The White Snake, by Brothers Grimm
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 anyone 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.
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 favor, 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 traveling,
as he had a mind to see the world and go about a little.
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!"
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.
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
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 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.