Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | The Six Servants | Summary

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Summary

An aging sorceress has the most beautiful daughter under the sun. But rather than help her daughter make a happy marriage, the sorceress wants only to lure people to their deaths. To that end, she assigns her daughter's would-be suitors tasks they can never accomplish. When they fail, she has them beheaded.

A prince who has heard about the daughter's beauty asks his father for permission to court her. "Never," answers the king. The grief-stricken prince sinks into a seven-year coma. When the king realizes nothing else will cure his son, he gives the prince permission to try his luck. Instantly restored to health, the son sets off.

As he travels, the prince meets six very unusual men. One can puff himself up until he's 3,000 times fatter; one has a supernatural sense of hearing; one can stretch until he's taller than the tallest mountain; one has bandages over his eyes because his gaze is so powerful that whatever he glances at splits apart; one becomes frozen in the midst of fire and hot in the midst of ice; and one can see to the farthest reaches of the world. The son asks each man to join him, sure he'll be able to use their help.

Delighted to meet another potential victim, the sorceress sets three impossible-sounding tasks. First, he must find a ring that dropped to the bottom of the sea. Next, he must eat 3,000 oxen—skins, bones, and all—and drink 300 casks of wine. Two of the six servants have skills that make it easy to accomplish these jobs. With their help, the prince has no trouble.

Next the sorceress says she'll bring her daughter to the prince's chamber that evening. "When twelve o'clock is striking, I will come, and if she is then no longer in your arms, you are lost." The prince enlists the help of two more servants and spends happy hours gazing at the face of his beloved. But at 11:00, the sorceress casts a spell on everyone in the chamber and takes back her daughter.

The prince wakes up at 11:45 and despairs to find the maiden gone. But the servant with super-hearing locates her: she's on a rock 300 leagues from there. The tall servant crosses the distance in a few steps, carrying the man with the bandaged eyes. When they arrive at the rock, the second servant uncovers his eyes and demolishes the rock by looking at it. The tall servant brings the others back to the prince's chamber just in time: at midnight, the sorceress comes into the chamber and is horrified to find her daughter safe and sound.

The sorceress must keep her promise to the prince, but she whispers to her daughter that it's disgraceful the maiden can't choose a husband for herself and must settle for a commoner. Although everything that's happened is the fault of the sorceress—and the suitor is a prince, not a commoner—the daughter is enraged and "meditates revenge." She sets the prince three more challenges. He must find someone who agrees to sit in the heart of a fire for three days. The frosty man easily accomplishes this, and the maiden is compelled to marry the prince.

Now it's the prince's turn to challenge his new wife. He persuades her that he's not a prince but a swineherd, arranges to have her royal clothes replaced with rags, and makes her help him with the hogs for a week. Finally, when she can bear her new fate no longer, she's brought to the king's palace. The prince, reclothed in his royal robes, welcomes her with a kiss. He tells her, "I suffered so much for you that you, too, had to suffer for me." Then there's a grand celebration of the marriage.

Analysis

For decades a 1938 American picture book called The Five Chinese Brothers was popular. Five brothers each have an extraordinary talent. One can sit in an oven without being burned, one can swallow the sea, and so on. When one of the brothers is sentenced to death, the other four come to his rescue. He survives all the attempts to kill him, and finally a judge sets him free.

The book presents such a stereotyped version of Chinese people that it has fallen out of favor in the 21st century. But the five brothers are unmistakably similar to the six servants in this story, suggesting that certain archetypes are universal. Without the servants, this would be just another story about a prince who has to meet several conditions before he can marry the girl of his dreams.

"The Six Servants" has other elements that set it apart. It's rare to see a lovelorn prince sink into a seven-year coma when his father forbids him to court a woman he's never even seen. It's rare to see a Grimm queen with authority over her daughter's marriage and even rarer to see her welcome suitors for the chance of killing them. And the trick the prince plays on the maiden somehow doesn't seem to fit the Grimm mold.

"The Six Servants" is a long story, partly because the happily-ever-after ending is drawn out when the sorceress and her daughter resist the marriage. As in "The Brave Little Tailor," the young woman feels disgraced by the thought of marrying someone beneath her. (Presumably the maiden and her mother object to the prince because he has no sorcerer's blood.) Although the prince has already met the conditions set by the sorceress, the daughter assigns one of her own. The queen, who still hates the prince, sends an army to bring her daughter back. Finally, the prince pretends to be a swineherd, not because he wants to teach his sweetheart the value of honest labor but because he wants to break her spirit.

Two realistic details stand out in the swineherding passage. The first is the sores on the maiden's feet. Why on her feet? The story doesn't say. Then the maiden says, referring to the fiancé she believes to be a swineherd, "[He] has just gone out with cords and ropes to try to drive a little bargain?" What kind of bargain? Again, it's impossible for the modern reader to know, but the writer of the passage clearly knows his swineherding.

Three traditional folk tropes have been braided together in this story. According to one classification system, they're known as "The Man Marries the Princess," "The Wonderful Helpers," and "The Obstinate Wife Learns to Obey." That may be more plot than one story can handle, but "The Six Servants" is an interesting experiment that does, after all, end happily ever after.

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