Long before you and I were born there reigned, in a country a great way off, a king who had three sons. This king once fell very ill, so ill that nobody thought he would live. His sons were very much grieved at their father’s sickness; and as they walked weeping in the garden of the palace, an old man met them and asked what they ailed. They told him their father was so ill that they were afraid nothing could save him. ‘I know what would,’ said the old man; ‘it is the Water of Life. If he could have a draught of it he would be well again, but it is very hard to get.’ Then the eldest son said, ‘I will soon find it’ and went to the sick king, and begged that he would go in search of the Water of Life, as it was the only thing that could save him. ‘No,’ said the king; ‘I had rather die that place you in such great danger as you must meet with in your journey.’ But he begged so hard that the king let him go; and the prince thought to himself, ‘If I bring my father this water I shall be his dearest son, and he will make me heir to his kingdom.’
Then he set out, and when he had gone on his way some time he came to a deep valley overhung with rocks and woods; and as he looked around there stood above him on one of the rocks a little dwarf, who called out to him and said, ‘Prince, whither hastest thou so fast?’ ‘What is that to you, little ugly one?’ said the prince sneeringly, and rode on his way. But the little dwarf fell into a great rage at his behavior, and laid a spell of ill luck upon him, so that, as he rode on, the mountain pass seemed to become narrower and narrower, and at last the way was so straitened that he could not go a step forward, and when he thought to have turned his horse round and gone back the way he came, the passage he found had closed behind also; and shut him quite up; he next tried to get off his horse and make his way on foot, but this he was unable to do, and so there he was forced to abide spell-bound.
Meantime the king his father was lingering on in daily hope of his return, till at last the second son said, ‘Father, I will go in search of this Water;’ for he thought to himself, ‘My brother is surely dead, and the kingdom will fall to me if I have good luck in my journey.’ The king was at first very unwilling to let him go, but at last yielded to his wish. So he set out and followed the same road which his brother had taken, and met the same dwarf, who stopped him at the same spot, and said as before, ‘Prince, whither hastest thou so fast?’ ‘Mind your own affairs, busy body!’ answered the prince scornfully, and rode off. But the dwarf put the same enchantment upon him, and when he came life the other to the narrow pass in the mountains he could neither move forward nor backward. Thus it is with proud silly people, who think themselves too wise to take advice.
When the second prince had thus stayed away a long while, the youngest said he would go and search for the Water of Life, and trusted he should soon be able to make his father well again. The dwarf met him too at the same spot, and said, ‘Prince, whither hastest thou so fast?’ and the prince said, ‘I go in search of the Water of Life, because my father is ill and life to die; –can you help me?’ ‘Do you know where it is to be found?’ asked the dwarf. ‘No,’ said the prince. ‘Then as you have spoken to me kindly and sought for advice, I will tell you how and where to go. The Water you seek springs from a well in an enchanted castle, and that you may be able to go in safety I will give you an iron wand and two little loaves of bread; strike the iron door of the castle three times with the wand, and it will open: two hungry lions will be lying down inside gaping for their prey; but if you throw them the bread they will let you pass; then hasten on to the well and take some of the Water of Life before the clock strikes twelve, for if you tarry longer the door will shut upon you for ever.’
Then the prince thanked the dwarf for his friendly aid, and took the wand and the bread and went travelling on and on over sea and land, till he came to his journey’s end, and found everything to be as the dwarf had told him. The door flew open at the third stroke of the wand, and when the lions were quieted he went on through the castle, and came at length to a beautiful hall; around it he saw several knights sitting in a trance; then he pulled off their rings and put them on his own fingers. In another room he saw on a table a sword and a loaf of bread, which he also took. Further on he came to a room where a beautiful young lady sat upon a couch, who welcomed him joyfully, and said, if he would set her free from the spell that bound her, the kingdom should be his if he would come back in a year and marry her; then she told him that the well that held the Water of Life was in the palace gardens, and bid him make haste and draw what he wanted before the clock struck twelve. Then he went on, and as he walked through beautiful gardens, he came to a delightful shady spot in which stood a couch; and he thought to himself for a while and gaze on the lovely scenes around him. So he laid himself down, and sleep fell upon him unawares and he did not wake up till the clock was striking a quarter to twelve; then he sprang from the couch dreadfully frightened, ran to the well, filled a cup that was standing by him full of Water, and hastened to get away in time. Just as he was going out of the iron door it struck twelve, and the door fell so quickly upon him that it tore away a piece of his heel.
When he found himself safe he was overjoyed to think that he had got the Water of Life; and as he was going on his way homewards, he passed by the little dwarf, who when he saw the sword and the loaf said, ‘You have made a noble prize; with the sword you can at a blow slay whole armies, and the bread will never fail.’ Then the prince thought to himself, ‘I cannot go home to my father without my brothers;’ so he said, ‘Dear dwarf, cannot you tell me where my two brothers are, who set out in search of the Water of Life before me and never came back?’ ‘I have shut them up by a charm between two mountains,’ said the dwarf, ‘because they were proud and ill behaved, and scorned to ask advice.’ The prince begged so hard for his brothers that the dwarf at last set them free, though unwillingly, saying, ‘Beware of them, for they have bad hearts.’ Their brother, however, was greatly rejoiced to see them, and told them all that had happened to him, how he had found the Water of Life, and had taken a cup full of it, and how he had set a beautiful princess free from the spell that bound her; and how she had engaged to wait a whole year, and then to marry him and give him the kingdom. Then they all three rode on together, and on their way home came to a country that was laid waste by war and a dreadful famine, so that it was feared all must die for want. But the prince gave the king of the land the bread, and all his kingdom ate of it. And he slew the enemy’s army with the wonderful sword, and left the kingdom in peace and plenty. In the same manner he befriended two other countries that they passed through on their way.
When they came to the sea, they got into a ship, and during their voyage the two eldest said to themselves, ‘Our brother has got the Water which we could not find, therefore our father will forsake us, and give him the kingdom which is our right;’ so they were full of envy and revenge, and agreed together how they could ruin him. They waited till he was fast asleep, and then poured the Water of Life out of the cup and took it for themselves, giving him bitter seawater instead. And when they came to their journey’s end, the youngest son brought his cup to the sick king, that he might drink and be healed. Scarcely, however, had he tasted the bitter sea–water when he became worse even than he was before, and then both the elder sons came in and blamed the youngest for what he had done, and said that he wanted to poison their father, but that they had found the Water of Life and had brought it with them, He no sooner began to drink of what they brought him, than he felt his sickness leave him, and said, ‘Well, brother, you found the Water of Life, did you? you have had the trouble and we shall have the reward; pray, with all your cleverness, why did not you manage to keep your eyes open? Next year one of us will take away your beautiful princess, if you do not take care; you had better say nothing about this to our father, for he does not believe a word you say, and if you tell tales, you shall lose your life into the bargain, but be quiet and we will let you off.’
The old king was still very angry with his youngest son, and thought he really meant to have taken away his life; so he called his court together and asked what should be done, and it was settled that he should be put to death. The prince knew nothing of what was going on, till one day when the king’s chief huntsman went a-hinting with him, and they were alone in the wood together, the huntsman looked so sorrowful that the prince said, ‘My friend, what is the matter with you?’ ‘I cannot and dare not tell you,’ said he. But the prince begged hard and said, ‘Only say what it is, and do not think I shall be angry, for I will forgive you.’ ‘Alas!’ said the huntsman, ‘the king has ordered me to shoot you.’ The prince started at this, and said, ‘Let me live, and I will change dresses with you; you shall take my royal coat and show to my father, and do you give me your shabby one.’ ‘With all my heart,’ said the huntsman; ‘I am sure I shall be glad to save you, for I could not have shot you.’ Then he took the prince’s coat, and gave him the shabby one, and went away through the wood.
Some time after, three grand embassies came to the old king’s court, with rick gifts of gold and precious stones for his youngest son, which were sent from the three kings to whom he had lent his sword and loaf of bread, to rid them of their enemy, and feed their people. This touched the old king’s heart, and he thought his son might still be guiltless, and said to his court, ‘Oh! that my son were still alive! how it grieves me that I had him killed!’ ‘He still lives,’ said the huntsman; ‘and I rejoice that I had pity on him, and saved him, for when the time came, I could not shoot him, but let him go in peace and brought home his royal coat.’ At this the king was overwhelmed with you, and made it known throughout all his kingdom, that if his son would come back to his court, he would forgive him.
Meanwhile the princess was eagerly waiting the return of her deliverer, and had a road made leading up to her palace all of shining gold; and told her courtiers that whoever came on horseback and rode straight up to the gate upon it, was her true lover, and that they must let him in; but whoever rode on one side of it, they must be sure was not the right one, and must send him away at once.
The time came, when the eldest thought he would make haste to go to the princess, and say that he was the one who ha set her free, and that he should have her for his wife, and the kingdom with her. As he came before the palace and saw the golden road, he stopped to look at it, and thought to himself, ‘It is a pity to ride upon this beautiful road;’ so he turned aside and rode on the right of it. But when he came to the gate, the guards said to him, he was not what he said he was, and must go about his business. The second prince set out soon afterwards on the same errand; and when he came to the golden road, and his horse had set one foot upon it, he stopped to look at it, and thought it very beautiful, and said to himself, ‘What a pity it is that anything should tread here!’ then he too turned aside and rode on the left of it. But when he came to the gate the guards said he was not the true prince, and that he too must go away.
Now when the full year was come, the third brother left the wood, where he had laid for fear of his father’s anger, and set out in search of his betrothed bride. So he journeyed on, thinking of her all the way, and rode so quickly that he did not even see the golden road, but went with his horse straight over it; and as he came to the gate, it flew open, and the princess welcomed him with joy, and said he was her deliverer and should now be her husband and lost of the kingdom, and the marriage was soon kept with great feasting. When it was over, the princess told him she had heard of his father having forgiven him, and of his wish to have him home again: so he went to visit him, and told him every thing, how his brothers had cheated and robbed him, and yet that he had born all these wrongs for the love of his father. Then the old king was very angry, and wanted to punish his wicked sons but they made their escape, and got into a ship and sailed away over the wide sea, and were never hear of any more.
Source: The Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, published by Puffin Classics in the year 2010