The White Snake

By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Illustrated by Rie Cramer

A long time ago there lived a King whose wisdom was noised abroad in all the country. Nothing remained long unknown to him, and it was as if the knowledge of hidden things was brought to him in the air. However, he had one curious custom. Every day at dinner, after the table had been cleared and every one gone away, a trusty servant had to bring in one other dish. But it was covered up, and the servant himself did not know what was in it, and no one else knew, for the King waited until he was quite alone before he uncovered the dish.

This had gone on a long time, but at last there came a day when the servant could restrain his curiosity no longer, but as he was carrying the dish away he took it into his own room. As soon as he had fastened the door securely, he lifted the cover, and there he saw a white snake lying on the dish. After seeing it he could not resist the desire to taste it, and so he cut off a small piece and put it in his mouth. As soon as it touched his tongue he heard outside his window a strange chorus of delicate voices. He went and listened, and found that it was the sparrows talking together, and telling each other all they had seen in the fields and woods. The virtue of the snake had given him power to understand the speech of animals.

Now it happened one day that the Queen lost her most splendid ring, and suspicion fell upon the trusty servant, who had the general superintendence, and he was accused of stealing it. The King summoned him to his presence, and after many reproaches told him that if by the next day he was not able to name the thief he should be considered guilty, and punished. It was in vain that he protested his innocence; he could get no better sentence. In his uneasiness and anxiety he went out into the courtyard, and began to consider what he could do in so great a necessity. There sat the ducks by the running water and rested themselves, and plumed themselves with their flat bills, and held a comfortable chat. The servant stayed where he was and listened to them. They told how they had waddled about all yesterday morning and found good food; and then one of them said pitifully, “Something lies very heavy in my craw—it is the ring that was lying under the Queen’s window; I swallowed it down in too great a hurry.”

Then the servant seized her by the neck, took her into the kitchen, and said to the cook, “Kill this one, she is quite ready for cooking.” “Yes,” said the cook, weighing it in her hand; “there will be no trouble of fattening this one—it has been ready ever so long.”

She then slit up its neck, and when it was opened the Queen’s ring was found in its craw. The servant could now clearly prove his innocence, and in order to make up for the injustice he had suffered the King permitted him to ask some favor for himself, and also promised him the place of greatest honor in the royal household.

But the servant refused it, and only asked for a horse and money for traveling, for he had a fancy to see the world, and look about him a little. So his request was granted, and he set out on his way; and one day he came to a pool of water, by which he saw three fishes who had got entangled in the rushes, and were panting for water. Although fishes are usually considered dumb creatures, he understood very well their lament that they were to perish so miserably; and as he had a compassionate heart he dismounted from his horse, and put the three fishes back again into the water. They quivered all over with joy, stretched out their heads, and called out to him, “We will remember and reward you, because you have delivered us.”

He rode on, and after a while he heard a small voice come up from the sand underneath his horse’s feet. He listened, and understood how an ant-king was complaining, “If only these men would keep off, with their great awkward beasts! Here comes this stupid horse treading down my people with his hard hoofs!”

The man then turned his horse to the side-path, and the ant-king called out to him, “We will remember and reward you!”

The path led him through a wood, and there he saw a father-raven and mother-raven standing by their nest and throwing their young ones out.

“Off with you! young gallows-birds!” cried they; “we cannot stuff you any more; you are big enough to fend for yourselves!” The poor young ravens lay on the ground, fluttering, and beating the air with their pinions, and crying, “We are poor helpless things, we cannot fend for ourselves, we cannot even fly! We can only die of hunger!”

From Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Garden City, N.Y.: International Collectors Library, 1900)

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