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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Three: There and Back Again


"The Water of Life"

There was once a king who had an illness, and no one believed that he would come out of it with his life. He had three sons who were much distressed about it, and they went down into the palace garden and wept.

There they met an old man who inquired as to the cause of their grief. They told him their father was so ill that he would certainly die, for nothing seemed to cure him. Then the old man said, "I know of one more remedy, and that is the water of life; if he drinks of it he will become well again, but it is hard to find."

The eldest said, "I shall manage to find it," and he went to the sick king and begged to be allowed to go forth in search of the water of life, for that alone could cure his father.

"No," said the king, "the danger is too great. I would rather die."

But the eldest son begged so long that the king consented. The prince thought in his heart, "If I can bring him the water, I shall be my father's best beloved and inherit the kingdom."

So he set out, and when he had ridden a little distance, he encountered a dwarf standing by the road who called to him and said, "Where are you going in such great haste?"

"You ridiculous troll," said the prince, very haughtily, "it is none of your business," and he rode on. But the dwarf was angry, and he put a spell on the prince. Soon after this the prince entered a ravine, and the farther he rode the closer the mountains drew together, and at last the path became so narrow he could not advance another step; it was impossible either to turn his horse or to dismount, and he was shut in there as if in prison. The sick king waited for him, but he did not come back.

Then the second son said, "Father, let me go forth to seek the water," and he thought to himself, "If my brother is dead, then the kingdom will fall to me."

At first the king would not allow him to go either, but at last he yielded, so the prince set out on the same road that his brother had taken, and he too met the dwarf, who stopped him to ask, "Where are you going with such great speed?"

"Little fool," said the prince, "that is nothing to you," and he rode on without giving the dwarf another look. But the dwarf bewitched him too, so he rode into a ravine just as his brother had done, and he could neither go forward nor backward.

When the second son did not return, the youngest begged to be allowed to go forth to fetch the water, and at last the king was obliged to let him leave.

When the youngest, in his turn, met the dwarf, who asked where he was going in such great haste, he stopped to explain, saying, "I am seeking the water of life, for my father is sick unto death."

"Do you know, then, where it is to be found?"

"No," said the prince.

"As you have behaved courteously, and not haughtily like your false brothers, I shall give you the information and tell you how you may obtain the water of life. It springs from a fountain in the courtyard of an enchanted castle, but you will not be able to reach it unless I give you an iron wand and two small loaves of bread. Strike three times with the wand on the iron door of the castle, and it will spring open: inside lie two lions with gaping jaws, but if you throw a loaf of bread to each of them, they will be quieted. Then hasten to fetch some of the water of life before the clock strikes twelve, else the door will shut again, and you will be imprisoned."

The prince thanked him, took the wand and the bread, and set out on his way. When he arrived, everything was as the dwarf had said. The door sprang open at the third stroke of the wand, and when he had appeased the lions with the bread, he entered the castle and came to a large, splendid hall. A sword and a loaf of bread were lying there, which he carried away.

Then he entered a chamber where he found a beautiful maiden, who rejoiced when she saw him, kissed him, and told him that he had saved her and would therefore be given her entire kingdom. She said that if he would return in a year their wedding would be celebrated; likewise she told him where the spring of the water of life was, and that he was to hasten and draw some of it before the clock struck twelve.

He went on, and at last entered a room where there was a lovely newly made bed, and as he was very weary, he felt inclined to rest a little. So he lay down and fell asleep.

When he awoke, the clock was striking a quarter to twelve. He jumped up in a fright, ran to the spring, drew some water in a bottle which stood near, and hastened away. But just as he was passing through the iron door, the clock struck twelve, and the door fell in place with such violence that it carried away a piece of his heel. He, however, rejoicing at having obtained the water of life, went homeward, and again passed the dwarf.

When the latter saw the sword and the loaf, he said, "With these you have won great wealth; with the sword you can slay whole armies, and the bread will never come to an end."

But the prince would not go home to his father without his brothers, so he said, "Dear dwarf, can you not tell me where my two brothers are? They went out before I did in search of the water of life, and they have not returned."

"They are imprisoned between two mountains," said the dwarf. "I have condemned them to stay there, because they were so haughty."

Then the prince begged until the dwarf released them; but the dwarf warned him, saying, "Beware of them, for they have bad hearts."

When his brothers came, he rejoiced and told them how things had gone with him, that he had found the water of life and had brought a bottle away with him, and had rescued a beautiful princess, who was willing to wait a year for him, and then their wedding was to be celebrated and he would obtain a great kingdom.

After that they rode on together, and they chanced upon a land where war and famine reigned, and whose king thought he must perish of starvation. Then the youngest prince went to him and gave him the loaf, with which he fed and satisfied the whole of his kingdom, and the prince also gave him the sword, with which he slew the hosts of his enemies, so the kingdom could now live in peace.

The prince then took back his loaf and his sword, and the three brothers rode on. But after this they entered two more countries where war and famine reigned, and each time the prince gave his loaf and his sword to the kings, and so preserved three kingdoms, and after that they went on board a ship and sailed over the sea.

During the passage, the two eldest spoke together in secret, saying, "The youngest has found the water of life and not we, and for that our father will give him the kingdom, which belongs to us, and he will rob us of all our fortune."

Then they began to seek revenge, and they plotted with each other to destroy him. They waited until they found him fast asleep, then poured the water of life out of the bottle and took it for themselves, but into the bottle they poured salty sea water.

When the three arrived home, the youngest took his bottle to the sick king so he might drink out of it, and be cured. But scarcely had he drunk a very little of the salt water than he became sicker still. And as he was lamenting over this, the two eldest brothers came, and accused the youngest of having intended to poison the king, and said that they had brought him the true water of life, and handed it to him. He had scarcely tasted it, when he felt his sickness departing, and he became strong and healthy as in the days of his youth.

After that eldest brothers both went to the youngest, mocked him, and said, "You certainly found the water of life, but you have had the pain, and we the gain; you should have been sharper and kept your eyes open. We took it from you while you were asleep at sea, and when a year is over, one of us will go and fetch the beautiful princess. But beware that you do not disclose any of this to our father; indeed he does not trust you, and if you say a single word, you shall lose your life."

The old king was angry with his youngest son, and thought he had plotted against his life. So he summoned the court together and had sentence pronounced upon his son, that he should be secretly killed. And once when the prince was riding out to hunt, suspecting no evil, the king's huntsman rode with him, and when they were quite alone in the forest, the huntsman looked so sorrowful that the prince asked him, "Dear huntsman, what ails you?"

The huntsman said, "I cannot tell you, and yet I should."

Then the prince said, "Say openly what it is; I shall pardon you."

"Alas!" said the huntsman, "I am to kill you; the king has ordered me to do it."

Then the prince was shocked, and he said, "Dear huntsman, let me live. There, I give you my royal garments; give me your common ones in their place."

The huntsman said, "I shall willingly do that; indeed I would not have been able to kill you."

Then they exchanged clothes, and the huntsman returned home. The prince, however, went farther into the forest. After a time three wagons of gold and precious stones came to the king’s palace, intended for his youngest son; this treasure was sent by the three kings who had slain their enemies with the prince's sword, and maintained their people with his bread, and who wished now to show their gratitude.

The old king then thought, "Can my son have been innocent?" and he said to his people, "Would that he were still alive; how it grieves me that I have suffered him to be killed!"

"He still lives," said the huntsman, "for I could not find it in my heart to carry out your command," and he told the king how it had happened. Then a stone fell from the king's heart, and he had it proclaimed in every country that his son should return and be taken into favor again.

Meanwhile, the beautiful princess had built a road up to her palace, and the road was quite bright and golden, and she told her people that whoever came riding straight along it would be the right suitor and was to be admitted, and whoever rode by the side of it was not the right one, and was not to be admitted. As the time was now close at hand, the eldest thought he would hasten to go to the king's daughter, present himself as her rescuer, and thus win her for his bride, and the kingdom to boot.

Therefore he rode forth, and when he arrived before the palace and saw the splendid golden road, he thought, "It would be a sin and a shame if I were to ride over that," and he turned aside and rode on the right side of it. But when he came to the door, the servants told him he was not the right man, and he must go away again.

Soon after this the second prince set out, and when he came to the golden road, and his horse had put one foot on it, he thought, "It would be a sin and a shame to tread a piece of it off," and he turned aside and rode on the left side of it, and when he reached the door, the attendants told him he was not the right one, and he must go away again.

When at last the year had entirely expired, the third son likewise wished to ride out of the forest to his beloved, and in her company forget his sorrows. He set out, and he thought of her so incessantly, and wished so much to be with her, that he never noticed the golden road at all. So his horse rode on up the middle of it, and when he came to the door, it was opened, and the princess received him with joy, and she said he was her rescuer and lord of the kingdom, and their wedding was celebrated with great rejoicing.

When the celebration was over, the princess told her husband that his father had forgiven him and wanted to see him again. So he rode there with his wife, and he told the king everything: how his brothers had betrayed him, and how he had nevertheless kept silence. The old king wished to punish them, but they had put to sea, and never came back as long as they lived.

(adapted from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, translated from the German by Margaret Hunt; original text in the public domain)

Unit Three Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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