(Walter Crane, illustration for ‘Faithful John’, in the Brothers Grimm, Household Stories from the Collection of the Bros. Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane (London: Macmillan and Co., 1886) found here)
‘Faithful John’ was, for me, another unfamiliar tale from the Grimms despite containing motifs recognisable from other stories such as Bluebeard and The Six Swans. It begins with an old, dying king who entrusts his son to his most loyal servant, Faithful John. (With a name like that it was lucky that he turned out to be indeed loyal!) Faithful John replies, ‘I will not desert him and I will serve him faithfully, even if it costs me my life.’ Well actually... The king adds:
After my death you are to show him all round the whole palace, all the chambers, halls, and vaults and all the treasures in them; but you are not to show him the last room in the golden corridor where the portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof is hidden. If he catches sight of that picture he will be filled with an ardent love for her, he will fall into a faint, and for her sake he will come into great danger; you must protect him from that.
It may not surprise you that after the death of the old king and the tour of his palace, the new king starts to notice that there is one room to which he is never admitted. When challenged, Faithful John prevaricates: ‘There is something inside it [...] which will fill you with terror.’ He tells the king of his promise to his father and warns that great misfortune will befall them both if he opens the door – Faithful John already takes his responsibility so seriously that he identifies his destiny with the young king’s. But his master insists and so Faithful John unlocks the door and nips in first so that he can cover up the portrait – but alas, the painting is placed in such a way that you see it as soon as you enter, and the king peers over Faithful John’s shoulder, sees the princess and faints away. Revived, he says, ‘My love for her is so great that if all the leaves on the trees were tongues, they could not express it. I will hazard my life to gain her. You are my most loyal John: you must help me.’
So John advises the king to melt down all the gold in his treasury and have it made into splendid bowls and vases and little statues of animals, and then the two of them dress as merchants and sail to the town where the Princess of the Golden Roof lives. Faithful John goes to the palace and gains admittance to the princess via her chambermaid. He shows the princess some of the gold objects, which delight her, and lures her onto the ship of his ‘rich master’ to see the rest. No sooner has the princess set foot on board than the crew weighs anchor and they set sail; the princess does not notice at first because she is absorbed in examining the golden trinkets, but then:
‘Oh!’ she cried in terror, ‘I have been deceived. I have been carried off and fallen into a merchant’s clutches. I would sooner die!’
Fortunately, however, on being reassured that the lowly rich merchant is in fact a king, she finds that ‘her heart inclined towards him so that she gladly agreed to be his consort.’
Meanwhile, Faithful John, ‘who was sitting forward in the ship and making music’, overhears the conversation of three ravens. From this he learns that when the king reaches land a fine chestnut horse will gallop towards him, but if he mounts it, it will fly away with him and ‘he will never see his maiden again’, unless someone else jumps on the horse first, whips a pistol from the holster in the saddle and shoots it in the head. After that, the ravens tell each other, the king will reach his palace and find a wedding-shirt which looks as if it is woven from gold and silver lying in a bowl, but it is actually made of brimstone and pitch and when he puts it on ‘it will burn him down to the marrow and the bone’; the remedy is for someone else, wearing gloves, to seize it and cast it into the fire. But then, after the wedding, during the dancing, the new queen will fall to the ground as if dead and will only be saved if someone lifts her up, sucks three drops of blood from her right breast and spits them out again. If anyone who knows any of this tells the king, that person will be turned to stone.
The ravens fly off. Faithful John is ‘still and sad’, but resolves to save his master even if it costs him his own life.
Everything happens as the ravens foretold, but each time Faithful John intervenes, killing the horse, burning the shirt and saving the queen. On the first two occasions, when the courtiers protest at his behaviour, the king defends him: ‘Who knows what good that did? Let him be, he is my most loyal John.’ But the incident with the queen’s breast, well, I think we can all see that this might be open to misinterpretation and thus be unsurprised that the king flies into a rage and has Faithful John thrown into gaol. However, the king also condemns his loyal servant to death the very next morning without a chance to defend himself. At the gallows Faithful John explains his conduct and is turned to stone. The penitent king has the statue placed in his bedchamber beside his bed and weeps whenever he looks at it: ‘Oh, if only I could bring you back to life, my most loyal John!’ Despite this he and his wife manage to have twins.
One morning the queen is at church and the two little boys are playing by their father, who is weeping and wishing her could restore Faithful John to life, when the statue speaks and says that he can be reanimated – if the king sacrifices what he holds most dear. ‘If you chop off the heads of your two children with your own hand, and anoint me with their blood, I shall regain my life.’ The king is horrified, but reasons that Faithful John had died for him, so he beheads his sons and besmears the statue with their blood; at once Faithful John is alive again. He tells the king, ‘Your faithfulness shall not go unrewarded’, sets the heads back on the boys and they too come back to life. The king then hides all three in a big cupboard. When the queen returns from church she says that ‘all the time I was thinking of Faithful John and how we brought such misfortune upon him’. The king then explains the dilemma to her: Faithful John can be restored to life at the cost of their two sons. ‘The queen grew pale and her heart was seized with sudden fear, but she said, “We owe it to him on account of his great loyalty.”’ Having passed the test, her sons and Faithful John are all revealed to her. ‘Then they lived together in happiness until the end of their days.’
(Hermann Vogel, illustration for ‘Der treue Johannes’, in the Brothers Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, n.d. (München: Verlag von Braun u. Schneider) found here); Faithful John, who looks far too old to be leaping on fine chestnut horses, is showing some golden trinkets to one of the princess’s servants to persuade her to admit him to her mistress’s presence)
On the surface, this tale urges us to be loyal. The narrative can only conclude when the king has shown Faithful John something of the loyalty that the servant has shown to him, and thus it insists that loyalty is reciprocal. But while the king’s ingratitude is lamentable, the price exacted by the maligned servant is high. Could the story be a demand that monarchs place duty to subjects before personal life and family? Should we value loyalty as highly as the characters in this story? They all flourished because of it.
As is the way with these tales, other readings may exist. There is surely an echo here of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which is an example of obedience perhaps rather than loyalty. Does Faithful John demand a measure of obedience too? He takes on the rôle of parent or guide to the young king on the death of the father. He advises him as a father might. For much of the story, he acts as the hero – he plans the abduction of the Princess of the Golden Roof and carries it out, he saves the king and princess from death and shows himself to be quick-witted, thoughtful and physically strong. He, the father figure, is the perfect king and prevents the real king from doing anything for himself. The king is entirely passive until he turns on Faithful John and condemns him to death. This is his only decisive act in the story, for even his own chance at heroism (if sacrificing your children is heroic, which I think in the terms of this story it is supposed to be) is dictated by Faithful John. The story demonstrates that his bond with Faithful John is more powerful than his bond with his children. (So is the queen’s, interestingly.)
I hate to always be going on about sex in connexion with fairy tales, but I can’t help but notice the juxtaposition of marital bed containing the beautiful Princess of the Golden Roof and the grim, silent statue of Faithful John. It is as if, on his wedding day, the son finally rebelled against the parental figure, explosively, too violently, and in return the parent went into a massive sulk, casting a shadow over everything, angry but refusing to be put aside in favour of the wife. And what to make of the princess, lover of gold things, perhaps a snob, perhaps a victim of Stockholm Syndrome? Why does she feel loyalty to Faithful John?
I’ve seen a Jungian interpretation of this story mentioned on the Internets, with Faithful John as the young king’s shadow and the princess as his anima; could anyone explain this further? It looks fascinating but I know next to nothing about Jung; I’d love to learn more.
Next week: The Good Bargain.