The Snail Lady
Traditional Korean Folktale, adapted from a version by Suzanne Crowder Han
There was once a young man who lived all alone. He worked very hard in his rice fields even though he had no one to provide for but himself. One day when he was working he said to himself: “I don’t know why ‘m hoeing this filed to plant rice when there isn’t anyone with whom to eat it.”
“You can eat it with me,” came a woman’s voice from nowhere.
The young man looked around but there was no one. “I must be hearing things,” he told himself, and started hoeing again. “Ach! From morning to night I work in this filed to grow rice, but who is there to eat it with?” the young man said again.
“I’ll eat it with you,” came the woman’s voice again.
“Who said that?” shouted the young man, spinning around towards the voice. But there was no one there. “I really must be hearing things,” he said, shaking his head.
“Take me to live with you,” came the voice from nearby.
The young man looked, but there was no one. Then he looked down at the ground. He saw a snail: it was very large and very beautiful. Without thinking, he put it in his pocket. After he went home that night and changed clothes, the snail fell out of his pocket. The young man liked how beautiful it was, so he put it in jar of water, and then went to sleep.
The next evening, when the young man came back from the fields, he found his home clean and dishes full of hot food on the table. As he ate the food, he thought of how nice it would be to have someone to share it with, and wished he had a wife who could cook like this. There was more delicious food waiting for him when he awoke the next morning, and more when he came back from the fields that night. “I must find out who is making this food,” thought the young man, “tomorrow I will find out.”
So the next morning the young man got dressed, took up his tools and left the house for the fields as usual. But he only went a little ways. He hid his tools and snuck back to the house. When he peeked inside the door, he couldn’t believe his eyes. A beautiful maiden was climbing out of the snail’s water jar. She stretched her arms and straightened her dress and started to clean the house. The young man spent all day watching her cook and clean. When the sun set, the young woman climbed back into the water jar.
Only then did the young man enter the house, and eat the dinner she had prepared for him. He couldn’t help but think of how wonderful it would be to have her as a wife. So the next morning, the young man again pretended to go to work, but really sneaked back to the house, and waited for the young woman to climb out of her jar. When she did, the young man ran into the kitchen and grabbed her hand. “Please be my wife,” he said. The young woman’s cheeks grew pink and she looked very bashful, but she nodded her head in consent.
They lived very happily for several years as husband and wife. But all that changed when one day the King came riding past their house and saw the snail woman at work in the kitchen. “How can such a beautiful woman be the wife of a poor farmer?” thought the King. “I’ll have to take her for my own.”
The King ordered his men to halt in front of the house and bring the young man to him. “Your work impresses me,” said the King, “so I want to offer you a contest. Let us go up to the mountain beyond your field and see who can cut down more trees. If you win, I will give you half my Kingdom, but if I win, then you must give me your wife.”
The young man despaired. He did not want to lose his wife, but neither did he think that he could beat the King in such a contest. He told his wife what had happened. “Don’t worry,” said his wife. She gave him a ring off of her finger. “Take this and throw it in the sea. Then my father, the Dragon King, will help you.”
So the young man did as he was told. He took the ring and threw it into the sea. The waves parted, and a path led down to the ocean floor. He followed it to the Dragon King’s palace, where the Dragon King gave him a gourd. The next morning at the contest, the young man cut open the gourd, and hundreds of soldiers sprang out of it, more than enough to defeat the King and his army in the contest. But the King was angry. He ordered another contest: a riding contest. Again the young man went to see his father in law, who gave him a horse so thin that it looked as though a breath could have blown it over. But it rode like the wind and defeated the King. Again, the King was furious, and proposed another contest: a boating one. This time the Dragon King gave the young man a boat so small he could hardly fit in it. But it shot ahead of the King’s big, grand boat. The King was so angry that he jumped up and down on his deck, causing huge waves to form and swallow his boat.
The young man gave all the King’s possessions to the poor, and he and his wife lived happily ever after.
Note: I adapted this tale from “Korean Folk and Fairy Tales.” Suzanne Crowder Han, Hollym, 1991. As her stories are not original and as I have not copied them, this retelling is 100% lawyer-happy.
It really amazes me how fairy tales share themes across cultures. The bride-test (where the young man must either go through a series of contests to win his bride, or to prevent her from being taken) also appears in The Brothers Grimm, and their Russian counterpart Afanaseyev. The antagonist is always from the older generation. This is in keeping with the general happiness and happy-ending oriented outlook of fairy tales: changes in the status quo (ie: Cinderella marrying the Prince) must come from the younger, open minded generation, not the old, stuffy one set in its ways for all time. One also naturally associates age with corruption and decay (hence the famous Brothers Grimm phrase: ‘die steinalte Frau,’ “a woman old as stones,” which they often used to describe witches and evil women [most notable among these the witch from Hansel and Gretel]). In contrast, youth is vigorous and industrious (the young man works hard every day, even just for himself), hard-working and virtuous (like the snail-woman, who is properly bashful about sexual relations, yet still the perfect wife because of her domestic skills and obedience). This story is in the classical tradition of youth and vigor triumphing over age and corruption. What a happy ending!
Of course, there are bones that can be picked with this fairy tale. I mean really: the snail woman would like nothing better than to be the young man’s domestic slave. That’s what she asks for: to be brought home with him so she can cook and clean. This happens also in The Brothers Grimm tale “Der Liebste Roland;” a girl who has been magicked into a flower cooks and cleans for the man who finds her when he’s away from the house. Moral of the story: Girls, be domestic, work hard and obey, and you’re ensured virtue and a man.
This is one half of the “supernatural spouse” tradition, the other half is filled with stories like “The Woodcutter and the Heavenly Maiden” (which can also be found in Han’s book), in which the heavenly spouse, by marrying the woodcutter, forgets her divinity. She is reminded of it one day, and vanishes with their three children. So either you keep that heavenly spouse under your thumb, or she’ll run out on you. There’s no room for a more “normal” marriage here; the fairy tale’s stick to their didactic purpose, teach the gender roles, and hope they stick. Women = obedient, industrious, and Men = authority, also industrious.
Parting thought: this isn’t exactly a story I’d the kids. Even though it’s basically violence-free and cute as a button, it has some subliminal gender-roles stuff that I seriously don’t like. That being said, its great for fairy tale geeks because of the similarities it shares to tales in other culture, and for its classic youth v. age theme.