The Gist: A young man falls in love with the King’s daughter, but she will only marry a man who agrees, if she should die first, to be buried alive with her, and vice versa. The man agrees. When his wife dies, he upholds his bargain, but a chance encounter with some snakes leaves him with magical leaves that bring the wife back to life.
So this tale reeeally doesn’t make women look good. First, the princess demands that her husband dies with her to prove his love. Second, when he does this without question AND manages to bring her back to life she kills her husband and runs off with a ship’s captain! Uh… what?!
Poor image of women aside, this is very much a story about loyalty—to your king/country, to your master, to your spouse—and the dangers of what happens if you are not. Basically, loyalty=rewards; disloyalty=death.
This was the first Grimm tale I’ve read that included guns (the story starts with the young man fighting in a war where the air is filled with bullets). The other stories use arrows or swords, which suggests to me that this tale is newer than a lot of the others.
Pullman makes the story a bit more mature by making the wife more lustful and including a strangling. These details weren’t necessary but they do add to the wife’s character and make her actions even more despicable.
“The Three Snake Leaves” was a very intriguing tale, and one that I would definitely read again. I was surprised by the ending though. When the couple vows that should one of them die the other will be buried alive, I assumed that when the wife killed her husband she would then have to be buried with him. I thought it would be poetic if the kingdom didn’t find out about her crime or the husband’s survival until after they had dropped her in the sea. That didn’t happen, which was a bit of a let down.
Side note: Some of my favourite episodes from some of my favourite shows deal with getting buried alive: Alias, Bones, Lost… I wonder what that says about me…
Side note #2: The fear of being buried alive is ‘taphephobia.’ Clearly, the hero of this tale doesn’t have such a fear.
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)