Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb. 2011 The White Snake – Part One

 Walter Crane

The Unacceptable.


Many of the Grimm fairy tales are not told in the form in which they were collected. Many Grimm fairy tales are not told at all because of their content. I am talking about their violence. Harsh punishment for evil doers is integral to these tales, reflecting the strict moral mindset of the time when the Grimms wrote these stories down.

Matters become worse as innocent characters meet their demise. In The White Snake, when the hero sees the three baby ravens pushed from their nest before they can fend for themselves, he kills his horse and feeds the carcass to the ravens.


Modern American audiences find this totally inappropriate. We do not kill, or harm, companion animals. Only beings of the lowest caliber (typically little boys) would consider such a crime.


When I tell this tale, I interject the horse turning to the hero and saying, “Kill me and feed me to the ravens. Neither you nor I will regret this.” My listeners find this, if mysterious, acceptable. Listeners two hundred years ago needed no such tampering. Perhaps they understood something we have forgotten. What might that be?


I have diverted attention away from, what appears to the modern listener as, an inexplicable act. In the hero’s other two encounters, he wades into the mire to save three fish. He gets his feet wet.  He spares the ants by directing his horse around their colony; a most minor inconvenience. For the ravens he sacrifices his horse. From here on he walks. 


I consciously used the word ‘sacrifice’ in the sentence above. The ravens are sacred. This is what we, the modern listener, do not know. Ravens are the familiars of the shaman, who, in the form of birds, transported into other levels of existence to bring back cures for the aliments of their patients. Only the ravens can transcend our world, traveling to the garden of the tree of life, and bring back its fruit.


That one part of the White Snake speaks to the incredible age of this tale, or at least the motif therein. I have violated the story when I have the horse speak, giving the hero permission to act. In the Grimm version the hero knows who the ravens are and that he needs to make a sacrifice. In my version the hero, like us, has forgotten how to honor the ancient beliefs. I mask the shaman who have done so much for us in the past, deleting our racial memory of them.


I could defend my version, arguing as I did in my blog on Rapunzel (Dec. 2010 below) that the cultures that receive these fairy tales change them to fit their particular mores. I can not tell this worthy story unless I change it. As I change it a voice rises up to object.


Herein lays the schizophrenia of this fairy tale teller. Picture if you will, the practical-me, holding my new version close to my breast as the purist-me wags its finger saying “Shame on you.” 

Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb 2011 The White Snake – Part Two

 Walter Crane


The white snake embodies the traditional storytelling’s ‘three’.  Three appears in not merely the nursery tales—The Three Little Pig, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears—but prominently in the more complex tales.

In our tale the hero aides three fishes and three ravens. He also aids the ants, making three sets of creatures, who in turn help him with three tasks. During his last task he passes through three kingdoms before the three ravens end his search.

Other common numbers in fairy tales are six, seven, nine and twelve, seven being the only number not a multiple of three. What’s with the ‘three’?

The trinity jumps to mind, and so too the three White Goddess; Maiden, Mother, Crone; and the three witches in Macbeth. The religions before the monotheistic ones took over usually had three main deities and groupings of three (three Fates, three Graces, three Gorgons and the three Furies). In our culture the number three has deep mystical and religious overtones.

The fairy tales ignore this. The Three Little Pigs does not have hidden Masonic implications.

If we think in dimensional terms, existence starts with the third. The first dimension is a line; the second a plane. Without depth—the third dimension—they exist theoretically for the purposes of geometry (a form of secondary educational torture akin to algebra).

The fairy tales could care less.

Could it be that three is the number that represents to us all of existence? Three exists not just in religion and dimensions. It is pervasive. Our brains can remember three unrelated item; beyond that we need a written list. An appetizer, main course and dessert comprise a meal. Three notes make up a musical chord. Does three appear in the fairy tales because we equate three with our very existence?


Then why does the number three keep coming up?

It is because three is useful, familiar and enough. Plays typically have three acts; stories a beginning, middle and end. A very useful pattern. Being useful, the pattern gets used over and over again. We come to expect thing to come in threes. If in my opening sentence to this paragraph I had come up with four or five reasons for the number three that would have been too much. Three is enough.

Your thoughts?

  1. Looking through that dinosaur called the Thesaurus, I couldn’t help noticing that an overwhelming number of the words related to ‘three’ start with the letter ‘T’. Curious. The wonderful exception was “runcible”, a nonsense word coined by Edward Lear, now referring to a spork-like silver spoon, although Lear also wrote about a runcible hat and runcible cat.



Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb 2011 The White Snake – Part Three

 Walter Crane

When animals could talk…

As a young servant samples the king’s secret delicacy, a white snake, he acquires the intriguing ability to understand the language of animals. Talking animals have charmed listeners and readers from time out of mind, as far back as Eve bantering with the serpent in the garden. What do we want to hear from them? In the folk and fairy tale genre, I identify three types of talking animal stories.

Type One: Animals talking to animals; the most common of talking animal stories.

Type Two: Animals talking to humans. This gets a little more complicated. As likely as not, we encounter an enchanted prince turned bestial, giving the creature the inherited ability to speak. The remaining talking animals appear clearly magical. I find that interesting in light of cultures that do not have stories of animals talking to humans. That would raise the animals to the human level, a notion offensive to their way of thinking. In our culture we grant these creatures exemptions due to special circumstance.

Type Three: As in the White Snake, a human is given to understanding animal speech, but does not talk to the animals. (Doctor Dolittle not withstanding, not being a folk or fairy tale.) Overhearing the animals lends a voyeuristic quality to this talent.

Given these three types we can expect three modes of animal talk. With Type One, what we hear from the animals propels and serves the storyline. In these stories we project upon the animals what we feel their personalities ought to be. Foxes are clever, bears are dense, and birds are chipper if a bit flighty.

The Type Two talking animals come to us from the “other”. Not being

common animals, they do not speak of common animal concerns. They focus on magical missions: to regain their human form, grant wishes to the hero, act as guides.

Only with Type Three do we have a chance to listen to the animals speak for themselves. What do we find?  If the White Snake is typical they are asking us for favors.

What do we want to hear from them? The answers to the universe. What is love. What is our future. Animals are God’s creatures that have not fallen from grace. Certainly they have wisdom outside of our own.

Alas, talking animal stories are the creations of storytellers, who have no more insight than the human mind will allow. They can make these animals open their mouth and have words come out, but the words will be about us. We are, after all, only human.

Your thoughts?

  1. White snake is hard to come by. I haven’t found it in Wegmans. If you are interested in overhearing the chatter of birds, this recipe from Iceland might be helpful.

“Take the tongue of a hawk and put it in honey for two days and three nights; place it then under your own tongue and you will understand the language of birds. It must not however be carried elsewhere than under the tongue for the hawk is a poisonous bird.” I cannot, however, recommend the above, not having personally tried it.




7 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb. 2011 The White Snake – Part One

  1. Anonymous says:

    The wagging finger
    That finger wags at me, too, when I change a fairy tale, yet I do it from time to time when something is so deep a part of a culture that it will terribly distract my modern listeners. One example is at the end of “Mr. Fox” when Lady Mary’s seven brothers step out from behind the curtains to save her. I want her to take a role in her own rescue/revenge, so I have her plunge the knife into Mr. Fox’s black heart herself BEFORE her brothers come out to whack him to bits (a solution from a fellow named “Mad Alan”). The story must be told, but it must also be HEARD by the audience you have in front of you, so if one small cultural element distracts from the transformational power of the tale, you’ve got to do something about it or risk your standing as a storyteller.
    Still, the finger wags!
    I think your having the horse give the direction to kill with the mysterious assurance of no regrets is brilliant! Reminiscent of Ivan’s encounter with the message on the stone at the fork in the road: “If you turn to the left, you will die; if you turn to the right, your horse will die.” Is that a choice??? The horse’s perspective might help!–Mary Grace

    • Re: The wagging finger
      Kind of happy to hear I am not the only one struggling with this issue. (I didn’t think I was.)The solution, for good or ill, is a mixture of judgement and art on our part.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Stories that need telling
    I tell this story as well and find that there are too many stories that are missed by fear of offending someone’s tender heart. This is story has so much to offer, it looks at dedication, perseverance and selflessness. All qualities that we seem to lack into todays society. It is a hard tale with ugliness inside which gives us a glimmer of hope. I am also guilty of tweaking a story to make it appropriate for today’s audiences…but honestly storytellers have been doing that since the beginning of time.

  3. A listener’s thoughts
    I finally broke down and got an account so I could comment. I’m an expert by no means but as I read your post and the comments I was wondering:
    Would it be an acceptable update to change the ravens into a modern equivalent symbol? I can’t think of one myself because I’m not familiar with the story or that symbol, but is there a modern symbol that would be worthy of killing one’s horse for? it would be a more drastic change story-wise but could keep the original intent.

    • Re: A listener’s thoughts
      These tales are often updated for humorous purposes, as with ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’, or to change the point of view, say “Three Little Pigs” from the wolf’s perspective.
      What you suggest is something different. Putting a modern day protagonist into the “The White Snake” hero’s role. What would be the equivalent of our fairy tale hero killing his horse to save and honor sacred beings in today’s terms?
      I am at a loss. Perhaps it is my lack of imagination, but I can not come up with a parallel. We do not expect to physically encounter the sacred. More likely, we don’t recognize the sacred when we encounter it. We are scared of the sacred (notice the anagram, but I think that is accidental). Sacred is a cerebral concept for us, not a physical entity. We do not know how to act in its presence, much less what to offer it.
      Of worship we are capable. We choose the time, place, and manner in which we wish to worship. We also choose what we worship (God, rock stars, sports heroes). The sacred is not our choice. We hesitate to deal with it.

      • Re: A listener’s thoughts
        That is so sad. It’s true, though, that we are getting farther and farther away from understanding God as a being who exists separate from us. Even your examples of worshiping rock stars and sports heros are just a version of self worship -which is probably the only substitute that would work. Modern listeners would probably be fine with a hero eating his horse to save himself because if there is no deity to seek commune with and all humans are patently not worth it, the only thing left to worship *is* the self. Yech, that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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