As you know if you were reading this blog during November, I wrote a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” for National Novel Writing Month. My narrator, Lyra, was a storyteller, so within the novel I wrote several short stories for her to tell. I want to share one with you today–you may recognize the beginning, as I put up an excerpt in November. But today I’m posting the whole story. 🙂
Writing stories for Lyra was particularly interesting, because I had to think about the kind of stories she would tell. For one thing, she has a more poetic style than I do (if that makes any sense!) She also lives inside of a Brothers Grimm story, and has been reading that type of story her whole life. So when I wrote stories for her, I wanted to create something that was very Brothers Grimm-influenced, but hopefully makes a bit more sense to a modern audience!
This story isn’t based on any particular fairy tale, but throws some traditional elements together–with twists.
Once upon a time, there was a shopkeeper’s daughter who was very beautiful. It was a sad fact that because she was beautiful, people’s automatic inclination was to do things for her. That might not have been so bad in itself, but she had realized this tendency early on and loved to take advantage of it.
When her mother asked her to clean the house or to help with the laundry, she’d make endless excuses to get out of it, preferring to spend the time combing her hair or trying on different dresses. When her mother did insist on her working, she was so slow about it that the good woman would eventually give up in exasperation and do the job herself.
When her father asked her to mind the shop, she would avoid helping customers if at all possible, and when she couldn’t avoid it she was as slow as you could imagine. She asked the customers to pack up their own purchases and couldn’t be bothered even to do the counting to hand out change. You may expect that service was slow and the customers ended up waiting around, whenever she was minding the shop. The men, however, so enjoyed looking at her that they didn’t often complain. Her father still knew that he was losing business because not everyone was willing to wait—and he wasn’t winning customers to his shop from the women in town.
One day the prince of that country passed through the town and his party stopped at the shop to buy fresh supplies for their journey. It happened to be a day when the girl was (in theory) helping in the shop. The prince saw her, and was sure that he had never seen anyone so beautiful, which may have been true. He had been reading too many stories, and become convinced that such a beautiful face could only indicate a kind nature, a worthy spirit, and a personality that would match his own—in other words, that her beauty proved she was his soul mate, which it didn’t at all.
He proposed to her at once. She was lazy but she wasn’t stupid, and she was quite sure that the wife of a handsome prince would have all the dresses she could ever want, and no work to do at all. She accepted, and off they went to the royal castle.
Now, the queen was not so naïve as her son, nor was she in a position to be so swept away by the girl’s beauty. When they arrived at the castle, she took a good look at the girl and decided that it was time to slow things down a bit. She announced that it was grand and wonderful that her son had fallen in love, but of course if they were going to be married, there was a tradition to be tended to first. The bride must pass three tests in order to marry the prince.
The girl was not at all pleased by the idea, but she could hardly openly refuse. So she smiled sweetly and said she would be only too willing, and the queen smiled sweetly back and said that she had just known that was what she would say, and that this surely would be no trouble at all. Then the queen told the girl a riddle, and sent her off to a guest bedroom to think about an answer, to be given in the morning.
There was someone else at the castle who was intensely interested in the prince’s new bride—there were many someones, in fact, but one which we need be concerned with, and that was the castle enchantress. She was not the venerable and other-worldly sort you might imagine. In fact, she was quite new to the job, though not to the castle. She had lived there all her life, had shown a talent for magic, and at the appropriate age had been apprenticed to the previous enchantress. She was very fond of the prince, and very interested in the girl he had chosen, and very curious about the riddle the queen had given…and all those very’s led to her dropping by the guest bedroom. Just to see how the girl was getting on, you understand.
The girl let the enchantress in readily enough, but the enchantress was dismayed to find that she wasn’t getting on with the riddle at all. The girl announced that the riddle was just so much nonsense, and she wasn’t going to bother her head about nonsense.
The enchantress had known the queen all her life, and she highly doubted that the queen would have set a nonsensical riddle. She asked the girl to tell her the riddle; the girl didn’t remember it exactly, but the queen had thoughtfully had it written down. The enchantress read it through, and found that it wasn’t nonsense at all. It was based on references to several well-known pieces of that country’s classic literature, with special emphasis on two of the prince’s particular favorites.
At first the enchantress thought that she’d just give the girl a couple of pushes in the right direction, to be friendly. But she pushed and pushed and finally realized that pushing would do no good whatsoever because the girl really didn’t recognize the references. Reading classic literature was something she had certainly never seen the point in. Now the enchantress thought that it would be a terrible shame if the prince couldn’t marry the girl he had fallen in love with, just because she hadn’t read a few books (or, apparently, paid much attention to any discussions on the subject). So finally she just gave her the answer. The enchantress had read all the books; she and the prince had been debating for years about the ambiguous ending of one of his favorites.
The girl gave the answer in the morning, and the queen said that was all very well and now there was the second task to be thought of. The girl pouted prettily and said she was dreadfully tired on account of not sleeping well for thinking about the riddle, and surely there wasn’t any need for a second task, really? The queen said they could wait a bit, and then on the morning of the third day sent her back to her bedroom to tend to the second task.
The enchantress was still very curious, and also she felt rather a vested interest now. She told herself she ought to just leave matters to resolve themselves, and waited an hour, and then went to see how it was going anyway. She found the girl sitting on the floor next to an enormous barrel, and two large bowls. When the enchantress peered over the edge of the barrel, she saw a mixture of lentils and dried peas, reaching up to the top of the barrel.
The task, the girl explained, was to separate the lentils and peas. She also explained that she thought it was quite impossible and entirely pointless and she was most certainly not going to bother. Queens didn’t need to be able to separate lentils and peas.
The enchantress had to agree that it was a very strange request, and she wouldn’t have thought it like the queen to ask for such a thing. And since it was so silly…and since she did want the prince to be happy…and since he apparently was in love with this girl who no doubt had all sorts of lovely qualities… The enchantress sighed and waved her hands and cast a spell. The peas and the lentils began jumping out of the barrel on their own, skipping across the ground in a neat line, and hopping into the two bowls, peas on the right, lentils on the left.
This went on for only a few minutes, and the level in the barrel had only dropped a few inches, when the enchantress noticed that the lentils had stopped. The peas were still coming out, but there were no lentils in the line. She looked into the barrel, and saw that, after the very top, it was all dried peas. What had seemed like an impossible task might have been done easily enough after all, with perhaps half an hour of concentrated effort. She made this observation to the girl, who said that it was easy for her to say, as she had magic, which the enchantress thought was rather missing the point.
The next morning the girl presented the separated peas and lentils, and asked if they were done with all this silliness now. The queen looked very thoughtful, asked her a question about one of the books referenced in the riddle, asked her how long it had taken to separate the lentils and the peas, and then suggested she take a nice walk out in the garden before the third task. The girl did not feel at all inclined to go hiking about over pathways, but supposed she could find a bench somewhere.
The enchantress happened to be out in the garden as well; she usually took a walk this time of the morning. The two bumped into each other and the enchantress told the girl she really had to see the rose gardens, because they were the prince’s favorites. The girl said she would if she must, although surely she could look at them after they were cut and put into vases inside. But they went to the rose gardens, and there they encountered a little boy who was crying. The girl asked if he really had to make so much noise, and the enchantress asked him what was the matter.
The boy said that he had hurt his hand on a rosebush’s thorns, and though the enchantress couldn’t see anything wrong with his hand she supposed that small children often made a big deal out of very little. So she wrapped up his hand in a handkerchief and then used her magic to make big purple bubbles that weren’t ordinary round bubbles but formed interesting shapes. The girl said they were pretty enough but rather tedious, and the little boy laughed and asked for different shapes and said he’d have to tell the queen about the hippo especially.
That was when the enchantress realized that this must have been the third task and, quite unintentionally this time, she had interfered again. She looked at the girl and for a moment thought that maybe it was just as well because after all, what did the prince see in her anyway? But he apparently saw something in her because he was in love with her, although suddenly the thought made the enchantress rather sad…but it still wasn’t fair that he shouldn’t be able to marry the girl he was in love with when the girl hadn’t really had any chance to try at the third task and perhaps would have done perfectly well given the opportunity…
So the enchantress told the boy that he must tell the queen it was the other girl who had helped him, because that would make everyone much happier. Even as she said it, though, she felt very strongly that this was a lie—it wouldn’t make her happier.
The boy scampered off back into the castle, and the enchantress and the girl followed more slowly. In the throne room, they found the queen and the prince waiting for them, report already received from the little boy. The enchantress bit her lip and then agreed with the little boy’s story that it was the girl who had helped him. The girl herself was ready enough to agree as well, once she saw the significance of the question.
But the queen asked rather pointedly how a girl with no ability at magic had produced purple bubbles shaped like a hippopotamus, and then the game, as they say, was up. The enchantress steeled herself for disaster and heartbreak, and was entirely taken aback to find that the prince was more relieved than not. By now he’d had enough time to actually talk to this girl he’d so impulsively proposed to, and while he may have been impulsive, he wasn’t stupid either. He was rethinking that beauty-equates-perfection assumption he had made.
The girl was politely ushered back home, on the grounds of the tasks having been left unmet, and given some nice jewelry as a consolation. She eventually married a wealthy merchant, but spent the rest of her life complaining that she had been robbed of her chance to be queen.
The prince, meanwhile, confronted with the actual facts of the three tasks, found that he was looking at the enchantress in an entirely new way, while the enchantress found that she had to think a bit about why exactly it was so important to her that the prince be happy. And so, not immediately but soon enough, there was a wedding after all. The queen said the tasks could be waived this time.