Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Princes in Disguise – Part One

Woodcut 1493

A Cup

I sip my chamomile tea, sitting here, late night, in my study. I promised Melissa I would do this at the same time she does; a sort of sympathetic magic. I really want a tumbler of Powers Irish Whiskey, but a promise is a promise.

There is no fire on the hearth; it is far too warm tonight for that, but staring into the fireplace gives me comfort.

“How nice of you to join me.” Melissa’s face hovers above me.

“Where am I?” I sit up from a bed.

“In my dream.”

I look around at a palatial bedroom, replete with a canopy bed, which I occupy, tapestries hanging on the walls, and lead-glass windows.

“I take it you dream in style.”

“And why not? I deserve the best in illusions.”

“Can you dream me up a dram of Powers whiskey?”

She points to the far end of the room, where sits a familiar bottle and a tumbler on a low table.

I rise to go help myself when the table, bottle, tumbler, and the tapestry hanging above it, which had been as solid as the other three walls a moment ago, parts like a stage curtain.

Drat.

Through it, an old woman, hobbling with a cane, approaches us, making for an ornamental, carved wooden chair by my bedside. She eases herself down into it with a sigh, then regards Melissa and me with a critical eye before beginning a story.

 “Once upon a time …”

There was a king who had no heir until a gypsy woman tells him that he will have a son, but the lad, when he is ten, is destined to be carried off by an ogre. All this comes to pass. The king and queen, broken-hearted, die.

When the lad turns eighteen, he succeeds in drugging the ogre with a certain herb, takes the key, which the ogre always carried with him, and opens the door of the ogre’s tower.

Free at last, he crosses a bridge at the end of which lies a lion and a lamb. In front of the lion is a pile of grass. In front of the lamb a pile of flesh. The lad moves the grass in front of the lamb and the flesh in front of the lion. Each creature gives him a hair saying, “If ever you have need of anything, singe one of these hairs, and you will have your wish.”

The lad exchanges his royal dress for that of a poor man’s; he covers his golden hair with an animal skin, causing children to call him Scabby Head; and takes on the position of a gardener at a palace.

During an annual festival, when all of the royal household are attending, the youngest princess stays behind and, from her window, sees the gardener, but he appears to her as a prince with golden hair, on a white horse, cutting at the flowers with his sword.

The next year, during the festival, the same thing happens, and she asks him who he is. He tells her his story and how he singed the hairs of the animal helpers so that she will see him in his true form.

Shortly after, the king instructs his daughters to throw a golden apple at the person they wish to marry. The eldest two choose princes and the youngest the scabby-headed gardener. The king is angered, and the youngest princess then lives with her husband in his cottage.

Years later, the king loses his sight, which can only be restored by the Water of Life. The three sons-in-law go in search. The gardener singes a hair and gets the Water of Life and tricks his brothers-in-law into thinking they have it.

After the scabby-headed gardener restores the king’s sight, he singes one of the hairs, transforms into his princely self, and tells his story. The prince and the youngest princess return to the palace and eventually rule.

“Thank you for the story,” says Melissa, “but I am on a quest for a way into a magic forest.”

“I know, my dear. From this story, I give you the door of the ogre’s tower as your door into the forest.”

Melissa smiles at the same time that I jolt awake, back in my comfy chair in my study. In place of my teacup is a tumbler and bottle of Powers.

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Prince in Disguise – Part Two

A Problem

I am surprised at Melissa’s dour face when I enter her bookshop the next morning.

“Melissa, why are you not delighted? You have your doorway into the Magic Forest.”

“I have the key to the door.” She holds it up to show me, an ornate silver one. “It was by my bedside in the morning.”

“I got a bottle of Powers in the same way,” I gloat.

“I have the key,” she reiterates. “But the dream ended abruptly. Where is the door?”

“Oh,” I say. We stare at each other, then break out in laughter at our dilemma.

“I’ll know it when I see it. There is an image of the door burnt into my brain but no clues as to where it is.”

“Listen,” I say, “there are probably hints in the story she told us as to where we can find your door.”

“A good thought. Let me brew up some tea, and we will contemplate.”

In a few minutes, we are settled on good, soft chairs sipping some Lady Grey.

“The door,” Melissa frowns, “may be disguised in some way, much as the prince is disguised.”

“What about that?” I say. “So many fairy-tale heroes and heroines feel the need to go into disguise for no apparent reason. Our hero takes on the appearance of a wretch but why?”

Melissa raises her right hand, fingers outstretched. “One,” she curls in her thumb with her other hand, “he is a prince.

“Two,” her left hand curls in her pointing finger, “he has been abducted by an ogre.

“Three,” she pulls in her middle finger, “his parents are dead and he has lost his status.

“Four,” her hand draws in her ring finger, “he frees himself and is on his life’s adventure. 

“I have my pinky finger left. What is the next point?”

“Your little finger represents the better part of the storyline. We are only up to him getting away from the ogre,” I muse.

Melissa temples her fingers and rests her chin on them. “I am thinking of Cinderella.”

“Why?” She is losing me.

“They have both fallen from their rightful situation in life to a low station.”

True.

“She is forced there by her stepmother and stepsisters, he by his own choice.”

I am warming to her notion. She continues.

“In both cases, they are seen by others in their humble state and not in their true nature.”

Melissa stares at the ceiling before speaking again.

“Having assumed and/or fallen into that lowly position, they cannot say, ‘Oh, by the way, I am really a prince (or princess). They no longer have that ability.”

She stops, squints, then speaks again.

“To appear in their true form, they need a fairy godmother or singed hairs and then for only a brief time.”

“The clock strikes twelve,” I say and pick up her thread. “But to finally emerge from their disguise, the false assumption of others, there has to be an event.”

Melissa’s eyes brighten. “With Cinderella, it is the prince fitting her with the glass slipper.”

“For our hero,” I conclude, “it is getting the Water of Life.”

Melissa raises her little finger. “Here is the point. They, for whatever magical or psychological reasons, cannot promote themselves. They need to be discovered.”

“Bravo,” I say. “Does that get us closer to finding your door?”

“No.” Melissa is crestfallen. “Let’s start over.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2021 The Prince in Disguise – Part Three

Water of Life (Grimm) Louis Rhead

An Answer

“By the way,” Melissa says, “I found a version of the story she told us in Modern Greek Folktales, by Dawkins, titled The Prince in Disguise.”

“And, by the way,” I say, “who was she who told us the story?”

Melissa smiles at me unhelpfully.

“Well then,” I continue, “might there be a clue in the singeing of the hairs?”

“That is an element original to this story, I think.” Melissa sips her tea, which I suspect has grown cold.

“In the Greek folktales,” I state, “I have come across instances of the hero dividing some sort of spoils among three creatures. In one case a lion, an eagle, and an ant. For his wise judgment, the animals grant him magical abilities.

“In this story, it is a lion and a lamb—which has Christian overtones—settled at the end of a bridge. The lad corrects the situation he sees, not making a judgment as I’ve read before. It is different.”

“And your take on the singeing of hairs?” Melissa quizzes.

“As you say, may be unique to this tale. I’ve not seen it before. And how many times can he singe these hairs? Do the hairs restore themselves? Is there a difference between singeing the lion’s hair and lamb’s hair? The story does not tell us any of this.”

“Nor,” Melissa wags a finger, “does this get me closer to my door.”

“Well then,” I say, in an attempt to humor her, “let’s move on to the golden apples the sisters throw at their husbands-to-be.”

“I see no hints there either.” Melissa shakes her head. “Though, let me say, the golden apples seem to be a particularly Greek thing.”

“Hmmm.” I probe my memory. “There are the three golden apples given to Melanion by Aphrodite to distract Atalanta during their race. Also, there  is the golden apple of the goddess of discord, Eris, which involves Aphrodite again, and leads to the Trojan War. Hera had an entire golden apple tree guarded by the dragon Ladon, from which Heracles steals some apples.”

Melissa raises any eyebrow. “You know your Greek mythology. The golden apples stray into Eastern European stories, but in Northern Europe there are golden balls and even some golden heads. I don’t recall any golden apples. There must be some. However, I don’t recall any, which is strange because in Norse mythology it is Idun’s golden apples that keep the gods and goddess youthful and healthy—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—and yet that image has not seeped into the northern fairy tales.”

“And,” I intrude, “apples are not doorways.”

“True,” Melissa sighs.

“The next notable item in our tale is the Water of Life, which to the Irish is an alternate name for their whiskey.”

Melissa smiles at me. “Be that as it may, the Water of Life is not just an Irish or Greek thing. There is even a Grimm story by the same name as well as a Spanish tale that I know of.”

“Are there any hints to your doorway embedded in them?”

“I think not.”

“Then I have only one suggestion,” I say, empting my cold cup of tea. “Our hero disguised himself as a gardener. Might your doorway be in a garden?”

Melissa’s eyes widen. “It might. In the fairy tales, a woodcutter is a woodcutter, but gardeners are usually someone special in disguise. I said, at the start of our inquiry, the doorway might be disguised. When do we start our tour of gardens?”

Your thoughts?