Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2014 The Three Snake Leaves – Part One

Three Snake Leaves FordH. J. Ford


“What? Is that it?” Thalia is incredulous and indignant.

“Yes, I am afraid so.”

“I don’t like that story.” Thalia stalks off to bed with Teddy dragging behind.

I do like the story, but I shouldn’t expect a tale of infidelity to be a kid’s thing. What disturbs her is The Three Snake Leaves.

A poor, young soldier, through dint of senseless bravery, becomes the king’s favorite. More emotional than cautious, he falls in love with the king’s daughter.

The field for his pursuit is clear, given the princess’s declaration that she will marry no man who won’t agree to follow her to the grave, no matter when her death may occur, and she vows to do the same for her beloved.

He, she, and the king agree to the bargain, and the marriage soon follows. Her untimely death is not far behind.

Sitting in the crypt with his wife’s corpse, he stares at the four loaves of bread, four bottles of wine, and four candles provided to him. These he rations, but death slowly approaches.

As he sits, waiting for his demise, a snake slithers into the tomb, moving toward the body of his love. He leaps up, sword in hand, cutting the snake into pieces. Presently, another snake appears, departs, and returns with leaves in its mouth. These it places on the body of its companion, which wiggles out from under the leaves, and they slither away together.

The youth takes the leaves and puts them on the eyes and mouth of his wife, and she begins to breathe.

Returned to life, his wife unaccountably loses her love for her husband. On a sea voyage, she develops a passion for the ship’s captain. Together, they throw her husband overboard to his death.

His faithful servant lowers a small boat, retrieves his master’s body, and restores him to life with the snake leaves. Together they row for home, returning before the faithless wife.

The king gives his daughter enough time to incriminate herself, then sends her off with her captain-lover, in a boat bored with holes, to sink beneath the waves.

No surprise that Thalia is not enamored of this story, but not all stories collected by the Grimms were told for a youthful audience. The tales were as often told among women for women. This one, I will guess, was told as a cautionary tale.

Not for the first time, I sense a feminine mind behind a story, challenging my masculine outlook. The hero of this tale is not in charge of his fate. First, he throws himself at the feet of valor. Soon, through passion, he places himself at the behest of his wife’s will. He triumphs, through luck, only to be murdered at the hand of the one he saved, then saved himself by a servant. In the end, the king, not our hero, decides everyone’s fate.

Had the story reversed the role of the sexes, had a heroine agreed to her husband’s demand to follow him to the grave, had she saved him only to have him be ungrateful and pursue another woman, we would nod our heads, identifying a familiar theme.

With The Three Snake Leaves I am a little stunned at the princess’s boldness, and ultimately, the passive nature of the hero.

Plus, where have I heard this tale before? I think a conversation with Augustus is in order.

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2014 The Three Snake Leaves – Part Two

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Arion_on_a_Sea_Horse_(1855)William Adolphe Bouguereau


I stand at the door of Augustus’ shop, my hand on the latch, but my eyes on the sign that reads, “Closed. On Vacation.” My fingers, disbelieving, try the lock anyway. He goes on vacation this time every year and every year at this time I forget.

Deflated, I linger on the sidewalk. Across the street, in bold lettering on a plate-glass window I see, “Serious Books, New and Used, Melissa Serious, Proprietor.”

I have purpose again. As i enter the shop, a young red-haired woman, sitting behind the counter, gives me a pleasant nod and returns to her reading. I browse, noting the rather strange arrangement. The new books are not up front and the old in back, but are intermixed by subject. Simple handwritten signs list the subject headings: Literature (by far the largest section), Philosophy, Science, Religion, etcetera, but no signs for Romance, Mystery, or Self-help.

“No Self-help?” I query aloud from the back of the store.

“I don’t cater to the helpless,” she calls back, not looking up.

I come to the counter, “And no Romance. I’ll take it you’re not romantic.”

“Oh, I can be very romantic, as long as the subject is nineteenth-century Romantics.

“Excellent,” I say. “Have you Margaret Hunt’s translation of Grimm with the notes?”

“Oh, hard to come by. I can do a search. I am tenacious and can locate most titles within a month.”

“Good. Please do so.”

“That work is also available through Internet Archive,” she suggests.

“My dear, you’re not going to sell books by referring customers to the web.”

She fixes me with her green eyes. “You are the sort who wants a book in hand.”

She has me pegged.

As she takes my information for the book search, I notice she is reading a Penguin edition of Herodotus’ The Histories. The page is propped open with a glass paperweight to the section on the musician Arion. That’s where I heard the story before.

Melissa notices my wonderment.

“I am standing here,” I explain, pointing to her book, “realizing the story of Arion is the last half of The Three Snake Leaves.”

“Oh?” She picks up her book and reads aloud. Her contralto voice transports me. In this tale, Arion, a  musician at the court of King Periander, the ancient Greek tyrant ruler of Corinth, is robbed by the sailors on the ship that is carrying him home. He is given the choice of burial at sea or burial on land. Stalling, he offers them a song. The music attracts a dolphin, which, when Arion casts himself into the sea, carries him off. The sailors believe Arion has drowned. Arion returns to Corinth before the sailors appear, and King Periander lets the sailors falsely declare they buried Arion, revealing their deceit.

Melissa then goes to her Literature section and returns with Jack Zipes’ translation of Grimm.

“You don’t have a Children’s section, either,” I comment.

“I have plenty of children’s books, they are all under Literature.” She reads aloud The Three Snake Leaves much to my enjoyment.

“Yes,” she contemplates when she finishes reading. “The difference is the role of a woman—and not a woman to serve as a role model I must add—which put a different light on the moral. Instead of dealing with dishonesty, we witness unfaithfulness.

“Nonetheless, I feel sympathy for her. The woman she is at the start of the story is not the woman she is by the end. The princess suffers a loss of morals in her resurrection, assuring her return to death’s grip.”

I remain quiet as Melissa thinks, her hand to her chin.

“The hero,” she continues, “also is brought back to life by the snake leaves, but we hear nothing of a change in him. Nor do we hear a word from, nor do we really see, the captain.

“No, this story is not about the protagonist, the young man, it is about her.”

“Then, it is a woman’s story,” I conclude.

Melissa’s green eyes flicker. “Yes, yes it is.”


Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2014 The Three Snake Leaves – Part Three

Rod_of_Asclepius2Rod of Asclepius


I can see the light of the moon washing over the enchanted forest through the bay windows of my study, prompting me to engage in an evening of late night-researching.

The two snakes in The Three Snake Leaves bring to mind the caduceus, the staff entwined with two snakes, carried by Hermes. Commentators state that the wand could wake the sleeping and put the awakened to sleep. Placed round the dying, death would be gentle; around the dead, the wand would return them to life. But the same commentators warn that the caduceus is confused with the Rod of Asclepius, which is one snake curled around a staff, the emblem of the Greek god Asclepius, the deity associated with healing and medicine. These two items make a suggestive muddle.

I follow Melissa’s suggestion and go online to find Margaret Hunt’s translation of the Grimms’ notes, although I look forward to having the Hunt translation on my shelf.

The notes mention two German sources from which the Grimms drew the tale, but speak more about its possible Greek origin, the story of Polyeidos and Glaucus. The seer Polyeidos (from Cornith just like Arion interestingly enough) is commanded by King Minos of Crete to return the youthful prince Glaucus to life. The young Glaucus has been found dead by Polyeidos, under extremely strange circumstances, in a barrel of honey down in the King’s wine cellar.

Minos imprisons the seer with the body of his son in the wine cellar until the seer can conduct a miracle. A snake crawls into the cellar and Polyeidos kills it. The companion snake appears, disappears, and returns with an herb to restore the deceased snake. Polyeidos uses the herb to restore the child.

The notes go on to cite the Norse saga of Asmund and Aswit, in which two friends swear to be as brothers and to follow each other to the grave. Aswit takes ill, dies, and Asmund holds to his promise, but takes provisions with him into the tomb.

What the Grimms don’t mention is that Asmund ends up wrestling with Aswit’s vampire-like ghost every night until Swedish grave robbers inadvertently release him. I find this not unlike the princess’s turn of nature after her passing through death, to become something of a monster.

I light my pipe and turn my comfy chair to look out the bay window at the forest, ghostly illuminated in moonbeams. What is this process of cobbling together pieces of other myths and legends, to come up with a story recreated by its teller?

Or, am I trying to give authorship to fairy tales? Likely there is no one author. Maybe these stories are not assembled by one teller, but rather are an accretion, added to by many tellers. That makes them the creation of a group mind. What do these tales then say about us? Have we created them in our own image?

This story, The Three Snake Leaves, draws from the stories of Arion, Polyeidos and Glaucus, Asmund and Aswit, or perhaps the variants they generated—sources in which the feminine aspect is missing. But in this tale, the princess’s will pushes the story forward. I can hear the mind of a single soul, lost somewhere in time, imbuing the plot with angst, a personal fear, projecting it forward, into my present. There is a She speaking to me.

Your thoughts?

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