A young man eats a piece of a white snake. Suddenly he can speak with the animals, and that helps him to overcome big problems and interesting challenges…
The White Snake is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a young man who eats a piece of a white snake and can now speak with animals. That saves him when accused of thievery. He travels and helps fish, ants and raven. They in turn help him with three challenges to win the heart of a princess.
A servant eats a white snake
A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through all the land. Nothing was hidden from him. It seemed that news of the most secret things was brought to him through the air.
This king 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 and even the servant did not know what was in it. In fact, nobody knew, because the King never took off the cover to eat of it until he was all alone.
This had gone on for a long time. One day the servant who took away the dish was overcome with such curiosity that he could not help carrying the dish into his own room. After carefully locking the door, he lifted up the cover and saw a white snake lying on the dish.
When he saw this white snake he could not deny himself the pleasure of tasting it, so he cut off a little bit and put it into his mouth. When it touched his tongue he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went to the window and listened; it was the sparrows who were chattering together. They were telling one another 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 servant is accused of thievery
This same day the Queen lost her most beautiful ring. 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 him with angry words. Unless he would point out the thief before tomorrow, he would be declared guilty and executed. All he could say was that he was innocent. That answer was no good and he was send away.
Troubled and fearful he went down into the courtyard. How could he help himself out of his trouble?
Some ducks were sitting together quietly by a brook and taking their rest. While they were cleaning their feathers 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.”
At once the servant seized the duck by the neck, carried her to the kitchen, and said to the cook, “Here is a fine duck; please, kill her.”
“Yes,” said the cook, and weighed her in his hand; “she has spared no trouble to fatten herself, she has been waiting to be roasted long enough.”
With these words 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. The King, who wanted to make amends for the wrong, allowed him to ask a favor. He promised him the best place in the court that he could wish for. The servant refused all the king offered. He only asked for a horse and some money for traveling. He wanted to see something of the world.
Travels and conversations with animals
When his request was granted he set out on his way. One day he came to a pond where he saw three fish caught in the reeds and gasping for water. Now, though it is said that fish are dumb, he heard them lamenting that they must perish so miserably. 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 shouted 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 can’t folks with their clumsy beasts watch out for us? That stupid horse with his heavy hoofs istreading down my people without mercy!”
So he turned on to a side path and the ant king called to him, “We will remember you—one good turn deserves another!”
The path led him into a forest. There he saw two old ravens standing by their nest and throwing out their young ones. “Out with you, idle good-for-nothing creatures!” they cried; “we cannot find food for you any longer; you are big enough, you can provide for yourselves.”
The poor young ravens lay upon the ground, flapping their wings, and crying, “Oh, what helpless chicks we are! We must shift for ourselves, but we cannot fly yet! What can we do, but lie here and starve?”
The good young fellow was moved. He killed his horse with his sword and gave it to them for food. They came hopping up, satisfied their hunger and said, “We will remember you—one good turn deserves another!”
The young man tries to win the princess
Now he had to use his own legs. After walking 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, shouting, “The King’s daughter wants a husband; but whoever asks 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 nobody succeeded. When the young man saw the King’s daughter he was so overcome by her great beauty that he forgot all danger. He went before the King and asked for her hand.
The first challenge: the golden ring
He was led out to the sea. He watched a gold ring being thrown into the sea. 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 drown in the waves.”
All the people grieved for the handsome young man. They went away, leaving him alone by the sea.
He stood on the shore and considered what to do. Sudden he saw three fish swimming towards him and they were the very fish whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held a mussel in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the young man’s feet. When he had taken it and opened it, there lay the gold ring in the shell. Full of joy he took it to the King, expecting that he would grant him the promised reward.
The second challenge: mill seed
However, 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. “Tomorrow morning before sunrise these must be picked up, and not a single grain can be missing.”
The youth sat down in the garden. How was is possible to perform this task? He could think of nothing and sat there sorrowfully. Waiting for the the break of day, when he would be led to death.
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, not a single grain was missing. The ant king had come in the night with thousands and thousands of ants! The grateful creatures had worked hard and picked up all the millet seeds and gathered them into the sacks.
When the King’s daughter herself came down into the garden, she 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 third challenge: an apple of the Tree of Life
The young man did not know where the Tree of Life stood. He set out and decided to go on forever, as long as his legs would carry him, even when there was no hope of finding it.
After he had wandered through three kingdoms, he came one evening to a forest. He lay down under a tree to sleep. 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 and perched themselves upon his knee.
They said, “We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving. When we had grown up and heard that you were seeking the Golden Apple, we flew over the sea to the end of the world. There stands the Tree of Life, and we have brought you the apple.”
The happy young man traveled back home. He 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. Her heart became full of love for him and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.
Tips for Telling
- There is something magical in being able to hear animals and to talk with them. As the teller of this fairy tale you already know what you are going to tell. However, your listeners do not and for them this magic is new. That means when telling you should also feel this wonder like you feel it for the first time.
- This young man must be really in love with the princess. She keeps looking down on him and giving him impossible challenges. It’s important that we as listeners feel and understand that he has totally fallen for her and there is no other goal in the world. You can do this by feeling it yourself, saying it in words and saying it with your body language.
- The end of the story is a bit cheesy. The apple does the work of turning the heart of the Princess. For children this might be satisfactory, for teens or adults you might want to make a comment like ‘If only in real life it was so easy…’ or something like that.
All Questions Answered
It was written down by the Brothers Grimm. It was told long before it was written down. The idea of understanding animals by eating a snake / dragon exists in stories in many other countries.
The Brothers Grimm included this story in 1812 in their collection of fairy tales.
Yes, there is a famous Chinese story called ‘The Legend of The White Snake’. It’s a about a snake spirit that falls in love with a human. (read more on Wikipedia)