(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“The Water of Life” is storytelling pared to the bone. The tale is so lucid and simple that it almost defies analysis. Situation, speech, and action blend in one flowing narrative. A king is dying. His three sons learn from an old man that the only way to save their father is to bring him the water of life. The dying king reluctantly gives one son after the other permission to seek the water.

When the two proud older brothers meet a dwarf who asks where they are going, they answer rudely, so the dwarf sends them up a ravine, where they become trapped. Arrogance itself is a trap, and the ravines are symbolic of the older brothers’ hard pride that keeps them from progressing. When the third prince meets the dwarf, he answers politely and confesses that he does not know where the water of life is. The dwarf then tells him that the water is in an enchanted castle, and he gives the prince the three things that he needs to enter the castle: a wand to open the gate and two small loaves of bread to feed the guardian lions. The dwarf also warns him to leave the castle by midnight. The prince thanks him and leaves. The amount of information conveyed in a few sentences is amazing: The hero is revealed as courteous, humbly honest, and grateful.

Once inside the castle, the prince acts on his own initiative. He finds a hall with spellbound princes and removes their rings. He finds a sword and a loaf of bread that he takes. He finds a lovely princess, who wakes and kisses him. She says that they will be wed in a year and that her kingdom will be his. She also tells him where the water is and warns him that he will be imprisoned in the castle if he stays past midnight. He falls asleep, however, and barely awakens in time to fetch the water and escape, losing part of his heel as the gate slams shut. The events in the enchanted castle are vivid, mysterious, and dreamlike. Yet they work a change in the hero. He becomes both...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

The Water of Life Bibliography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Campbell, Joseph. “Folkloristic Commentary.” In The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. New York: Pantheon Books, 1944.

Ellis, John M. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Kudszus, W. G. Terrors of Childhood in Grimms’ Fairy Tales. New York: P. Lang, 2005.

McGlathery, James M., ed. The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Murphy, G. Ronald. The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sutherland, Zena, and May Hill Arbuthnot. Children and Books. 7th ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1986.

Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. 1987. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Zipes, Jack David. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1988. Reprint. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.