The Water of Life

by Wilhelm Grimm

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

“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 more affectionate and more effective. His one blind spot, however, is that he trusts his brothers.

Again he meets the dwarf, who tells him that the sword (the wand, magically transformed) can defeat many armies and that the supply of bread will never end. The prince asks about his brothers, and the dwarf releases them, warning the prince about their evil hearts. The brothers are joyfully reunited and travel home together, with the youngest telling of all that befell him. On the way, they find three successive kingdoms ravaged by war and famine. The prince saves each with his sword and bread. Before arriving home, the brothers undergo a sea journey in which the older brothers switch the water of life for sea water while the youngest sleeps. Sleep is a real danger in this tale.

The youngest son is accused of attempted poisoning after giving his father the salt water, while his brothers get the credit for rejuvenating the king. The king then orders his huntsman to execute his third son on a hunting trip. Yet the prince is so considerate of the huntsman’s feelings that the huntsman tells him of the king’s orders and, instead of killing him, exchanges clothes with the prince. The prince hides in the forest for a year. Meanwhile, the king repents his hasty act when three wagons of gold and jewels come for his third son from the three kingdoms that he had saved. When the huntsman tells the truth, the king grants his lost son amnesty.

The princess orders a golden road built to her castle and tells her servants to send away all who ride up by the side of the road, but to admit the one who rides down the middle. The older brothers ride to the side when they notice that the road is gold. The prince, however, never notices, his mind being full of the princess; he rides down the center to his bride, her kingdom, and his father’s love. His wicked brothers set forth on the sea and are never heard from again.

The main symbols in the story almost speak for themselves. The wand and two small loaves of bread that admit the prince into the castle become, magically, the sword and loaf by which he saves three kingdoms. The water of life is balanced by the water of death (sea water). The golden road that leads to success must not be approached gingerly; it must be ridden down the center with all of one’s being focused on the goal.

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