A young man helps a king win his war. He gets to marry the princess, under one condition: when she dies, he will be buried alive with her…
The Three Snake-Leaves is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a young man who marries a princess. When she dies he is buried alive with her. In the tomb he brings her back to life with three snake-leaves. Later she betrays him with another man and that betrayal leads to her second death.
A son enlists in the army
Once upon a time there was a poor man who could no longer support his only son. The son said: “Dear father, things are so bad at the moment that I am a burden to you. I would like to go and see how I can earn my own bread.”
The father gave him his blessing and said goodbye to his son with a heavy heart.
At this time the King of a mighty empire was at war. The young man enlisted in his army and went out to fight.
When they met the enemy there was a battle. Great danger. Comrades falling on all sides. Their leader was killed and all wanted to take flight, but the young man stepped forth, spoke boldly and shouted “We will not let our fatherland be ruined!”
The others followed him and he pressed on and conquered the enemy. When the King heard that he owed the victory to him alone, he raised him above all the others, gave him great treasures and made him the first in the kingdom.
The young man marries a princess with a strange promise
Now the King had a daughter who was very beautiful, but she was also very strange. She had made a vow to take no one as her lord and husband who did not promise to let himself be buried alive with her if she died first.
“If he loves me with all his heart,” she said, “of what use will life be to him afterwards?”
On her side she would do the same. If he would die first, she would go down in the grave with him.
This strange oath had up to this time frightened away all lovers, but the youth became so charmed with her beauty that he cared for nothing, but asked her father for her.
“But do you not know what you must promise?” the King said.
“I must be buried with her,” he replied, “if I outlive her, but my love is so great that I do not mind to take that risk.” The King consented and the wedding celebration was spectacular.
They lived for a while happy and content with each other. One day the young Queen was attacked by a severe illness. No physician could save her. As she lay there dead, the young King remembered what he had been obliged to promise. He was horrified at having to lie down alive in the grave, but there was no escape. The King had placed sentries at all the gates and it was not possible to avoid his fate.
The young man is locked in with his dead wife
When the day came when the corpse was to be buried, he was taken down into the royal vault with it and then the door was shut and bolted.
Near the coffin stood a table with four candles, four loaves of bread and four bottles of wine. When these were finished, he would die of hunger.
And so he sat there full of pain and grief. Every day he ate only a little piece of bread and drank only a mouthful of wine. Nevertheless he saw death daily drawing nearer.
While he sat there gazing at the wall, a snake crept out of a corner of the vault and approached the dead body. He thought it came to gnaw on it, so he drew his sword. “You will not touch her as long as I live,” he said and hewed the snake in three pieces.
After a while a second snake crept out of the hole. When it saw the other snake lying dead and cut in pieces, it went back.
Soon it came again, now with three green leaves in its mouth. It took the three pieces of the snake, laid them together in the right order and placed one of the leaves on each wound. Immediately the severed parts joined themselves together. The snake moved; it was alive again and both snakes hastened away together.
The young man brings his wife back with the snake leaves
The leaves were left lying on the ground. The young man had been watching all this. Hope was born amidst all his unhappy thoughts. Maybe the wondrous power of the leaves which had brought the snake to life again, could also work for a human being!
He picked up the leaves and laid one of them on the mouth of his dead wife. The two others he put on her eyes. A few seconds later the blood stirred in her veins, rose into her pale face and gave it back its color. She drew a breath, opened her eyes, and said, “Oh, God, where am I?”
“You are with me, dear wife,” he answered. He told her how everything had happened and how he had brought her back to life. He gave her some wine and bread. When she had regained her strength he raised her up and they went to the door and knocked. They shouted so loud that the sentries heard it, and told the King.
The King came down himself and opened the door. There he found both strong and healthy and he rejoiced with them that now all sorrow was over. The young King took the three snake-leaves with him, gave them to a servant and said, “Keep them for me carefully, and carry them with you all the time; who knows in what trouble they may yet be of service to us!”
The wife is changed and kills her husband
A change had taken place in his wife. After she had been restored to life, it seemed as if all love for her husband had gone out of her heart. After some time he wanted to make a voyage over the sea to visit his old father. When they had gone aboard a ship, she forgot the great love and fidelity which he had shown her, which had been the means of rescuing her from death. She conceived a wicked inclination for the skipper.
One day when the young King lay there asleep, she called in the skipper. She seized the sleeper by the head and the skipper took him by the feet. They threw him down into the sea. When the shameful deed was done, she said, “Now let us return home and say that he died on the way. I will extol and praise you so that my father will marry us. You will become the heir to his throne!”
But the faithful servant had seen all that they did. And unseen by them he unfastened a little boat from the ship and got into it. He sailed after his master and let the traitors go on their way. He fished up the dead body. He took the three snake-leaves which he carried with him, laid them on the eyes and mouth and fortunately brought the young King back to life.
The betrayal is discovered
They both rowed with all their strength day and night. The little boat flew so swiftly that they reached the old King before the others did. He was astonished when he saw them come alone and asked what had happened to them. When he learnt the wickedness of his daughter he said, “I cannot believe that she has done such a wicked thing, but the truth will soon come to light.”
He ordered them to go into a secret chamber and keep themselves hidden from every one. Soon afterwards the great ship came sailing in. The godless woman appeared before her father with a troubled face. He said, “Why are you coming back alone? Where is your husband?”
“Ah, dear father,” she replied, “I come home again in great grief; during the voyage, my husband became suddenly ill and died. Without the help of the good skipper I would not have survived it. He was present at his death and can tell you all.”
The King said, “I will make the dead alive again.” He opened the chamber and called the two to come out. When the woman saw her husband she was thunderstruck. She fell on her knees and begged for mercy.
The King said, “There is no mercy. He was ready to die with you and restored you to life again. You however have murdered him in his sleep, and you shall get the reward that you deserve.”
And so she was placed with her accomplice in a ship which had been pierced with holes. The ship was sent out to the sea, where they soon sank amid the waves.
Tips for Telling
- In the beginning of the story the young man makes a promise to the princess. This promise is intriguing. We wonder: Would we make this promise ourselves too? Why is it strange to ask such a promise? Will the young man keep this promise? And finally when he keeps his promise, will he regret his choice? While telling the story, you don’t need to ask these questions to your listeners. What you do need to do is to give them time to hear these questions for themselves.
- The scene in the royal vault / tomb is important. Make sure you have an image for yourself of this room. It can help to close your eyes and imagine it fully with all your senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). Some people like to draw these scenes.
- I could not find out which leaves are meant with ‘snake-leaves’. The most obvious answer would be that snake-leaves are the leaves of the snake plant (link to Wikipedia), but I am not sure. This snake plant however is pretty common and easy to keep indoors. Wouldn’t it be nice to bring one when you are telling this story?
All Questions Answered
It was written down by the Brothers Grimm. They had various sources for this widespread folktale. It was told long before it was written down.
The Brothers Grimm included this story in 1819 in the second edition of their collection of fairy tales.