Thalia’s evening readings to Johannes, the fairy, the brownies, and myself are often the highlight of my day, especially on cold, damp, wintery days when I don’t venture outdoors.
This evening I can hear the wind blowing through the trees of the Magic Forest, which all but lulls me to sleep. Thalia’s contralto takes me down the fairy-tale path into the story of The Snake Prince as my eyes rest on the embers of the hearth.
A desperately poor old woman determines she can no longer support herself and decides to take a final bath in the river and bring back water to prepare her last meal. After bathing, she finds, curled up in her water pot, a deadly snake. She covers the pot and carries it back to her home intending to let the serpent bite and end her troubles.
Kneeling on her hearth, she overturns the pot, and out falls a necklace of engaging beauty. With this turn of fortune, she tucks the necklace into the folds of her veil and goes off to show it to her king, who offers her five hundred silvers for it. The king gives the marvelous necklace to his queen, and they lock it in her jewelry chest. When next they open the chest the necklace is gone. In its place is a baby boy. Until then childless, the couple considers the child a gift granted to them.
The king, recognizing the connection between the old woman and the child, asks her to be the child’s nurse. The old woman comes to love the child as her own and is a faithful servant to the king. However, she lets slip hints of the child’s miraculous birth and rumors spring up.
When it came time for the young prince to marry the princess for which his parents had arranged, the bride’s mother, having heard the rumors, instructs her daughter not to speak to her new husband. Eventually, she tells the bride, he will insist on knowing why. Then she must say, “Tell me the secret of your birth.”
All comes to pass as the queen predicted, but the prince refuses to explain, saying the princess will regret it if he does.
The unhappy couple continues in this manner for months until the prince relents. At midnight, he takes the princess to the river where the old woman found the serpent. He tells her that he is a prince from a far-away country who was turned into a snake. As he utters the word “snake,” he returns to his serpent form and swims away.
The princess has her father build her a house by the river, where she waits for her husband’s return. One morning, after five years, she sees a muddy stain on her bedroom carpet. She asks the guards and servants to explain but none have answers. After the stain appears a second time, the princess cuts her finger, rubbing salt into the wound to keep her awake.
Her husband appears in his snake form, telling her that on a certain night to place four large pots of milk and sugar in the four corners of her bedroom. All the snakes in the river will rise up, but she must block the doorway and demand from the Queen of Snakes that she return her husband. This she does, and the Queen of Snakes promises he will return the next night. He returns in his human form, and they travel back to her father’s castle to much celebration. When the snake prince’s child is born, the old woman becomes his nurse.
An ember in the hearth crackles, and I come out of my story reverie.
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part Two
I notice Thalia read from Andrew Lang’s The Olive Fairy Book. “What country is that from?” I ask.
“India.” Thalia pages to the book’s preface. “Ahh, yeah, collected by Major Campbell.” She snaps the book closed, setting it on the table as the fairy flitters up from her shoulder.
“That explains the veil, bathing in the river, and arranged marriage. What drew you to the story?”
“I think . . . ” she casts her eyes about. “Yeah, the thing with the snake and the necklace, that was so out there I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think I know another story with a snake turning into jewelry or even a ring or anything like that.”
I rack my thoughts. “A living thing turning into an inanimate object would be the category. The only motif that comes to mind is that of witches turning people and animals to stone.”
“Not the same thing,” she frowns. “Then the necklace turns into a boy in a box!” She giggles at her alliteration.
“And,” I note, “the snake/necklace/boy is the one doing the transformations. It’s not coming from the outside.”
“Yeah, no witches.” Then Talia scowls. “There is the Queen of Snakes. Oh, I love that part.”
She snatches up the book again and reads.
“At midnight there was a great hissing and rustling from the direction of the river, and presently the ground appeared to be alive with horrible writhing forms of snakes, whose eyes glittered and forked tongues quivered as they moved on in the direction of the princess’s house. Foremost among them was a huge, repulsive scaly creature that led the dreadful procession. The guards were so terrified that they all ran away; but the princess stood in the doorway, as white as death, and with her hands clasped tight together for fear she should scream or faint, and fail to do her part. As they came closer and saw her in the way, all the snakes raised their horrid heads and swayed them to and fro, and looked at her with wicked beady eyes, while their breath seemed to poison the very air. Still, the princess stood firm, and, when the leading snake was within a few feet of her, she cried: ‘Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband’ Then all the rustling, writhing crowd of snakes seemed to whisper to one another ‘Her husband her husband’ But the Queen of Snakes moved on until her head was almost in the princess’s face, and her little eyes seemed to flash fire. And still, the princess stood in the doorway and never moved, but cried again: ‘Oh, Queen of Snakes, Queen of Snakes, give me back my husband’ Then the Queen of Snakes replied: ‘Tomorrow you shall have him—tomorrow!”
Thalia set the book down again. “That is so cool.”
I’m still in analysis mode, thinking out loud. “The prince was able to turn himself back into human form through a series of transformations until he was forced to tell the truth to the princess. Then he lost his ability to control his fate and it passed—or perhaps returned—to the Queen of Snake.”
“Yeah, his saying ‘snake’ turned him into a snake. That was cool too.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2022 The Snake Prince – Part Three
I worry a bit about tales from foreign lands. How much have they suffered in translation? I am using the word “translation” loosely.
After the eclectic evening crowd wanders off to their preferred spots, I take out my laptop, hidden in a drawer, to do some research on The Snake Prince. I find Major Campbell collected tales from native tellers in Feroshepore in the province of Punjab.
That appears to be all there is to know about the origins of this tale. The Major’s full name is not available to me. Neither when the tales were collected, nor where these collected tales now reside. I will guess they are unpublished manuscripts, hopefully collecting dust in an archive and not burnt up in some unfortunate fire.
I discover someone named Andrew Campbell who collected tales in Santal, appropriately called Santal Folk Tales. Santal is in the north of India, Punjab in the east. Andrew was a Scottish missionary and not a major. Perusing the titles in Santal Folk Tales does not bring up The Snake Prince or anything close. However, I will point this collection out to Thalia, so my research is not in vain.
Looking through the titles in Joseph Jacobs’ Indian Fairy Tales does not point to a version of my tale either. Andrew Lang’s version of this story is all that I have, and he confessed that the tales he presents are bowdlerized on purpose, as they were intended for children.
Actually, there is another layer. The colored fairy books were really edited by Andrew’s wife, Leonora Blanche Lang, apparently called Nora for short. She and her team of other women writers managed the series. This is to say, there were a number of hands through which the tales could be filtered.
In the course of my readings, I have come across the term “fakelore” in reference to one culture trying to tell the folk tales of another culture. How can a collector from England appreciate the subtle meanings of a native speaker in Punjab. Following that, the story is then tailored for a specific audience.
Imagine if you will, extraterrestrials come down to earth and collect the stories of the teachings of Jesus until they come to the crucifixion and say, “That is a bit too graphic for our children,” and edit it out.
The Snake Prince, being collected in Feroshepore, might come out of Sikh or Hindu tradition, with Buddhist, Jainist, or Muslim influence not beyond possibility.
Nonetheless, the story provides images and conditions not usually seen in Western tales, such as the old woman’s veil (probably what is called a ghoonghat), her bathing in the river, the arranged marriage, and even the multitude of snakes. Despite our familiarity with the serpent in the garden of Eden, snakes seldom appear in Western European fairy tales and have only small roles to play. From Eastern Europe on, such as The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars and The Gold-Giving Serpent, snakes are given larger roles.
My laptop dims and gives me the message “low battery.” I guess I’ll end my inquiry here.