The Riddle

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Once upon a time there was a prince who had a sudden desire to travel about the world. He took no one with him but a faithful servant. One day he came to a great forest, and when evening fell he could find no shelter, and he did not know where he would spend the night. Then he saw a girl who was walking toward a little house, and when he came nearer, he saw that the girl was young and beautiful.

He spoke to her, saying, "Dear child, can my servant and I find shelter for the night in this little house?"

"Oh, yes," said the girl in a sad voice, "You certainly can, but I do not advise you to do so. Do not go inside."

"Why not?" asked the prince.

The girl sighed and said, "My stepmother practices evil arts, and she does not like strangers."

Then he realized that he had come to a witch's house, but because it was dark, and he could go no further, he entered. In any event, he was not afraid.

The old woman was sitting in an armchair by the fire. She looked at the stranger with her red eyes. "Good evening," she croaked, pretending to be quite friendly. "Sit down and rest."

She blew into the coals on which she was cooking something in a small pot. The daughter warned the two to be cautious, to eat nothing, and to drink nothing, for the old woman brewed evil drinks. They slept soundly until early morning.

While they were getting ready to leave, and the prince had already mounted his horse, the old woman said, "Wait a moment. Let me give you a farewell drink."

While she was getting it the prince rode away, and the servant, who had to tighten his saddle, was there alone when the wicked witch came with the drink.

"Take this to your master," she said.

But that instant the glass broke and the poison spilled onto the horse. It was so strong that the animal immediately fell down dead. The servant ran after his master and told him what had happened. However, he did not want to abandon his saddle, so he ran back to get it. When he reached the dead horse a raven was already sitting on it eating from it.

"Who knows if we shall find anything better today?" said the servant. So he killed the raven and took it with him.

They wandered in the woods the whole day, but could not find their way out. As night fell they found an inn and went inside. The servant gave the raven to the innkeeper to prepare for supper.

Now they had stumbled into a den of murderers, and twelve murderers arrived in the dark, intending to kill the strangers and rob them. But before doing so they sat down to supper, and the innkeeper and the witch sat down with them. Together they ate a dish of soup into which they had cut up the raven meat. They had scarcely swallowed a few bites when they all fell down dead, for the raven had passed on to them the poison from the horsemeat.

Now there was no one left in the house but the innkeeper's daughter. She meant well and had not taken part in their godless deeds. She opened all the doors for the stranger and showed him piles of treasure. However, the prince said that she should keep everything. He wanted none of it, and with his servant he rode on his way.

After traveling about for a long time they came to a town where there was a beautiful but proud princess. She had made it known that she would marry any man who could ask her a riddle that she could not solve. However, if she solved it his head would be cut off. She had three days to think about it, but was so clever that she always solved the riddle that she had been given before the deadline. When the prince arrived nine men had already died in this manner. However, he was blinded by her great beauty and was willing to risk his life for it.

He went before her and asked her his riddle: "What is this?" he said. "One killed none, but still killed twelve?"

She did not know what it was. She thought and thought, but she could not solve it. She opened her riddle books, but it was not there. In short, her wisdom was at an end.

Not knowing how to help herself, she ordered her maid to sneak into the prince's bedroom. There the maid was to listen to his dreams, for the princess thought that he would perhaps talk in his sleep and reveal the riddle. However, the prince's clever servant had placed himself in the bed instead of his master, and when the maid came in, he ripped off the robe that she had covered herself with, and then chased her out with a bundle of switches.

The second night the princess sent her chambermaid, who was to see if she would be more successful in listening, but the servant took her robe away from her as well, and then chased her out with a bundle of switches.

The master now believed that he would be safe for the third night, and he lay down in his own bed. This time the princess herself came. She had on a mist-gray robe and sat down next to him. When she thought that he was asleep and dreaming, she spoke to him, hoping that he would answer in his sleep, like many do. However, he was still awake and understood and heard everything very well.

Then she asked, "One killed none. What is that?"

He answered, "A raven that ate from a dead and poisoned horse, and died of it."

She asked further, "But still killed twelve. What is that?"

He answered, "Those are twelve murderers who ate the raven and died of it."

Now that she knew the riddle she wanted to sneak away, but he held her robe so fast that she had to leave it behind.

The next morning, the princess announced that she had guessed the riddle and sent for the twelve judges and solved it before them.

But the youth asked for a hearing, saying, "She sneaked into my room during the night and questioned me. Otherwise she would not have guessed it."

The judges said, "Bring us proof."

Then the prince's servant brought in the three robes, and when the judges saw the mist-gray one which the princess usually wore, they said, "Have this robe embroidered with gold and silver, and then it will be your wedding robe."

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Revised September 2, 2002.