One time, not in my time, and not in your time but in someone’s time, there was a young man with clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart. And because of those qualities, so remarkable yet so little valued, he started out as the king’s servant and the king treated him like, well, a servant but, not least because of his qualities, came to rely on his judgement and hard work to such an extent that he eventually rose to become head of the royal household.
Then one day, the queen reported a golden ring missing and because the Steward was one of the few with access to the privy chambers, the king accused him of stealing it. ‘Return it here by morning or face execution!’ But, as he hadn’t taken it and had no idea where it was, there was nothing he could do, except sigh, tidy his affairs and go out for one last walk in the forest.
He’d not been out very long when he walked into a sunlit glade.He marvelled at the most beautiful, purple-headed fritillaries, spread out before him. Suddenly, whisking across the path was a white snake. It stopped and stared at him. Now, snakes being snakes, most people, being afraid of them, will pick up a stick and try to bash one on the head. But the young man with his troubles merely looked back at the snake and smiled. The snake held his eyes, its long green tongue flickering, its orange eyes staring before it shimmered away into the tall brambles and nettles.
Strange, thought the young man and stranger still, for when the nightingale started singing overhead, he could understand every word. And when he returned to the palace, he could hear the sparrows giggling, talking about the queen who dropped her ring carelessly out of the window, only for the white duck to swallow it. The young man had the duck arrested and squeezed it hard until it to give up its prize.
The next morning, the king was so happy with the young man who had gotten the ring back, perhaps also feeling a little sheepish, though not enough to say sorry, that he offered the young man the pick of the palace jobs for life. But the young man with the clear eyes, the quiet mind and warm heart had decided it was time to move on. And he asked the king for a horse, some food and a little money. The king resisted at first till, reluctantly, he agreed to the request and so off set the young man along the track and into the forest on a great adventure.
The light shone dimly through the dense oak and lime trees, which lined the forest trail. With night falling, he tethered his horse and climbed up into the branches of a tall tree to sleep for safety’s sake. He marvelled at the wisdom of bats, the exploits of owls, the endless sexual problems of nightjars and the homely tales of the hundreds of insects, sharing their home that night.
The next morning, he travelled on and soon the trail descended through alders and willows towards the lake. He heard splashing and wailing coming from within the reed bed. Three young salmon were thrashing about amid the reeds in the shallow water, stuck. The young man took pity on them and picked them up one by one and threw them into the deeper waters. The salmon raised their heads out of the water and called out, ‘We thank you. We thank you. We salmon remember the river our mothers swam in, the very gravel where we were spawned and we will not forget your bright eyes, your gentle heart and kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’
He travelled on uphill through scrubwood forest of rowan and pine. The ground grew sandier till he was suddenly shook from his reverie on horseback. He could hear a shrill, sharp voice coming from the top of an anthill in the middle of the track. The ant queen was commanding her army of ants beneath, berating him for coming too close to her nest. The man dismounted and bowed before the queen, apologising for his inattention. Next, he spent a good hour reworking the path so that it wound round the anthill. Afterwards, the queen of the ants called out to him, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ants remember. We solve complex problems by ingenuity and team work and we will not forget your bright eyes, your courteous heart and your kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’
He travelled on, higher into the upper reaches of the forest where birches and scrubby juniper grew out of craggy rocks. There was a commotion up above and three black shapes flopped downwards, bumping onto the mossy floor ahead. The parents of these three young ravens had dumped their dementing offspring out of the nest to fend for themselves. They would die for lack of food, they complained and the young man, perhaps, remembering his own treatment by the king, jumped off his horse and hacked off the horse’s head. The ravens fell straight away on the big fleshy eyes and, after gorging themselves, called out to the young man, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ravens remember. We apply intelligence and strength and travel long distances and we will not forget your bright eyes, your generous mind and your warm heart. One day, we will repay you.’
He travelled on on foot till he came to a luscious, green valley, where woods of oaks and holly stretched ahead on either side, passed through orchards plump with apples and cherries and on through pastures filled with fat cattle, knee high in the long grass, resting from the sun under elms and ash. The path brought him to a great city, where the noise of the people and traffic and chaos drowned out all the sounds of the birds and wildlife. He could barely hear himself think but it was here that he fell in love with the Princess.
You think he would have had enough of royalty but he saw the Princess’s loveliness and loneliness through the shield of indifference she protected herself by. He took her pride and haughtiness, her snobbery as a guard against the exceeding flattery of suitors and indulgence of the king. And it was here he decided to go a’courting in the springtime to seek her hand in marriage, even though it may cost him dear, his life. For the Princess set each suitor a challenge and if they failed, they died the next day.
The following morning, the Princess took him to the sea shore and threw a golden ring into the sea. Well, he knew he had no chance of finding it, so he smiled to himself, sat down on his haunches but then heard three voices in unison. He looked up and there were three full grown red salmon, surfing towards him on a big blue wave. The middle one dropped a white clam at his foot, just as the retreating wave carried them back to the sea. The young man opened the clam and inside lay the ring. He laughed happily and gave it to the young Princess.
But she didn’t want to marry a servant and so demanded another challenge, a second proof. She took him into the palace orchard and opened the contents of ten sacks of millet seed, spraying them all over the ground. ‘Pick up every single one and put them back in the sacks.’
The young man sighed, looking around him, then up at the fluffy clouds shifting across the blue sky. What could he do? Then, there was a ruffle in the grass. It grew like whisperings and there he saw the elegant ant queen riding at the head of her army. She gave orders to her ants and, by morning, they had filled all ten sacks.
Still, the Princess was not satisfied. She did not want to marry a servant and so demanded another task, a third proof. ‘Bring me back an apple from the Tree of Life’, she demanded. How, what…where..? The young man had no idea where to find the Tree of Life and realised he would die the next day. So, he tidied up his affairs, paid up his small bills and wandered into the forest one last time, till he came to a green linden tree and sat down under its canopy for a rest. The bright sun dazzled his eyes but he could just make out three dark shapes flying in the sky, diving and soaring, dipping on the warm breeze. Then, one of them let an object fall out of the sky. The young man with the clear eyes, the calm mind and the caring heart held out his palm and caught the apple from the Tree of Life. He laughed and ran back to the city.
He cut the apple in two and gave one half to the Princess and ate the other himself. She fell in love with him at once with his clear eyes, his quiet mind and kind heart and they lived happily ever after.
Things may not always be what they seem. This story starts with a snake and ends with an apple and yet paradise is not lost. It is found. And for many people, salmon are cold and slippery; ants destroy everything in their path and ravens come as messengers of
death and doom. They say that a young man with clear eyes, a calm mind and a warm heart can win no fair lady. But it need not be so…
Never underestimate the joy that a man or woman can gain if they have clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart.
With thanks to The Brothers Grimm and, particularly, to Sara Maitland for her retelling of the story of The White Snake in her wonderful book, Gossip from the Forest.