that’s what human endeavour is all about: Life will always give us serious trials. But if we do not give up and try again and again, then help and development are possible.

So he was led out to the sea, and a gold ring was thrown into it, in his sight; then the King ordered him to fetch this ring up from the bottom of the sea, and added, “If you come up again without it you will be thrown in again and again until you perish amid the waves.” All the people grieved for the handsome youth; then they went away, leaving him alone by the sea.

He stood on the shore and considered what he should do, when suddenly he saw three fishes come swimming towards him, and they were the very fishes whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held a mussel in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the youth’s feet, and when he had taken it up and opened it, there lay the gold ring in the shell. Full of joy he took it to the King, and expected that he would grant him the promised reward.

But when the proud princess perceived that he was not her equal in birth, she scorned him, and required him first to perform another task. She went down into the garden and strewed with her own hands ten sacks-full of millet-seed on the grass; then she said, “To-morrow morning before sunrise these must be picked up, and not a single grain be wanting.”

The youth sat down in the garden and considered how it might be possible to perform this task, but he could think of nothing, and there he sat sorrowfully awaiting the break of day, when he should be led to death. But as soon as the first rays of the sun shone into the garden he saw all the ten sacks standing side by side, quite full, and not a single grain was missing. The ant-king had come in the night with thousands and thousands of ants, and the grateful creatures had by great industry picked up all the millet-seed and gathered them into the sacks.

Presently the King’s daughter herself came down into the garden, and was amazed to see that the young man had done the task she had given him. But she could not yet conquer her proud heart, and said, “Although he has performed both the tasks, he shall not be my husband until he has brought me an apple from the Tree of Life.”

The youth did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever, as long as his legs would carry him, though he had no hope of finding it. After he had wandered through three kingdoms, he came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perched themselves upon his knee, and said, “We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; when we had grown big, and heard that you were seeking the Golden Apple, we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.” The youth, full of joy, set out homewards, and took the Golden Apple to the King’s beautiful daughter, who had now no more excuses left to make. They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together; and then her heart became full of love for him, and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.

The last two sentences were the reason why we chose this fairy tale: They ate the apple of the tree of life together, and her former hard and proud heart was filled with love...

What does the tree of life stand for? As a child I thought it had something to do with eternal life. But no fairy tale is about living forever. You live happily to the end. Age and death are quite natural. So even in fairy tales, the length of life is not important, but how one lives. And now, many years later, I have a faint idea that an ’eternal life’ has nothing to do with living forever. But how can you explain that and put it into words?

Over time, a tree forms many leaves, flowers and fruits, including roots and bark, and everything dies down again. Then the tree just makes new leaves and roots, and so it goes on until its end of life is reached. The tree of life can be imagined in a similar way. It is constantly making new leaves and flowers, some die soon, some live longer. Only the tree of life itself is permanent, no matter how often it loses leaves and fruits and renews them again. It is the same with life itself. It constantly takes on many different forms, some are quickly gone, and others exist longer. The forms are always transient, but life itself remains and does not go away, however often the forms may change, pass away and re-emerge. We can now cling to this human body and weep with much suffering about the form we are wearing at the moment. But we can also see the big picture, the life itself, and accept without complaining what is obvious: our body is perishable, but life remains. Then we are also united with the whole, we can see how that glorious and wonderful life pulsates in everything that surrounds us and rejoice in it without any selfishness. And what is selfless joy? Unselfish love that fills the heart of the princess at the moment when she shares the apple of the tree of life with her true companion. She has truly digested this food, for it lets the stubborn pride disappear, and life itself is left over. And life itself is nothing but pure love.


Introduction
Jorinda and Joringel
Iron John
The Old Woman in the Wood
Hansel and Grethel
Rumpelstiltskin
Mother Holle
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was
Little Red-Cap
Hans in Luck
Godfather Death
One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes
Rapunzel
Faithful John
The Wonderful Musician
The White Snake
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
The Girl Without Hands
Briar-Rose (or Sleeping Beauty)
Our Lady’s Child
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry
Sweet Porridge
Cat and Mouse in Partnership
The Fisherman and his Wife
The Golden Bird

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de