The White Snake

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The White Snake
The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (1916) (14596023960).jpg
1916 illustration by Arthur Rackham
Folk tale
NameThe White Snake
Aarne-Thompson groupingATU 673
Published inGrimm's Fairy Tales

The White Snake (German: Die weiße Schlange) is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in Grimm's Fairy Tales (KHM 17). It is of Aarne–Thompson type 673, and includes an episode of type 554 ("The Grateful Animals").[1]


A wise King receives a covered dish every evening. A servant is intrigued one night when he retrieves the King's dish and discovers a coiled white snake under the cover. The servant takes a small bite and discovers that he can now understand and communicate with animals.

Shortly afterwards the servant is accused of stealing the Queen's ring. He is given one day to prove his innocence or submit to punishment. After having given up, he sits awaiting his demise when he overhears a goose complaining about a ring stuck in her throat. The servant leaps up, grabs the goose and hurries to the kitchen. When the cook slits the goose's neck and finds the missing gold ring. The King apologizes and offers the servant land and riches. The servant declines accepting only a little gold and a horse on which to see the countryside.

On his journey to a town the servant first encounters a number of animals in distress, including three fish out of water, ants at risk of being trodden upon, and starving raven fledglings in a nest. In each case the servant heeds the call for help, and in each case the grateful animals respond with "I will remember and return the favour".

In the town the King has announced that he wishes to marry off his daughter, but any suitor must agree to complete an arduous task to the end or be put to death. After one glimpse of the beautiful girl, the young man agrees. The King tosses a golden ring into the sea and tells the young man to retrieve it. He also adds that the young man must either bring the ring back, drown to get the ring, or be drowned upon returning without it.

Immediately three fish appear floating, carrying a mussel. In the mussel rests the King's ring. Astonished, the King agrees to the marriage of his daughter to the young man. However, the daughter sets him upon another task of refilling sacks of grain that she has spilled in the grass, because she has figured out he is not a suitor. The young man is discouraged because he believes it impossible to gather all of the grain from the ground and he lies down and falls asleep shortly. When he wakes, he looks over at the sacks that were empty the night before. To his surprise, they are now filled with grain with not one grain missing. The Ant King had all of the ants working the entire night to fill them.

Still not satisfied with the servant, the daughter sends him off on another undertaking to bring her an apple from the Tree of Life. The man did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set off anyway. After he had walked through three kingdoms, he heard the three fledglings say that they had retrieved the Golden Apple for him after flying over the sea to the end of the world where the Tree of Life stood. Extremely thankful, the young man took the Golden Apple to the princess, and split it with her. The two married and lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.


The tale is classified in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index as ATU 673, "The White Serpent's Flesh".[2] The tale is part of a cycle of stories where the character comes to know the language of animals through the help of a serpent - in this case, by eating the flesh of a white serpent.[3] The motiv is well-known in Europe and frequently found in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, in the Baltic countries and occasionally also outside Europe.[4]

An early literary version is provided in the Icelandic Volsunga Saga (late 13th century) that describes how Sigurd slew the dragon Fafnir and learned the language of birds when tasting Fafnir's heart.[5] Similarly, Saxo Grammaticus (Gesta Danorum, V.2.6-V.2.8, 12th c.) describes how Eric acquired eloquence and wisdom by eating the snake-infested stew his step-mother Kraka had prepared for his half-brother Roller.[6][7] Further related medieval tales include the Welsh Hanes Taliesin, and the Irish Salmon of Knowledge.[8]


  • Anne Sexton wrote an adaptation as a poem called "The White Snake" in her collection Transformations (1971), a book in which she re-envisions sixteen of the Grimm's Fairy tales.[9]
  • The King's Servant, a short story in Maud Lindsay's The Story-teller (1915), is "adapted with a free hand" from Grimm's "White Snake."


  1. ^ Ashliman, D. L. (2020). "Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales (Grimms' Fairy Tales)". University of Pittsburgh.
  2. ^ Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. University of California Press. 1977. p. 181. ISBN 0-520-03537-2
  3. ^ Frazer, James G. "The Language of Animals". In: Archaeological Review. Vol. I. No. 3. May, 1888. D. Nutt. 1888. pp. 166 and 175-177.
  4. ^ Ranke, Kurt (2010). Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Suchen-Verführung (in German). Walter de Gruyter. p. 647. ISBN 978-3-11-023767-2.
  5. ^ Raszmann, August (1863). Bd. Die Sage von den Wölsungen und Niflungen in der Edda und Wölsungasaga (in German). C. Rümpler.
  6. ^ Saxo (Grammaticus) (2015). Gesta Danorum. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820523-4.
  7. ^ "Erläuterungen zu den ersten neun Büchern der Dänischen Geschichte des Saxo Grammaticus Teil I Bücher I-V – Wikisource". Retrieved 2020-07-06.
  8. ^ Nagy, Joseph Falaky (1997-01-01). Conversing with Angels and Ancients. Cornell University Press. doi:10.7591/9781501729058. ISBN 978-1-5017-2905-8.
  9. ^ "Transformations by Anne Sexton"

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