Ricky is not a name automatically associated with fairy tales – generally if someone is named, they will hold the traditional hero name of Jack, or possibly Hans – but in this fairy tale, taken from the Puffin Books collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, Ricky is apparently the family name of royalty. When a queen produces a son so misshapen he can barely be recognised as human, the fairy present at the birth tries to mitigate her depression by predicting that the boy will be brilliant of mind, and gives him a very surprising gift – not beauty, as might have been expected in the circumstances, but the ability to bestow his own degree of intelligence upon whomsoever he should love most. Fortunately for him, he lives up to the hype from an early age, entertaining the court with his wit and wisdom. He is given the nickname Ricky of the Tuft in consequence of his one small tuft of hair, but it seems more affectionate than malicious. He is clever enough to make himself popular.
Seven or eight years later, the queen of a neighbouring kingdom gives birth to two daughters. The first is so exquisitely beautiful that the fairy present for her birth – the same who was there for Ricky’s, is she some sort of a midwife? – decides to moderate the queen’s gleeful gloating by pronouncing that the girl will grow up as stupid as she is beautiful. Because obviously a little infant can’t be allowed an ego moment. The queen’s horror is compounded moments later when the second princess is born, if not as ugly as Ricky, then at least extremely plain. Here, the fairy is on more solid ground. She decrees that this girl will be so sensible that no one will care whether she is pretty or not. As for the elder girl, the fairy backtracks slightly, giving her the gift of bestowing beauty on the one she loves. I expect you can see where this is going already. Fairy tale romance is not subtle.
As the sisters grow older, their gifts and flaws grow in equal measure. When in company together, it is the eldest to whom everyone flocks at first, drawn by her beauty – but her inanity and awkwardness quickly drive them away, while her sister’s intelligent conversation is always appreciated. The first princess is not so stupid that she isn’t aware of that, or that she can’t wish for some of her sister’s innate poise. None of this is her fault, but nothing she does can help, and even her mother doesn’t understand how hard it is for her. One day she is sitting alone in the woods, crying over her impossible situation, when an ugly little man in very pretty clothes comes towards her and introduces himself. Yes, it is Ricky of the Tuft – how did you know? He has seen the princess’s portrait and fell so deeply in love with it that he has left his father’s kingdom in order to meet her.
Her misery is unexpected. To him, beauty is the ultimate achievement, and once you have it you should be completely happy. The princess tries, somewhat ineptly, to explain her troubles. At first he refuses to accept that the princess is stupid at all – “nothing more clearly displays good sense, madam,” he insists, “than a belief that one is not possessed of it. It follows, therefore, that the more one has, the more one fears it to be wanting.” Told you he was clever. The princess doesn’t know how to argue with this, so she just tells him again how miserable she is, and he announces triumphantly that he can solve her problems with the gift bestowed on him at birth. The only condition is that she will agree to marry him. She isn’t entirely sold, weighing his looks against his promises, but at the end of the year he gives her to make up her mind, she accepts his hand. No sooner has she given her word than everything becomes clear to her. Not only can she express all the things she never could before, she can hold her own in a debate with Ricky so capably that he’s worried she’s actually cleverer than he is.
When she returns to the palace, her transformation is feted as a miracle. The only person who doesn’t like this new princess is her sister, who cannot compete with beauty and brilliance combined, and is sidelined by everybody who used to listen to her. Proposals pour in – it seems that every prince in the surrounding kingdoms wants to marry the elder princess now – but she can find none with the sense to match her own and so refuses them all. Then she meets with another prince, one who is both handsome and clever, and rich to boot. It’s tempting. She retreats to the wood to think the matter over, and there encounters Ricky once again. Well, actually, the first thing she sees are his staff. He has established a massive underground kitchen in preparation for his wedding.
Now, the princess made her promise while still without sense. When transformed, the memories of her previous life were suppressed, and she completely forgot that she had a fiance already. As if the resurfacing memory alone is enough to conjure his presence, Ricky himself appears and greets her in full expectation of her being his wife the next day. But that’s not how the princess sees things. She coolly argues her point, explaining that a promise she hesitated to make even while cursed with stupidity should not chain her against the promptings of her newfound intelligence. If he had wanted her, he should have married her while she was still stupid enough to accept. As an intelligent man himself, surely he can see that.
Ricky is in no mood for this sort of debate. Frankly, it’s insulting. “Is it reasonable,” he demands, “that people who have sense should be treated worse than those who have not?” Then he pulls himself together, making use of his own intellect. He wants to know what it is, apart from his appearance, that she finds objectionable about him – his family, his personality, his manners? The princess has to concede that she likes all these things about him. Ricky tells her of the gift she was given at birth, the mirror image of his own, and in relief she bestows it on him, as he bestowed his on her. No sooner has she agreed once more to marry him, this time intending to honour the promise, than Ricky of the Tuft is transformed into the handsomest man she has ever seen.
Some romantics of the kingdom, Perrault tells us, claim that this transformation was no fairy enchantment, but love – that in remembering all his good traits and the kindness he had shown her, that she looked at him with new eyes and he was made beautiful to her. It’s a lovely idea, but doesn’t explain her IQ count. I would have found more to like in this story if Ricky had fallen in love with the plain but clever princess. For all his intelligence, he’s still every bit as shallow as her beautiful sister.