There are obscure fairy tales, and then there are obscure fairy tales. Until I started this review, even I didn’t know what this one was about, despite it being part of the Grimm collection.
Leaving home in order to earn his own way in the world, a young man joins the army and acquits himself so impressively on the battlefield that the king thanks him personally, rewards him financially, and gives him an important position at court. This unexpected reversal of fortunes brings the young soldier into the sphere of the king’s daughter, a woman who takes romantic ideals very, very seriously. Her condition for marriage is that whoever becomes her husband must vow that should she die, he will allow himself to be buried alive with her. Don’t worry, it’s an equal opportunity suicide pact: she’s prepared to do the same should her husband die first.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has not yet found a suitor who feels comfortable with that arrangement, but the soldier is besotted and asks for her hand anyway. For a while all goes well, but then the princess falls sick and the reality of the situation hits home. When she dies, the king has his son-in-law taken down to the vault with her body and left there to join her in death. Though he loved the princess, the soldier is seriously regretting that promise.
Still, when he sees a snake slip through a crack in the vault and approach his wife’s corpse, he reacts furiously, determined to protect her memory. He slashes the snake into pieces. Shortly afterwards, a second snake emerges from the same hole, sees the body of its predecessor, and disappears – only to return with three leaves in its mouth. When it lays the leaves on the dead snake, it comes alive and together they vanish the way they came. The leaves remain.
Don’t look a gift snake in the mouth! The soldier snatches up the leaves and tries them on his wife. Sure enough, she wakes up, entirely alive. Between them they make such a racket that the guards outside hear and the king is called down to see what’s going on. The vault is of course unsealed, the royal couple are released, and everything seems perfect once more. As a precaution against further mischance, though, the soldier gives the leaves to a loyal servant for safekeeping.
And it’s a good thing he does, because there’s a price to be paid for bringing back the dead. His wife is alive, certainly, but she’s not the woman she used to be, and she has no love for the man who revived her. When the two of them set off on a sea voyage back to the soldier’s own country to see his father, she plots with the captain of the ship and throws her husband overboard. The ship is turned for home, leaving him behind to die.
But her love isn’t the only thing she’s forgotten. The servant, who saw it all, lets loose a small boat, collects his master’s body and revives him with the leaves. They then row at ferocious speed back to the palace, to tell the king all that’s happened. He doesn’t want to believe it could be true. When his daughter’s ship returns to harbour, he has the soldier and the servant hide in an antechamber while he receives her and asks why she has returned so soon. She fakes grief, telling him that her husband took ill and died on the voyage – unwittingly proving the servant’s claims. The king, who has already shown he’ll execute people he cares about for the sake of principle, has his daughter and the captain sent out to sea in a ship full of holes and drowned.
Not having read this fairy tale was, as it turns out, no great loss. If it seems familiar, that may be because a story from the Sinbad cycle has the same stricture about mutual marital suicide. The princess is given ridiculous treatment by the narrative, the ending is a total downer, and the only ones who come off really well are the devoted, resurrectionist snakes. Give me a story about them.