Thursday, March 08, 2007

Obscure Fairy Tale: The Princess in the Chest

As many of you already know, I've been sharing obscure fairy tales that I discovered while researching INTO THE WILD...

Today's tale stuck with me because the hero is no Prince Charming. And the princess is not your standard princess either. Their tale appears in THE PINK FAIRY BOOK by Andrew Lang. I'm sure some of you have heard of the Andrew Lang fairy-tale books. With some notable exceptions, the famous tales are in the primary color books. By the time you get to "pink," you start finding tales that will never make it into a Disney movie (not even direct-to-DVD!). And once you reach "olive" and "gray"... Just be glad there's not a "puce fairy book"...

Anyway, without further ado:

The Princess in the Chest (a Danish tale from THE PINK FAIRY BOOK by Andrew Lang)

A childless king says to his queen, "I am going away for a year. If you haven't given birth by the time I return, then I will leave you."

Let's stop right here. Um... Not to pry into your personal life, your majesty, but don't you want to perhaps be involved? Do we need to talk about the birds and the bees? Or are you just going to always wonder why your kid bears such a striking resemblance to the stableboy?

In despair, the queen consults a local wise woman, who tells her that she must go to the king's garden before sunrise, find a bush with three buds and hairy leaves, and eat the middle bud. Then once the child is born, she and the king must not see the child again until she turns fourteen years old.

Quite the serious conditions for this miracle. I'm thinking that the stableboy would have come with fewer strings. Can't speak to whether he's less hairy than the leaves, though.

Six months later, the queen gives birth to a girl and hands her to a nurse to hide in a secluded part of the castle. When the king returns home, he wants to see his daughter, but the queen says no. Nearly fourteen years pass...

No, I don't know why the child is born prematurely. It's never mentioned again. But I do think that someone should call Child Services and tell them about the kid locked up in the castle. And I hope they checked that nurse's references really carefully.

The night before the princess's fourteenth birthday, the king says to the queen, "I can't and won't wait any longer. A few hours, more or less, can't make any difference."

Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. Go watch some Saturday Night Live reruns or something and wait until morning. Idiot.

The king bursts in on his daughter, who embraces him and then says, "Tomorrow, I will die and you must choose one of three things: pestilence, war, or to set my body inside a chest in a church and place a sentinel there every night for a year."

Personally, I don't think His Royal Idiotness deserved a hug.

The king sets a sentinel in the church every night. Every morning, the sentinel is gone. This continues for nearly a year.

Nearly a year? That's, like, 300 missing men! No one saw a problem with this?

A rumor spreads that the dead princess is eating the sentinels, so the king begins offering large sums of gold to attract new ones.

OK, at least someone noticed. But still... what idiot would agree to be a sentinel after 300 men went missing? Enter our Prince Charming...

One night, a merry young smith enters town, drinks more than he should at a local inn, and boasts that he is not afraid to stand guard. So his new friends bring him to the colonel, who dresses him in uniform and shuts him into the church. After a few hours, the effects of the wine begin to wear off, and the smith decides to run away.

Ahhh, my hero.

The moment the smith steps out the door, a little man appears and says, "You may not run away, but I will give you some advice: hide in the pulpit until you hear the lid of a chest slam down." The smith obeys. At twelve o'clock, the lid of the princess's chest opened, and the princess, now hideously ugly, sprang out, "Sentry, come here, or you shall have the worst death imaginable!"

FYI, this isn't one of those "love at first sight" stories.

The smith stays in the pulpit, and the princess howls and shrieks but cannot reach him. In the morning, the king rewards him with gold, and the smith boasts that if the king will give him twice as much gold tomorrow, he'll stand guard again. The king agrees, and events repeat: the smith enjoys himself at the inn, is shut up in the church for the night, attempts to run away once he sobers up, and is stopped by a little man. This time, the little man instructs him to stand in front of the altar. The smith obeys.

Let's stop right here for a minute. Why exactly is the dead princess now a she-beast? And who the heck is the little man? Did I miss something?

The second night, the princess again emerges from the chest and threatens to kill the smith. Her appearance is somewhat less hideously ugly.

Events again repeat: the smith agrees to stay again for the promise of more gold, drinks himself silly, attempts to escape, and is stopped by the little man who instructs him. This time, the little man says that he must jump into the princess's chest as soon as she emerges and stay there until dawn. The smith again obeys.

The princess again howls and shrieks. After an hour, the smith hears soft music, many footsteps, and the voice of a priest conducting a wedding ceremony. At daybreak, the smith emerges from the chest to find the princess, alive, not hideous, and crying on the altar of the church.

Why is she crying? She's been saved. Does she miss being a she-beast?

She stops crying when she sees him, thanks him for breaking the spell, and tells him that he can marry her if he chooses. If he chooses not to, then she will go to a nunnery and he can never marry anyone else because they have been married in a ceremony of the dead.

Talk about an ultimatum. Sheesh. He either marries the (formerly dead and monstrous) woman who has been threatening to kill him for the past three nights, or he spends the rest of his life single. The princess is quite the romantic, though kudos to her for being the one to propose rather than waiting for him to produce a ring. Very non-medieval of her.

He agrees to marry her, and he inherits the kingdom when the king dies.

And now the kingdom is ruled by a drunken, cowardly braggart and his cannabalistic wife. Speaking of which... what about all the other sentinels? Did the dead princess really eat them? Here's what the tale says, verbatim:

"As for the other sentries, with so many doors and windows open, no doubt they had run away, and gone into the Prussian service. And as for what the smith said he saw, he had been drinking more wine than was good for him."

They ran away?!? All of them? All 300+ of them? With no word ever to anyone? Nuh-uh. I don't think so. And even assuming it made sense for them all to have run away, why would they have run away if the smith merely imagined everything he saw in a drunken stupor? Not buying it. I think Miss Charming totally ate them.

No idea what happened to the little man.

This tale really leaves you hanging. If you're itching for more, check out my other obscure fairy tale posts: The Juniper Tree, Molly Whuppie, Tatterhood, Jack My Hedgehog, or The Wishing Table.

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25 Comments:

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Ryan Freebern said...

Wow, that's fascinating. We have a copy of the Blue Fairy Book downstairs, but it's fairly mundane as fairy tales go. Now I'm going to keep an eye out for the odd-colored ones, since this is much more interesting!

Thanks for the recommendation.

 
At 9:34 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

RYAN: Glad you liked. :)

The odd-colored ones definitely have some fun tales. A few of them you wonder if Lang was just yanking your chain and making them up...

 
At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Janni said...

"Gone into the Prussian service." The new euphemism for "was made to disappear." :-)

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger Michael said...

That fairy tale deserves a good old-fashioned...

WTF!

That's all I can say. Seriously. What. The. Frogging. FROG!

That reads like a couple of guys were making it up, taking turns, writing on bar napkins, while drinking heavily.

There's GOTTA be a story to salvage from that train wreck.

 
At 4:55 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

JANNI: I think I'm going to start using that in casual conversation...

MICHAEL: I may also start using "frogging frog" in casual conversation...

Totally agree about the bar napkins thing. Sometimes I wonder if Andrew Lang, the Grimm Brothers, etc. were simply hard of hearing and that's why there are so many disjointed tales... ("What was that? Bass slipper? Brass slipper? Oh, glass slipper?")

 
At 5:21 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Bass slipper!

"Well first ye clean the fish, and then ye gut the fish, and then ye WEAR THE FISH! Like a slipper, aye! Sure it smells, and it's slippery, but it keeps yer feet warm it does!"

 
At 5:08 PM, Blogger Little Willow said...

Gotta love his books!

 
At 11:03 AM, Blogger Erin said...

I love these so much! Keep 'em coming. :)

 
At 2:33 PM, Blogger Faith said...

Okay, Sarah, you convinced me. I picked up a copy of Grimm's Grimmest today at Half Price Books. They didn't have any of the odd-colored fairy books, or I'd have nabbed some of those as well. But Grimm's Grimmest looks pretty grim for starters!

I actually think I can work these into a Chaucer project I'm working on, in which case I will definitely have to mention you in my acknowledgements. :)

 
At 2:56 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

MICHAEL: Slippers also available in the following styles: goldfish, salmon, and grouper.

LITTLE WILLOW: I heard there's even a Rainbow Fairy Book that includes the greatest hits from his various color fairy books...

ERIN: Thanks! So glad you're enjoying them! They're really fun to write.

FAITH: I haven't read Grimm's Grimmest yet. Let me know how it is!

 
At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your commentary on these stories. The odd colored fairy books are great! Have you read "The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy" from The Violet Fairy Book?
http://www.mythfolklore.net/andrewlang/053.htm

 
At 12:00 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

ANONYMOUS: Ooh, yeah, that's a fabulous one. Lots of great scenes, plus an unusual ending.

Glad to hear you like the commentary! It's really fun to do.

 
At 10:44 PM, Anonymous Djiril said...

That reads like a couple of guys were making it up, taking turns, writing on bar napkins, while drinking heavily.
Sounds like a pretty accurate description of the folk process to me! :D

 
At 5:13 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

DJIRIL: I totally agree!

I think a whole slew of folktales read as if they were the result of a generation-spanning game of Telephone where several of the people playing were really hard of hearing... Or maybe a MadLibs game. ("I need a noun here... Glass? OK, she wears glass slippers...")

 
At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Lucas B. said...

This is great stuff! I've been reading the Andrew Lang Books since I was 10. What do you think you'll be posting next in the Obscure/Not-So Obscure catebory?

 
At 8:28 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: I haven't decided yet. Any requests?

 
At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Lucas B. said...

I think some pretty odd and weird fairy tales are: The Twelve Months, Vasilissa the Beautiful, The Enchanted Snake, The Clinking Clanking Lowesleaf (I'm not reading that title straight from the book, so it might be mispelled), and Tattercoats.

 
At 9:07 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: Ooh, those are good ones. I'm blanking on what Tattercoats is about. I have done one called Tatterhood (http://sarahbethdurst.blogspot.com/2006/10/obscure-fairy-tale-tatterhood.html). Which Lang book is Tattercoats in?

 
At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Lucas B. said...

I don't think Tattercoats is in one of them. It's a variation of Cinderella. Basically, this little girl is born right before her mother the princess dies, and her grandad blames it on her. She is neglected and abused during her childhood, with only the goose herder as her friend. She and her friend sneak off to a ball in another land, the goose herder (a faery in disguise) turns her rags into riches, and she marries the prince. Look it up on: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tattercoats/ .

 
At 12:30 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: Ah, yes, I remember now. Thanks! The version I know best is called "Little Ragamuffin."

 
At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Lucas B. said...

Another good one is "Thumbelina". Lang introduced it as "Little Maia", but he changed it even more then Disney changes their movies! I reccomend the original:
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Thumbelina.

 
At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Lucas B. said...

I usually picture the Undead Princess as a zombie-werewolf.

 
At 5:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happens to the nurse? what does she do to pass the time? or do the nurse's get switched out on a weekly basis or something? also people in fairytales are a lot more stupid then anyone should be.
Do fairy tale people have farytales or fables or anything to teach them to never go near talking inanimate thing or old people or apples

 
At 4:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your witty comments makes reading these so brilliant. I've steam reading through them all, trying to find inspiration for song lyrics (although I dont think cannibalism makes for soothing lyrics, but hey these are great so Imma keep read)

 
At 4:14 PM, Blogger Donald Sauter said...

Remember that this version has been expurgated. In his introduction, Lang writes, "The Danish story of 'The Princess in the Chest' need not be read to very nervous child, as it rather borders on ghost story. It has been altered, and is really much more horrid in the language of the Danes, who, as history tells us, were not nervous or timid people."

I haven't been able to find the "original". Anyone else?

 

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