The Water of Life

An analysis of the Grimm’s Tale, “The Water of Life,” Tale #97

by Charlotte Dovey

Poison seems to be the focal point of this story, poison that corrupts the mind and soul as well as the body.

The king suffers from an undisclosed illness that gets progressively worse, to be cured only by the “water of life.”  During the Middle Ages people drank a low-alcohol fermented beverage instead of water whenever possible, as the unfermented water was often contaminated.  This water of life could be alcohol, as the process of making wine and beer (or whisky, also referred to as “the water of life”) purifies the water.  “The water of life,” then, could cure the king’s illness, if he was being poisoned by contaminated water, for instance.

The poisoned body of the king also reflects his soul, likewise suffering from a poison (as I go on to discuss below).  This also serves to corrupt the family of which he is head.  (See also my review of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.)  And since he is king, this would serve to poison the kingdom itself; a corrupted ruler leads to a corrupted state. 

Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Rackham’s Illustration from “The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm”

A corrupt government is unhealthy and can be overturned by the small, by people without visible power.  People who seem important and powerful, such as kings and princes, are less so than they may seem.  Likewise, “small” or ordinary people (in this story, represented by a dwarf) are more important and powerful than they may seem.  The dwarf, then, thwarts the two elder corrupted and arrogant princes, making their progress impossible, and he assists the youngest who is virtuous and benevolent, making this youngest prince the possible leader, despite conventional hierarchies.  It is the unassuming dwarf that permits power, and therefore wields power over the powerful.

The youngest, virtuous Prince takes rings from the fingers of the enchanted princes that inhabit the kingdom of the fountain of “the water of life.”  Such gold rings signify marriage (being bound to another in both a spiritual and social/legal sense).  A gold ring, however, also represents status and power, and specifically power to rule, where the king is bound to his people similarly in a spiritual and social/legal sense.  This raises the question, why have these princes and consequently their land been enchanted, such that someone can take their power from them?  Is it their fault?  Further, it is unclear, what is the princess being saved from, exactly?  It is true that the water of life cures poison due to contaminated water, but in excess it causes a different sort of corruption or poison… drunkenness.  This certainly would be a fault for rulers; it makes them incapable of ruling themselves, much less others.  As well as taking the princes’ rings, the hero also takes the bread and sword on the table of the great hall – a leader must be able to both defend and feed his people, and these things were not being used by the sleeping (drunken?) princes.

Of course, if this is the case, it leads us to ask why does the hero fall asleep when he knows that he must be out of the castle by the stroke of twelve?  Perhaps the “enchantment” (alcohol) has taken effect, as with the other princes?  Unlike the enchanted princes, the virtuous prince awakens in time – perhaps he is not as inclined towards their vices or can keep it under control?  This shows that the same acts (such as drinking alcohol) can be good, bad, or neutral, depending on circumstances and motives.  The hero, however, is not without fault.  As he rushes to leave the castle, the door closes on his heel.  Unlike Cinderella’s step-sisters, he loses not the flesh off his foot, but rather just the heel off his boot.  While Cinderella’s sisters’ flaws were great indeed, and led to their cutting off parts of their foot to feed their vanity and greed, his prove to be minor and therefore seems only to warrant the loss of a bit of cloth.  His fault lies in being too trusting and this proves to be his equivalent of Achilles’s heel.  

The hero should have been keen and aware of his danger, not trusting to the point of falling asleep on a pretty bed in a strange enchanted castle.  His naivety is more clearly seen with his telling his wicked elder brothers about his successful journey, and his foolish unguardedness causes further corruption and weakness in his brothers:  It creates jealousy and a need for domination, that in turn, lead to dishonesty and misdeeds to secure power.  In the hopes of securing their own positions, his brothers twist the youngest prince’s news to poison his reputation and their father’s paternal feelings.

The moral here is be careful of imparting good news or bad – people, including friends and family, may use both against you if they can, even if this requires misrepresenting it.

This story contains good deeds with bad motives, such as the two elder brothers seeking to cure their father, the king, by finding the water of life; they do so to secure the kingdom as their own.  It also contains bad deeds with good motives, such as when the virtuous son gives his father saltwater, an even worse sort of poison than that he had, because his brothers tricked him.  But it is the father’s motives that are the most puzzling… the father’s missteps lead to him trying to kill his innocent son.  While he also was tricked by the elder two princes, were his motives actually good?  Certainly, he did a bad thing in sending the huntsman to kill the youngest prince, but it is not clear that we can say his motives were good since it seems that he acted out of anger or fear.  Yet, if he failed to protect himself or to punish wrongs in his kingdom, he would be a foolish king indeed.

The father is clearly a flawed being, as he only shows his youngest son esteem when others do.  He seems not to value his own son until tributes are sent from the neighboring kingdoms that the son saved from starvation and war.  If the king’s motive was to act justly, he could have discussed the matter with his youngest son, but preferred to believe the elder sons.  Why?  I suggest that it is because his soul was poisoned as his body was.  The poison makes him an ineffectual leader – he cannot even punish his sons properly.  He also should have apologized and asked for forgiveness to the hero for wrongfully doubting him.  Rather, the king “forgives” a son who is blameless (other than by being too trusting) and who did not ask for forgiveness, showing him “mercy.”  This is a sign of arrogance and lack of self-awareness – what is meant as a mark of high status (refusing to apologize but instead granting “forgiveness” where oneself is actually at fault) speaks of the king’s lowly moral and spiritual status and small-mindedness.  This relates to governments or kingdoms as well as families; a leader who bestows misplaced “mercy” on his people where none is warranted, rather than fairness and respect, is doomed.  The king in this story exhibits lack of leadership due to arrogance, rather than leading by example and getting respect by showing respect.  The two elder of the king’s sons were unfit to rule because they followed their father’s example and were poisoned by arrogance. 

The third son showed respect, even for seemingly insignificant people, and unlike the rest in positions of power, was a fit leader, though he had to learn the hard lesson of being guarded and cautious rather than too trusting.

Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“David with the Head of Goliath”
The story of King David shows that the small can overcome the corrupted powerful. Unfortunately, it turns out that King David was not without his flaws as well…

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

See Also: Achilles’s Heel

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