(a German fairytale)
Once upon a time there lived a wise king who had one peculiar custom. Every evening he called to his trusty servant to bring him a covered platter, a secret platter. This the young man did, but before the king lifted the cover, he sent his servant away.
One day the servant noticed the king’s platter left behind on the table. “I must know the secret,” he said, so he sneaked it to his room, locked the door, lifted the cover and saw lying there a white snake.
“Surely the king won’t notice if I take one taste,” he said, and he cut off a portion and placed it in his mouth. At once he heard whispers outside. He walked to the window where sparrows were chattering, and to the young man’s amazement, he understood their words. Now he knew the secret of the king’s wisdom.
He understood the language of animals.
The next morning the king called to the servant. As he entered the royal chamber, the servant trembled, fearing the king had discovered a missing piece on the white snake.
But the king said, “The queen has lost her diamond ring, and you are the only person permitted inside her jewel room.”
The servant was horrified. “I would never steal from my queen,” he said, but he knew he looked guilty, for he had, after all, stolen something from the royal family.
“The judges have declared you guilty unless you can bring us the thief by tomorrow. Otherwise, I have no choice but to execute you for this crime.”
The servant walked away with a heavy heart. He had no idea who had stolen the ring, and so he would die. He walked to the courtyard to ponder his troubles, and there, in the pond, he saw ducks smoothing their feathers.
Suddenly one of them said, “What good food I found beneath the queen’s window, though I did happen to swallow her ring by mistake, and it is weighing heavy in my stomach.”
Hearing this, the young man snatched the duck and carried her to the cook. “Kill this duck!” he said. “It is the king’s request.”
The cook chopped off the duck’s head, and as she prepared it for roasting, she discovered the ring inside its belly.
The king was overjoyed, for he loved this servant and didn’t want to execute him. “Ask for anything of me,” the king said. “I wish to repay you for my suspicions.”
“I would like a horse and money for traveling to see the world,” the servant said, and the king granted his request.
The servant set off, and soon he came to a swamp where three fish were trapped in the reeds, gasping for breath. “We don’t want to die,” they gasped. The servant, whose heart was soft, picked up the fish and dropped them into the clear stream nearby.
“We shall repay your kindness!” they cried as he trotted off.
The next day as he rode across the desert, he heard whispering, and when he looked down he saw a circle of ants. The ant king cried, “Why won’t these clumsy creatures stop crushing us?”
The servant swerved onto another path, and as he did the ant king cried, “We shall repay your kindness!”
He rode into a forest where two ravens stood next to their nest, pushing their young ones out of it. “Take care of yourselves,” they croaked, but the little ones chirped pathetically as they fell to the ground. “We cannot fly. We shall die of hunger!”
The servant unwrapped his packages of meat and fed some of it to the ravens. He left the rest of his food for them, and as he rode away, they cried, “We shall repay your kindness!”
When the servant reached the city, he learned that the king’s daughter sought a husband. To win her hand, a man had to perform a difficult task; if he failed he would lose his life, but if he succeeded, he would win her hand.
“This must be my fate,” the servant said, and he declared himself a suitor.
The king led the servant to the seashore. “My daughter’s ring is somewhere in the sea. Find it or perish.”
As the servant stood wondering what to do, certain he would die, three fish swam toward him — the three fish he had saved. The middle one laid a clam at the servant’s feet, and when he opened it, there was the princess’s ring.
He carried it quickly to the king and said, “Now, may I marry your daughter?”
But the princess did not want to marry a servant, so she said, “You must perform another task. Follow me.”
She led him to the garden where she tossed 10 sacks of millet into the grass. “Pick up every grain before dawn,” she said. “Don’t miss a single grain or you shall die.”
The servant wept as he waited for dawn, but at last he fell asleep. He woke to the first light, and there, to his astonishment, he saw 10 sacks of grain. The ants had saved him.
When the princess saw the full sacks, she said, “One more task,” for she did not want to marry him. “Bring me a golden apple from the tree of life or die.”
The servant had no idea where to find the tree of life, but he set off to search.
One evening as he lay down to rest beside a tree, he heard rustling in the branches above. Suddenly a golden apple dropped into his hand, and the three ravens he had saved appeared.
“We flew to the end of the world to the tree of life to find this for you.”
Full of joy, the young man carried the apple to the princess. He cut the fruit open, and when she took a bite, her heart melted with love for the servant.
They married the next day, and they lived a long and happy life. The princess’s husband used the wisdom he had learned from the white snake to serve both the people and the animals around him.