[This tale came to the Grimm brothers from Münsterland through the good offices of the Haxthausen family. It was first published as no. 47 in the edition of 1815, and renumbered 133 in the 1819 edition. About the Grimm Collection.]
There was once a king who had twelve daughters, each more beautiful than the other. They slept together in a big room where their beds stood side by side, and at night when they were in bed, the king would shut the door and bolt it. But when he’d open the door in the morning, he’d see that their slippers were worn out from dancing, and no one could discover how that had happened. Then the king had it proclaimed that whoever could find out where they danced during the night might choose one of them as his bride and be king after him. If, however, anybody presented himself and didn’t find out after three days and three nights, his life would be forfeit.
It wasn’t long before a king’s son presented himself and offered to undertake the venture. He was well received and at night was conducted to a room adjoining the maidens’ bedchamber. His bed was set up there, and he was to watch out and see where they went and danced. In order that they might do nothing secretly or go out anywhere else, the chamber door, too, was left open. Nevertheless, the eyes of the king’s son got as heavy as lead, and he fell asleep. When he woke up in the morning, all twelve had been to the dance, for their slippers were there and had holes in the soles. It went no differently the second and the third night, and then his head was struck off without mercy. Many more came after that and presented themselves for the venture, but all were fated to lose their lives.
Now it happened that a poor soldier, who was suffering from a wound and could no longer do military service, found himself on the way to the city where the king dwelt. There he met an old woman who asked him where he was going. “I really don’t know myself,” he said and added jokingly, “I’d like to find out where the king’s daughters wear out their slippers dancing, and thus become king.” “That’s not so hard,” said the old woman. “You mustn’t drink the wine that will be brought you at night, and you must pretend to have gone fast asleep.” Thereupon she gave him a little cloak and said, “When you put that on, you’ll be invisible and can then stalk the twelve maidens.”
When the soldier got this good advice, he took the matter seriously, plucked up courage, went before the king and presented himself as a suitor. He was received as well as the others had been and was dressed in royal clothes. That evening at bedtime he was led to the anteroom and when he was going to bed, the eldest daughter came and brought him a tumbler of wine. He had, however, tied a sponge under his chin, let the wine run into it, and didn’t drink a drop. Then he lay down and after lying there a while, began to snore as if he were sleeping very soundly. The king’s twelve daughters heard it and laughed, and the eldest said, “He, too, might have saved his life.”
Then they got up, opened wardrobes, chests, and boxes, and got out splendid clothes. They decked themselves out before the mirrors, skipped about, and looked forward joyfully to the dance. But the youngest said, “I don’t know. You’re happy, but I have a strange feeling: a misfortune is surely going to befall us.” “You’re a perfect goose,” said the eldest, “always scared! Have you forgotten how many kings’ sons have already been here in vain? I really needn’t have given the soldier a potion; the lout wouldn’t have waked up anyway.”
When they were all ready, they first took a look at the soldier, but he had his eyes shut, neither moved nor stirred, and they believed that they were now quite safe. Then the eldest went to her bed and knocked on it. Immediately it sank into the floor, and they climbed down through the opening, one after the other, the eldest leading the way. The soldier, who had seen the whole thing, didn’t hesitate long, threw on his cloak, and climbed down with them, following the youngest. Halfway down the stairs he stepped slightly on her dress. Then she got frightened and cried, “What’s that? Who’s holding my dress?” “Don’t be so silly,” said the eldest. “You caught on a hook.” They went all the way down and when they were at the bottom, found themselves in a most splendid avenue of trees; all the leaves were of silver and glistened and shone. “You’d better take a token along with you,” thought the soldier and broke off a branch. Then a tremendous crackling noise issued from the tree, and again the youngest cried, “Things aren’t right! Did you hear the report?” But the eldest said, “Those are shots of joyful celebration because we shall soon have freed our princes.”
Next they came to an avenue of trees where all the leaves were of gold, and finally to a third where they were of clear diamonds. From both these he broke off a branch, and each time there was a report, so that the youngest started in terror. The eldest, however, maintained that they were shots of joyful celebration. They went on and came to a big body of water; on it were twelve skiffs and in each skiff was sitting a handsome prince. They had been waiting for the twelve maidens, and each took one to himself, while the soldier got in with the youngest. Then the prince said, “I don’t know! The boat’s much heavier today, and I have to row as hard as I can to make any headway.” “What can be the cause of that but the warm weather?” said the youngest. “I feel quite warm, too.” On the other side of the water stood a beautiful mansion, brightly lighted, from which came a jolly sound of drums and trumpets.
They rowed across, went in, and each prince danced with his beloved, and the soldier danced along invisibly. Whenever one of the maidens was holding a tumbler of wine, he’d drain it dry by the time she got it to her mouth. The youngest was worried about that, too, but the eldest kept silencing her. They danced there till three the next morning; then all the slippers were worn through from dancing, and they had to stop. The princes brought them back across the water, and this time the soldier sat up front by the eldest. On the shore they took leave of their princes and promised to come back the following night. When they got to the stairs, the soldier ran ahead and lay down in his bed, and when the twelve came tripping slowly and wearily in, he was already again snoring so loud that they could all hear it. “We’re safe as far as he’s concerned,” they said. Then they took off their fine clothes, put them away, placed the worn-out dancing slippers under their beds and lay down.
The next morning the soldier decided not to say anything but rather to observe the strange business some more, and went again on the second and third nights. It was all like the first time, and each time they danced until their slippers were in shreds. The third time he took along a tumbler as a token.
When the hour arrived when he was to answer up, he took the three branches and the tumbler and went before the king while the twelve maidens stood behind the door and listened to what he might say. When the king put the question, “Where did my daughters wear out their dancing slippers during the night?” he answered, “With twelve princes in an underground mansion,” reported how it happened and took out the tokens. Then the king had his daughters come and asked them if the soldier had told the truth. When they saw that they were betrayed and that there was no use denying it, they had to confess everything. Then the king asked him which one he wanted to marry. “I’m no longer young,” he answered, “so give me the eldest.” The wedding was celebrated that very same day, and the kingdom was promised him after the king’s death.
The princes were again enchanted for as many days as the number of nights they had danced with the twelve maidens.