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.