The Gist: When a young prince sees a portrait of the most beautiful woman in the land he sets out with his most loyal servant, Faithful Johannes, to win her as his bride. On the return trip three ravens tell Johannes of three deadly fates that await the couple upon their return. Johannes can save the young king and queen, but if he
tells anyone what he is doing, he will be turned to stone.
“Faithful Johannes” is a tale of loyalty. Johannes’ fealty is put to the test as it comes down to whether he will save his own life or his King’s. Johannes sacrifices himself to save the King, and it isn’t hard to see that this story promotes faithfulness to one’s king and a people’s faithfulness to their country. But what is perhaps most interesting is that the King then has the opportunity to save Johannes but sacrificing what he loves most, his sons. This part of the tale is reminiscent of the Biblical story where Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac. This ending is interesting because it shows that not only is fealty expected, but also that it will be rewarded. This fairy tale definitely has a political agenda.
I liked this fairy tale because it has many of the motifs that pop up in Grimm stories: the recurrence of the number three, the dangers of curiosity, and as Pullman notes, “the dreadful fate of poor Johannes and the appalling dilemma faced by the king” (38). However, there were two instances with disturbing sexual implications. The first time, the prince kidnaps the princess and tells her he deceived her only because he loves her so much. Princess, that isn’t a line to swoon over! It’s a sign you’re in an abusive relationship. Demand to be taken home! Second, Faithful Johannes is required to suck three drops of blood out of the princess’ breast to save her life. Pullman’s translation even specifies that Johannes needs to bite her to draw the blood. Wait, I’m not done! Johannes then carries her to the royal bedchamber and lays her down on the bed to draw the blood. If that scene doesn’t scream rape, I’m a monkey’s uncle.
What is your impression of this tale? Share your thoughts in comments.
For more information about this feature, check out the main page for “A Grimm Year”.
- The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 3rd Edition translated by Jack Zipes (Bantam, 2003)
- Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman (Viking)