This retelling of White Snake from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


A retelling by J. Kearns

An individual comes to learn the language of animals, a gift of discernment which recalls the Volsunga saga in which Sigurd, having killed the dragon Fafnir, drinks of its blood and afterwards understands the language of the birds.

There was once a king who, like King Solomon, was famous for his great wisdom. One thing that kings with great wisdom know how to do is to delegate work to others they trust, and in this way they oversee the accomplishment of a number of great things because they don't have to handle all the details of any one project. Another thing they know, because they are wise, is their own limitations, and so they select others to help them who may have more wisdom in certain areas than they do. For this reason, when King Solomon had decided to build a temple and palace, he hired Hiram of Tyre to do much of the work for him, because Hiram of Tyre was wise in these matters. The king of our tale was much like that, and famed for his wisdom throughout the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of even the most secret things was brought to him through the air.

This king had a very strange custom. Every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, he would have everyone leave the room so that he was all alone. Then, with no one else present, he would have a trusted servant bring him one more dish which was covered so that not even the servant knew what was in it. The king would not even remove the cover from the dish until after this trusted servant left the room. When the king was done, he would call the servant back in and have him remove the dish, which had been covered again.

Sometimes people in whom we place our trust, who seemed deserving, can betray that trust. One day the servant, who for so long had been entrusted by the king with this particular covered dish, was overcome with curiosity as to what was in it, having carried that covered dish to the King daily for so long. After the King had called him to take the dish away, that day the servant carried the covered dish to his room rather than back to the safe where it was kept. Having carefully locked his door so that no one would happen in on him, the servant lifted the cover of the dish. Much to his surprise he saw lying there a white snake. But why was this white snake so prized that the king always dined on it alone?

One who has never tasted snake might wonder why anyone would want to dine on it, but in some cultures snake is eaten and can even be considered a delicacy.

"Just a taste," the servant thought. "I will have just a taste, and then maybe I will understand what is so special about this snake." More frightened than he'd ever been in his life, he cut off a tiny bit of the snake and lifted it to his mouth. He placed the tiny bit of snake on his tongue. Immediately, he heard a strange little whisper. The servant froze. Had he been found out? He trembled, fearing Someone had spied on him and had seen him taste the white snake, the king's prized dish. Or had he only imagined the sound?

His ears sharpened so that every sound was intense to the point of excruciating, the trusted servant held himself still and listened, and in the silence he heard again a symphony of whispers outside his window. The servant felt the whisperings acutely, as if they were even inside his head, moving about. He felt them up his spine. He felt their vibration in his skull. The servant tiptoed over to the window and looked out, but all that he saw was a sparrow on the windowsill, and one in a tree just outside his window. They were chirping back and forth. "It's the birds," the servant realized. "I'm hearing the birds." Eating the snake had given him the power of understanding the language of the birds.

Coincidentally, it so happened that on this very day--the day the trusted servant dared to taste the king's white snake--the queen lost a beautiful ring. The ring which she lost wasn't just any ring. It was her most beautiful ring and not at all ordinary. The reason I say it is a coincidence the ring was lost on the same day the servant secretly stole a bite of the white snake, is because there was suspicion the ring was stolen, and that suspicion fell on the trusty servant even though no one had ever before suspected him of stealing. "But he is allowed to go anywhere," the queen told the king. "He is the only one who was in a position to steal the ring."

The king ordered the servant to be brought before him. He asked him if he had taken the ring, and the servant denied it. "Whether you took the ring or not, unless you can point out the thief before tomorrow, you shall yourself be looked upon as guilty and executed," the king declared and dismissed the servant.

The shaken servant went out to the courtyard to think about what he could do to prove his innocence. However he'd not been given the task of only proving his innocence; he also had to find the thief. The coincidence was not lost to him that he would be accused of thieving on the same day he had stolen a bite of the snake, and he was frightened by this as well. "Certainly," he thought, "this king, who is so wise that he knows everything there is to know, was aware that I intended to find out what was hidden in the covered dish. Surely, he knew before even I did that I would take the dish to my room and find the white snake. Surely, he knew from the moment I tasted the snake that I had done so. This king has been dining on the white serpent a long time and knows everything so he must also know where the queen's ring is. Surely, this king who knows everything is furious with me and has given me this impossible task in order to be rid of me, for he knows I betrayed his trust. I am doomed," the servant thought as he wandered over to stand by a brook where some ducks were sitting together, preening their feathers.

"Oh, my stomach," one duck said to another. "Something lies heavy on my stomach."

"Even these ducks know what I've done," the servant thought. "They are accusing me of taking a bite of the snake. Its not its own stomach this duck is talking about, it's talking about mine."

"What's wrong?" a drake asked the duck who'd complained.

The duck replied, "As I was eating in haste I swallowed a ring which lay under the queen's window."

At once, the servant seized the duck by its neck and carried it to the kitchen. "This duck is to be served at dinner. Kill it at once," the servant commanded the cook.

"She's spared no trouble to fatten herself, has she," the cook laughed, weighing the duck in his hand. "You're right," he agreed. "She's waited to be roasted long enough." So, the cook cut off the duck's head, and while the duck was being dressed for the spit, the queen's ring was found inside her.

The servant took the ring to the king and queen, bringing along the cook who testified that he'd found the queen's ring in the duck.

"It appears I've wronged you," the king said to his servant. "How should I make amends? Would it satisfy you if I gave you permission to ask a favor? You may wish for anything in this court, anything at all."

The servant had proved his innocence, narrowly escaping execution, but felt he had better leave the court anyway. "Besides which," he thought, "now that I know the language of the animals, I feel compelled to go out in the world and see where this knowledge leads me." But what favor should he beg of the King? What should be his wish? It was a rare moment that a person was given leave to ask a King for anything at all.

After a moment's more thought, the servant spoke out loud. He said, "My heart compels me not to test your kind generosity. All I ask for is a horse and money for traveling. I have a desire to go out and see the world."

The servant's wish was granted. He was given a very fine horse, and more than enough money to finance his journey. So it was that he left the household of the king, much as a son or daughter may leave their parents' household when they are old enough and want to go out and see for themselves the wonders this world has to offer. He had been made free to go and do as he pleased.

Some people will say the man should have set out with a plan, an idea of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do, but the servant had no plan. Since he had come to be able to hear this secret language he was astonished every day with the things he learned. It was enough for him to set out on his journey and see where his new skill happened to take him.

One day he was riding along and chanced to see three fishes caught in the reeds at the edge of a marsh. They were out of the water and gasping, for fish must be in water in order to live. And hence comes the joke, "He is like a fish out of water," which means that you are somewhere where you're not used to being, and perhaps shouldn't be, in the way that these fish had been caught in the reeds.

People usually think of fish as being mindless but the man heard the three fish despairing over how they were going to die if they stayed caught in the reeds. The man felt sorry for them and put the three prisoners back into the marsh. The fish leapt about the in delight, then sticking their heads out of the water they said, "Thank you, kind sir, for saving us. We will remember you, and perhaps one day you will need our help and we will be able to repay you. One kind turn deserves another."

The man rode on. After a while, it seemed to him that he heard many tiny little voices crying out from the ground on the path where his horse was walking. The man stopped his horse, got down, and looked carefully at the earth to see to whom the voices belonged. He saw thousands of ants busily clearing sand out of the tunnels in the ant hills where they made their home, for it seemed the horse had stepped on them and caused the little tunnels to cave in. He heard the queen of ants complain, "Why can't people, with their clumsy beasts, look out where they're going? That stupid horse, with his heavy hoofs, has been treading down my people without mercy." The servant got back on his horse and turned him on a side path where there were no ants. The queen of ants said to the servant, "Thank you, kind sir, for listening to my complaint. We will remember you, and perhaps one day you will need our help and we will be able to repay you. One kind turn deserves another."

The The man rode on. The path that he was now on led him into some woods. Hearing angry yells and many helpless cries, he stopped at the tree from which they seemed to be coming. There he saw two old ravens standing by their nest, throwing out their young ones, who fell helplessly, with small, flapping wings, to the ground. "Go on," the adult birds said, "it is time you learned how to fly."But the poor young ravens, shocked by the dismissal from the nest, only lay upon the ground, flapping their wings, crying, "Oh, what helpless chicks we are. We must shift for ourselves now and yet we can't even fly as our wings aren't strong enough yet. What can we do? We fear we will starve or be eaten by a fox or cat."

One must understand that in those days a horse was precious. If you had a horse it was of great value to you, and some treated their horses as if they were as essential as life itself.

The man got off his horse and...well, this is difficult to imagine but storytellers before me say this is exactly what he did, and what he did was he killed with his sword the fine horse given him by the king and gave it to the young ravens for food. Ravens are scavengers and carrion eaters, which means they eat flesh. And these little birds were very hungry. In fact, they were ravenous. Isn't it just like a raven to be ravenous. The little ravens cried out to the servant, "Thank you, kind sir. We will remember you, and perhaps one day you will need our help and we will be able to repay you. One kind turn deserves another."

It seemed that everywhere the former servant of the king went, he was collecting debts that would be repaid in the future. "Though," he thought, "I can't think of how some fishes, ants and ravens could ever help me in return."

The killing of the horse by the man meant hardship for himself. He now had to go on foot. After walking a very long way, he came to a large city. As he entered it he found there a crowd in the streets and a great commotion. Then he saw a man on horseback in the midst of the crowd, and the man proclaimed, "The queen wants a husband. Whoever seeks her hand must perform a hard task, but if he does not succeed he will forfeit his life. Many have made the attempt, but in vain. Who here is foolish or courageous enough to enter the contest for the hand of the queen?"

The man thought about this and decided it may not be simple coincidence he had just entered the city in time to hear this proclamation, and that he might have more good luck than bad if he took part in the contest. So, he went before the queen thinking he might declare himself a suitor, and when her, he fell in love with her immediately and decided there was no danger too great to encounter and subdue in order to become her husband.

As for the queen, she looked at the man and said, "What are you doing here? You are no king, no prince, not even a knight, that much is obvious. Many brave people, far more worthy than you, have entered the contest and lost. You are either very foolish or have an audacious sort of spirit that I might find admirable under other circumstances, but no matter how admirable I would never think of you if not bound by strenuous obligation. However, what do I care if you enter the contest as you will certainly fail, though if you are a person of admirable and audacious spirit, I will be sorry you disdained your life by your gross miscalculation of your abilities."

This city was by the sea. The queen rode with the man a little way out into the bay where the blue-green waters were deep. Then taking out a gold ring, which had a special inscription on it that only she knew, she tossed the ring into the water. "You wish to win my hand in marriage?" she asked. "You must complete three tasks. This is your first. Fetch my ring from the bottom of the sea. Once you enter the water, if you dare emerge from it without this ring, you will be thrown into the sea again and again until you perish amid the waves, those are the terms of the contract."

Without hesitation, the man dove into the water. He swam down into the dark, and Very soon he saw three fishes swimming toward him. They were the three fishes he had freed from the reeds in the marsh. The one in the middle was carrying a mussel in its mouth which he passed along to the man. The man swam back up toward the surface, where the sun glittered on the waters, and was hauled back into the boat by one of the queen's oarsmen.

"Where is the ring? " the queen said. "You don't have it? Throw this man back into the water," she told the oarsman. But as she was speaking the man tok the mussel, cracked it open, and there in the mussel was the ring, which he handed to the queen.

The queen wondered how the former servant had known the ring was in the mussel. She was now a little curious about him, but not at all ready yet to marry a man who was so far beneath her in station. For all she knew, he had succeeded by some trick. The truth is the queen had no plans to marry anyone, but was tired of being harrassed with proposals by individuals she feared wanted to gain control of her kingdom, and so had come up with the idea for this absurd contest. She had read about a Greek heroine named Atalanta, who had also not wanted to marry and, since no faster a runner was known than her, she said she would only marry the man who defeated her in a foot race. A man named Melanion took up her challenge, and as they ran he dropped three golden apples, one by one, to delay her, as she would be so entranced by these golden apples she wouldn't be able to pass them up. Melanion's trick worked and he won the contest. The queen had read the story and decided she would go Atalanta one better. She would have her suitors compete not against her or each other, but against the impossible nature of the tasks themselves. Her fullest intention was to defeat every single suitor in this manner.

"I don't know how you did it," the queen said to the servant, "but you have succeeded at the first task. As it was an impossible task to fulfill, I wonder if some chicanery might have purchased your success. Never mind, there are two tasks yet, and this time we will make certain you don't cheat."

The man was taken into the garden of the queen'spalace. There, strewn about on the grass, were ten sacks-full of millet seed. "Your task," the queen said, "is to gather and replace in the sacks, this millet seed which I have strewn with my own hand. If you have not accomplished this task before sunrise, you will be put to death." Then the queen went into her palace and had a guard lock the man in the garden.

Well, she may as well have told the man he had to plough a hundred fields, sow seed in them, and harvest the crops from that seed in one night, that's how impossible this task was for him to accomplish. But it wasn't impossible for the thousands of ants which suddenly appeared. Directed by the ant-queen, they gathered all night, and when the sun rose its light revealed all ten sacks of millet standing side by side, quite full.

The queen was confounded when she entered the garden and saw the sacks full of millet. "Not one grain is to be missing," she reminded the man, and had each of the sacks weighed on a very sensitive scale. Amazingly, they weighed precisely the same amount as they had before she had emptied them.

"I don't know how you did this," the queen told the man. "I'm positive I've been tricked somehow and that you didn't accomplish this with your own hands. But never mind, you've one last task to do. You shall not be my husband until you have brought me an apple from the tree of life. If you return without an apple from the tree of life, you shall be put to death." The queen thought to herself, "There, I have now defeated this suitor. He will never be able to find an apple from the tree of life." And the queen then thought to herself it was rather sad such an accomplished trickster would die due to his audacity. She had begun to think that this clever man might be good to marry, and might even be her equal. But such was the contract they had made, that he should die if he failed, and such was his pride that he would die as the task was impossible.

Of course, the man did not know where the tree of life stood, but he set out to accomplish the task and would have gone on forever, as long as his legs would carry him, though he had no hope of finding the tree.

After he had wandered through three kingdoms, the man came one evening to some woods, and, exhausted, he lay down under a tree to sleep. "Oh," he thought to himself, "I may as well be dead. The moment I had a bite of the white snake, I might as well have died, for if I had not found out about this impossible language I would not have gone out in the world to seek my fortune, and if I had not gone out in the world to seek my fortune I would never have loved this queen and sealed my doom in seeking to win her."

The man fell asleep, but soon afterward he was woken up by a rustling in the branches above him. He looked up, just as a golden apple fell into his hand, and saw the three ravens he had rescued. The three flew down to him and perched upon his knee. "We are the three ravens whom you saved from starving," they said. "We remembered you when we heard you were searching for the tree of life, and we remembered our promise to repay you. We flew to the very end of the world, where the tree of life stands. The fruit you hold in your hand is from that tree. As it was, you may as well have been dead, for you would never have succeeded in any of your tasks and acquired this treasure without our help. When you return to the queen, you are to cut the apple in half. There you will see a pentacle, the sign of your earthly mother who gave you your life. By this the queen will know this is indeed an apple from the tree of life."

Needless to say, the man was full of joy and set out to return to the queen with the apple.

But when the man stood before the queen and produced the golden apple from his bag, rather than welcoming him the queen said, " This isn't an apple from the tree of life, for to find the tree and bring back an apple from it was a truly impossible task. You have thought to deceive me, but little do you know that the tree of life bears apples which may be known by a sign they harbor at their core."

"I can prove this apple comes from the tree of life," the man said, and he cut the apple open and showed her the pentacle. At that time, only apples from the tree of life had the sign of the pentacle in them. The man handed the woman one half of the apple, and together they ate. And she loved him with her whole heart.

The queen took the apple's seeds and planted them in the castle garden. Ever since then, even ordinary apples have had the sign of the pentacle in them to remind us of the goddess named Kore, who people once said was the inner soul of Mother Earth, and the heart of the world. If you don't believe me, go get an apple, cut it in half, and see for yourself that the pentacle, known to the gypsies as the star of knowledge, is there, hidden in the core of the apple.

Retelling by j. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm version of the tale.

Copyright 1999 j Kearns

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