A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: April, 2014

017. The White Snake

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

I asked my dog today precisely what she thought of me. Be honest, I said. I won’t take offense.

I figured if anyone would tell me the truth, it would be her — am I generally a kind person? Do others appreciate my charisma, or am I simply annoying? A dog is an excellent judge of character. And as Ghandi said, you can tell a lot about a society by how they treat the weakest among them. As far as our society, me and the dog’s, she would probably be in a good position to let me know if I was on the right track, human-wise.

You smell like ham, she said.

Ok, I said. I’ll work on that.

No, I like that about you, she said, to clarify.

What else? I asked.

What else could there be? she retorted. Would you like me to sniff again?

No thanks, I said. I went outside. She didn’t follow me, and I remember thinking that she might regret that — a pair of squirrels were busy systematically investigating the fallen seed-pods in our yard, and the dog really has a thing for squirrels. I sat on the stoop and watched them. They seemed unconcerned by my presence. Maybe I could ask them, I thought. On the one hand, they didn’t really know me. But on the other, I’ve always been told that first impressions are the most important.

Hi there, I said to the squirrels.

They stopped their picking and stood straight up, bottle-brushed tails erect.

I’m Cate, I said.

They stared at me.

A bird hopped into the yard from the driveway and saw them, studied their stillness before looking to me.

You don’t really want to know what they have to say, the bird whispered.

I don’t? I asked.

The bird hopped closer. I held out my hand for it to alight, thinking at once both of Disney princesses, and bird mites.

They’re thinking that you smell like ham, the bird said, in a low, conspiratorial voice. And also that ham is delicious.

Cate Fricke
April 2014

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham


Thoughts on “The White Snake”

As in our last story, “The Three Snake Leaves,” a serpent is an agent of magical abilities in “The White Snake.” In “The Three Snake Leaves,” the power bestowed by the snake was the ability to bring something dead back to life; in “The White Snake,” a bite of the snake’s body gives one the ability to hear what animals say.

I only wish the servant who stumbles upon this magical ability didn’t waste it on such a petty princess. What makes “The White Snake” so unsatisfying, as a tale with a great set-up, is that it’s simply a vehicle for a man of low status to find a rich wife.

The tale begins with a king who eats a bite of the white snake every evening, and rules his kingdom with such power, it seems he knows what will happen in it before anyone possibly could. He’s our only glimpse into the larger implications of the power of the white snake—once the king’s servant discovers the secret, the story becomes all about the servant’s use of this power to gain wealth, stature, and a wife who is resistant to him, that it takes three tests before she gives in and marries him.

A shame, really.

But maybe the story’s pedestrian quality is the point—the Grimms were sentimental and a bit prudish, but one thing they didn’t soften for their readers was the hard fact that humans are often out for themselves, instead of for a greater good. To take that a little farther, in fact, it would often seem from reading the Grimms’ tales that one of the best things a man can do in this world is make good for himself rather than the world at large, and that by lifting his circumstances out of poverty, he makes himself deserving of respect. I know of many politicians who’d agree…and that’s probably why this tale doesn’t quite make my list of favorites.

Read my writing response here, and the full Brothers Grimm tale online here.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

016. The Three Snake Leaves

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

When I opened my eyes, your face filled my vision. Hope was spread across it like too much butter on toast—you were smiling, proud of what you’d done. What you’d discovered.

I did not like coming back from the dead; I did not know, yet, that dead is what I had been. Your face and its ravenous smile frightened me. Is that an excuse for breaking my vow to you? I wish, in truth, that I could say no. But death made an honest woman of me.

Come, meet my new bridegroom: the shadow that moves in the dark. He does not mind what lovers I take, for I am his, no matter how many leaves you keep in your waistcoat pockets.

I remember loving you. When you said you would give up your life for mine, yes, I loved you. But instead of keeping your vow, you claimed my life and twisted it from sleep into waking. Before you marked me yours, I thought you fine. I do not like the jealous smile you wear when you watch me now. I do not care for the way you beam.

Cate Fricke
April 2014

illustration by Jamison Odone: http://jamisonodone.wordpress.com/about/

illustration by Jamison Odone: http://jamisonodone.wordpress.com/about/

Thoughts on “The Three Snake Leaves”

One trope in fairy tales that gets overshadowed by wicked stepmothers and orders not to unlock doors is folk medicine, and its ties to rebirth. So many fairy tales—especially in the Russian tradition—take advantage of some strange-sounding object or substance that will miraculously heal. The Water of Life, the Water of Death, Rapunzel’s tears, the blood of someone newly killed, which will restore both that person and others. This story uses one of the strangest and most mysterious modes of reviving a dead person: three leaves used by one snake to bring another back to life.

In the story, a beautiful princess has one requirement of her suitors: whoever marries her must shut himself up in her tomb with her if she dies first. A young soldier falls so in love with her that he’s willing to consent to this macabre request. Naturally, she dies soon afterwards, and he’s left alone with her body in the crypt. As he keeps watch, waiting for death, a snake crawls toward the princess’s body—the soldier cuts the snake into pieces before it can touch her. But as he watches, another snake emerges with three leaves in its mouth, which it lays on the three wounds of the first snake. The first snake becomes whole, and they both wriggle away, leaving the leaves behind. The soldier places the leaves on the eyes and mouth of his bride, and she becomes flush with life again, and sits up. Together they pound on the door to the tomb until her father, the king, joyfully releases them.

Here’s where the story takes a turn to the darkly realistic, a turn that sets “The Three Snake Leaves” apart, in my opinion. The couple have go on a sea voyage to visit the soldier’s father. The soldier has already noticed a change in his wife, as though she no longer cares for him. She begins an affair with the ship’s captain, and together the lovers plot to kill the soldier. They throw him overboard, and he drowns. But the soldier had been smart: he’d given the three snake leaves to a loyal servant, who rows out to sea and recovers him, and brings him back to life. The soldier returns home and exposes his wife’s betrayal. She and her captain are tied to the mast of a boat “peppered with holes”; they sink, and are never heard from again.

Philip Pullman draws his readers’ attention to the fact that this story is told in “two halves, the first half being magic and the second half romantic/realistic.” The language of the story clearly hints that we’re meant to root for the soldier, and condemn his wife:

“she gave in to her wicked passion for the ship’s captain”

“their shameful deed”

“she and her accomplice”

True, adultery and murder are not such pretty things—and yet I can’t help but be curious what the connection is between her change of heart and desperate state in the second half of the story with her death and revivification in the first half. Fairy tale logic is so often two-dimensional, but between the princess’s return to life and her “change” is where we can insert the knife, and dig out something deeper.

For a gorgeous take on this story showing both the soldier’s and the princess’s point of view, check out Emily Carroll’s webcomic “The 3 Snake Leaves”

Read my writing response here, and read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu.

illustration by collective Le Gun

illustration by collective Le Gun