Faithful Johannes, first post.


Faithful Johannes, by David Keeping

I’ve had precious little time the past few weeks and I’ll be out of internet contact the next two as well, but there is a lot to talk about. I should talk about Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls series and I want to talk about the Grimm version of Faithful Johannes, aka Trusty John. Since I talked about the  faithful Iron Heinrich I should give Johannes equal time, right?

I’ll start with Faithful Johannes/Trusty John. He’s the sixth story in my trusty Brother’s Grimm compilation (one of them, anyway), and there are, of course, several versions of it, including French and Italian ones that differ in some ways. As always, the differences and similarities provide some clues as to how to read the essential story.

Summarizing the (Grimms’ version) story:

On his deathbed, the king worries about his son. He calls his faithful, life-long servant, Faithful Johannes to him and asks him to serve his son as faithfully as he’s served his king, and “to be his foster father.” He tells Faithful Johannes to show the boy all of his inheritance, but not to let the boy into the room at the end of the long gallery, for if he enters the room he’ll see the painting of the Princess of the Golden Roof. He’ll faint at the beauty and fall in love and will risk all to have her. Johannes agrees, “. . . though it may cost me my life.” The king dies.

Faithful Johannes serves the young king, but eventually the kid wants to know why Faithful Johannes won’t open that one door, and orders Johannes to do so despite his protests. He indeed faints at the sight of the painting, falls in love and is willing to risk all for the princess in the painting.

Johannes tells the young king to have his goldsmiths take a fifth of his gold and fashion them into all manner of wonderful things to entice the princess and to load them onto his ship. They sail to the princess’s city in disguise as gold merchants. Johannes lures the princess to ship and while she’s looking at all the golden wares, they set sail. After the fashion of fairy tale princesses, she’s won over by young king when he reveals himself as royalty and proclaims his love for her (based solely on a picture). Johannes hears three ravens talking and understands them. The first says that the young king will not live, for he will be met at the dock by a wonderful horse to ride to the castle, but if he gets on it it will leap into the air and carry him off (some versions have it carrying the king and the princess and dashing them both to the earth killing them). Anyone telling this out loud to the king would turn to stone to his knees.

The second bird says that when he gets to the castle there will be a beautiful wedding shirt waiting for the young king, but if he puts it on it will turn to pitch and fire and burn him to the bone. Anyone telling this to the king would turn to stone up to his heart.

The third bird says that after the wedding the princess will faint and unless someone draws three drops of blood from her right breast she will die. Anyone revealing this will turn entirely to stone.

When they land, the horse is there and Johannes kills it. The king’s attendants want to punish Johannes but the king intervenes. At the castle, Johannes grabs the shirt with gloves and throws it in the fire. Again the king trusts Johannes and will not allow him to be punished.

And now the wedding took place. The dance began, with the bride also taking part. Faithful Johannes was watchful and looked into her face. Suddenly she turned pale and fell to the ground as if she were dead. He ran quickly to her, picked her up and carried her into a chamber. He laid her down, then knelt and sucked three drops of blood from her right breast, and spat them out. Immediately she breathed again and regained consciousness. The young king saw what had happened, and not knowing why faithful Johannes had done it, grew angry and shouted, “Throw him into prison.”

On the gallows, Johannes tells all and turns to stone. The king and his bride grieve and have the stone Johannes taken up to their bedchamber. Time passes, and the royal couple have twins. When the queen is away the king learns (from the statue) that if he kills the twins and rubs the statue with their blood Johannes will come back to life. He does so, and it does. Johannes restores the children to life. When the queen returns, the king hides Johannes and the children and tells her that they can bring Johannes back to life if they kill the children. She agrees “We owe it to him for his great loyalty.” The king then reveals that it had all been done and the children are alive. They live happily together until they die.

Tough story, with a lot of questions jumping for attention. On the surface, of course, there is the “loyalty is great and will be rewarded” theme, but boy there’s a lot more here than that. First, to me, who is Faithful Johannes? and who is the princess that she can command the love of the young king from a picture, and yet Johannes and the old king are evidently unmoved?.

More tomorrow.


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