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”