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Story time with the Brothers Grimm… Part One

The tales gathered by the Grimm brothers are at once familiar, fantastic, homely, and frightening. They seem to belong to no time, or to some distant feudal age of fairytale imagining. Grand palaces, humble cottages, and the forest full of menace are their settings; and they are peopled by kings and princesses, witches and robbers, millers and golden birds, stepmothers and talking frogs. Regarded from their inception both as uncosy nursery stories and as raw material for the folklorist the tales were in fact compositions, collected from literate tellers and shaped into a distinctive kind of literature. We’ve picked one of our favourite stories from the Oxford World’s Classics edition for your delectation: The Water of Life, Read on for part one, and come back for the final twist in the tale tomorrow!

The Water of Life


There was once a king who lay sick, and no one believed he would survive. Now he had three sons who were much distressed by this, and they went down into the palace garden and wept. There they were met by an old man, who asked them why they were grieving. They told him their father was so sick that he was likely to die, for there was nothing that would help him. Then the old man told them: ‘I know of one more remedy, the Water of Life; if he drinks of it he will recover; but it is hard to find.’ The eldest said: ‘I will find it, that’s for sure,’ and he went to the sick king and begged for his permission to go out in search of the Water of Life, for that alone could cure him. ‘No,’ said the king, ‘the danger is too great. I would sooner die.’ But his son begged for so long that the king gave his consent. In his heart the prince was thinking: ‘If I can bring him the water, I shall be my father’s dearest son, and I shall inherit the kingdom.’

So he set out, and after he had been riding for some time, there in his path stood a dwarf, who called to him, saying: ‘Where are you off to so fast?’ ‘Foolish little fellow,’ said the prince, very proud, ‘you don’t need to know,’ and he rode on. But the little manikin had become angry, and wished him ill fortune. Soon afterwards the prince found himself in a mountain glen, and the further he rode the closer the mountains drew together, until at last the path became so narrow that he could go no further; it was impossible to turn his horse round or dismount from the saddle, and he sat there as if he were imprisoned. The sick king waited long for him, but he did not come. So the second son said: ‘Father, let me go out in search of the Water of Life,’ thinking to himself: ‘If my brother is dead, the kingdom will fall to me.’ At first the king did not want to let him go either, but at last he gave in. So the prince rode off along the same path his brother had taken, and he too encountered the dwarf, who stopped him and asked where he was bound for in such haste. ‘Little fellow,’ said the prince, ‘you don’t need to know,’ and without a backward glance he rode on. But the dwarf put a curse on him, and like his brother he found himself in a mountain glen, unable to move forwards or back. That’s what happens to the proud.

Das Wasser des Lebens. (The water of life.), 1912. Source: NYPL.
When the second son stayed away too, the youngest pleaded that he might go out and fetch the water, and at last the king had to let him go. When he met the dwarf, and the dwarf asked him where hewas bound for in such haste, he stopped and answered his question, explaining: ‘I’m in search of the Water of Life, for my father is sick unto death.’ ‘And do you know where it is to be found?’ ‘No,’ said the prince. ‘Because your manners are gentle, not arrogant like your false brothers, I will pass on my knowledge and tell you the way you must take to reach the Water of Life. It springs from a fountain in the courtyard of a castle that lies under a spell. But you will not be able to enter it unless I give you an iron rod and two little loaves of bread. Strike three times with the rod on the iron gate to the castle and it will fall open. Inside there are two lions who will open their jaws wide, but if you throw a loaf of bread into their mouths they will lie still. Then hurry and help yourself to the Water of Life before it strikes twelve, or else the gate will slam shut again, and you will be locked in.’ The prince thanked him, took the rod and the bread, and set off. And when he arrived everything was as the dwarf had said. The gate fell open at the third blow from the rod, and after he had quieted the lions with the bread he went into the castle and entered a fine great hall; princes were seated there bound by the spell, and from their fingers he took their rings. A sword was lying there and a loaf of bread, and these he took away with him. He went further and reached a room where a beautiful maiden was standing, who was overjoyed when she saw him. She kissed him and told him that he had released her from the spell and should have her entire realm. And if he came back in a year’s time, their wedding would be held. She also told him where the fountain with the Water of Life was to be found––but he would have to hurry to help himself to the water before it struck twelve. So he went on and came at last to a room in which a fine, freshly made bed was standing, and because he was tired he wanted to rest a little first. So he lay down and fell asleep. When he woke it was striking a quarter to twelve. At that he leapt up in alarm, ran to the fountain, and drew water from it with a goblet standing nearby. Then he hastened to get away. Just as he was leaving by the iron gate, it struck twelve, and the gate slammed shut so hard that it took off a piece of his heel.

But he was happy to have obtained the Water of Life. He rode homewards, and once again passed the dwarf on his way. When the dwarf saw the sword and the bread he said: ‘You’ve gained a great possession in these: with the sword you can defeat a whole army, and as for the bread, it will never run out.’ The prince did not want to go home to his father without his brothers, so he said: ‘Dear dwarf, can you tell me where my two brothers are? They set off in search of the Water of Life earlier than I did and they have never returned.’ ‘They are stuck, confined between two mountains,’ said the dwarf. ‘I sent them there with my spells, because they were so arrogant.’ Then the prince pleaded and pleaded until the dwarf set them free once again, but he warned him, saying: ‘Beware of them; they have wicked hearts.’

When his brothers arrived he was overjoyed, and he told them what had happened to him: how he had found the Water of Life and brought back a goblet of it with him, and how he had released a beautiful princess from a spell, who was going to wait for him for a year and then their wedding was to be held and he was to rule over a great realm. After that they rode on together and came upon a land where famine and war reigned; its king already believed he would be ruined, so great was the distress. So the prince went to him and gave him the loaf of bread; with this the king was able to feed his entire realm to the full; the prince also gave him the sword, and with this the king smote his enemies’ armies and from then on was able to live in peace, undisturbed. After that the prince took back his loaf of bread and his sword, and the three brothers rode on. Then they reached two more countries where famine and war reigned, and each time the prince gave their kings his loaf of bread and his sword, so that by now he had rescued three kingdoms. And after that they boarded a ship and journeyed over the seas. On the crossing the two elder brothers spoke together in secret: ‘It was the youngest who found the Water of Life, not we; in return the king will give him the kingdom that is our due, and rob us of our good fortune.’ They grew vengeful, and agreed between themselves that they would destroy him. They waited until he was fast asleep one evening, when they poured the Water of Life out of his goblet and kept it for themselves. Into the goblet itself they poured bitter sea-water.

…to be continued…

This excerpt is taken from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Selected Tales, with a new translation by Joyce Crick. As well as some seventy-nine tales, including all the well-known fairy tales, the edition also prints earlier versions of some of the famous stories, and stories that were removed after the first edition, to show the stylistic evolution of the stories in their retelling by the Grimms. It is part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.

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