Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through
The Three Snake Leaves
o say this tale is troubling does it no justice. To say it is marvellous or that it is hideous, that it is moving or that it is annoying, serves it just as poorly.
This is a tale that haunts and lingers, both for its weirdness and its wonder. It annoys for its triviality and Bowdlerization. This tale, in other words, embodies the best and the words of the Brothers Grimm.
Which hardly does it justice.
This tale is filled with potent ideas and images. The title alone is evocative, suggesting hidden magic and ancient medicine, weird ritual and unknown power. There is a backcloth of the truly hideous to this tale, of forgotten rites and ordeals, of magic with consequences unremembered.
It is the story of a youth who gains favour with the king. The Grimms, in the prosaic way, give him a common road of upward mobility for the bourgeois capitalists of their day: the son of poor parents distinguishes himself in the wars, and earns promotion of suitable level. The battle scene that begins this tale is terribly sentimental and gauche. Even a Malory-like chivalry would fit the tale better; better still would be the grim feats of Beowulf and the mighty deeds of Tuor and Turin.
The youth marries the king’s daughter. She is, the Grimms admit, “very strange.” Wisely, they do not give us the categorical comfort of saying that she was a witch, or that her mother was a witch. This omission is one of the satisfying touches that gives a truly weird feel to the tale.
They spend some time in their telling trying to account for an unaccountable custom, and again the tale lags—until the custom is carried out. The princess takes ill and dies. The youth is entombed with her, alive.
He is faced with the plight of Sinbad, but doesn’t have to rely on his wits. There are older, more unexplainable things in this tomb. He kills a crawling serpent, then a second, and a third appears carrying three leaves. The third uses the leaves to revivify its fellows. The youth takes the leaves and uses it to revivify his wife.
All is not happy endings. The Grimms are distinctly discomfited when they have to admit, that, while on a cruise, she develops “a wicked inclination for the skipper.” She and her lover kill her husband, and throw him into the sea.
The damsel has been brought back to life. But it has made her into a monster.
His faithful servant, however, takes the three leaves and revives him. An a troubling scene, the murdered husband accuses his wife of murdering him. When she begs for mercy, her father the king replies, “There is no mercy.” She is killed, the way most plucky and sexually active females are killed in Grimm.
What became of the husband?
There the story ends, but there, I think, it really begins.
The three leave possess a strange magic. They restore life, but it is a different kind of life than the life lived before. In their notes, the Grimms with unusual clarity suggest that those revivified have no memory of their former lives. The princess did not know the youth was her husband.
Yet clearly the snake-leaves make her passionate and cruel, to the point of murder. She has, as I said, been made a monster. The husband, likewise revived, seems to forget the great love he professed earlier in the tale, and pursues his wife with single-minded, cruel vengeance.
And what became of the snake leaves? What hold did they have on their possessors? Would the servant die next? Did the husband kill him?
What became of the husband? For, if I read the signs aright, he, too, has been made a monster.