Thoughts on “Faithful Johannes”

by crfricke

There’s so much that I love about this touching and also disturbing fairy tale, “Faithful Johannes.” When I do these freewrites, I’m not really asking myself a specific question for each tale like a prompt a teacher might give you in a Freshman Comp class (“Tell this story from the POV of the wicked stepsister,” etc.). Instead, I’m flying blind, starting from general questions:

What surprises or delights or disturbs me about this one?

Whose voice isn’t being heard in this story?

What is the egg of this story that I’d like most to crack open, and what kind of monster is gestating inside?

With Faithful Johannes, there are multiple answers to each of these questions, because in this story, there’s just SO MUCH. From the Bluebeard-esque command given at the beginning of the story (destined to be broken), to the portrait of the princess that is so beautiful that the doomed prince falls in love with her immediately; from Johannes’ sudden unexpected ability to understand birds (waved over as absolutely normal by the narrator), to his turning to stone when he confesses his devotion to the prince; and finally, the bizarre and disturbing request that in order to restore Johannes to life, the prince must cut off the heads of his own children, which he willingly does.

And this story also contains a gorgeous line, which the prince utters upon seeing the portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof: “if all the leaves on the all the trees were tongues, they could not express the fullness of my love.”

The prince is speaking of his love for the Princess of the Golden Roof, whom Johannes will court and kidnap on the prince’s behalf, but by the end of the tale, isn’t it clear that the truest love in this story is between the prince and Johannes? Maybe it’s just my modern sensibilities that want to read any “faithful servant” tale as homoerotic, but seriously. The Princess of the Golden Roof is painted as a bit of a vain fool, obsessed with golden trinkets and easily tricked into marriage. It’s Johannes who is the standard for selfless virtue throughout the tale, and in the end, when the prince sacrifices his own children to bring Johannes back from death (spoiler alert: the kids are fine, you know, magic), he has taken on Johannes’ selflessness as well as faithfulness, making this both a story about an exemplary servant and the character growth within the prince.

Click here to read my freewrite inspired by this tale, and click here to read the full text, courtesy of D.L. Ashlimann and Pitt.edu.

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane

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