The young man moved on and came to a large city, where he heard a proclamation that whoever wanted to marry the king’s daughter would have to perform a task given by her, and if he didn’t complete it successfully, he would forfeit his life. Many princes had already been there and had lost their lives, so there was nobody any more who dared to try. This is why the princess had the proclamation issued again.
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 54). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition
Before I looked this one up I assumed that it would be another one of the lesser-known and more difficult-to-research stories because I don’t ever remember hearing about it but boy, I was wrong! Not only is it pretty well-known, it has variations in a number of places, including Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, and Central and Eastern Europe.
In the story, a young servant brings a covered dish to a king every night, and one night he decides to peek under the cover. It appears that the king been eating the flesh of a white snake every night so the servant takes a bite and gains the ability to communicate with animals. Shortly after this, the servant is accused of stealing a ring from the Queen, at which point animals begin popping up left and right to help him. Eventually he ends up in a neighboring town where a king has been looking for a husband for his daughter. The savvy princess was apparently allowed to set her own tasks for the suitors to accomplish, and if they can’t complete them, she has them executed. After the servant completes the first task, she gives him another, and then another after that. (narrator’s note: HELL’S YES PRINCESS GIRL BOSS!) With the help of his animal friends, he FINALLY completes all of the tasks and the princess relents, falls in love, and they get married.
The tale-type of gaining knowledge from snakes is very old, though the forms may differ. In the Icelandic Volsunga Saga (late 13th century), Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir and learns the language of the birds, and in the Saxo Grammaticus (12th century) Eric became quite wise and well-spoken after eating a stew made from snake meat. And, if you go back far enough and take another look at the Genesis myth, Eve essentially gained knowledge from a snake when she followed his advice and ate the apple. I’m not venturing into Christian mythology here; I’m just saying, there’s a connection.
This particular story has surprising amount of violence against animals, for the sake of helping animals, who then help the servant. It’s an interesting cycle, and some of the reading I did about this suggests that this isn’t a story about right/wrong or good/evil but instead it’s about learning how to do what’s appropriate in the moment. There’s also the idea that every action we take will have both positive and negative consequences. If we do something to help one person, someone else will suffer in some way, i.e. if we use our influence to help someone get a job, another person will lose out. Intention is what matters and we can’t allow ourselves to think beyond our intentions in the moment, even if our intention is to buy a princess and improve our own social standing. And really, no one is ever completely altruistic in their actions. We will all, at some point, act in our own self-interests. It’s just a matter of the compromises you’re willing to make to get what you want.