Welcome to the first Fairy Tale Tuesday of 2013! When I first began writing these pieces back in June last year, I limited my reviews to fairy tales told by three famous names and one that should be famous – the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and Ruth Manning Sanders. That was so I didn’t completely overwhelm myself with the enormity of folk lore out there to talk about. You know what, though? I’m not overwhelmed. I’m impatient. So this is me throwing open the gates to all fairy tales and folk lore, from any and every part of the world. This week’s fairy tale comes from a book of Scottish legends, Thistle & Thyme, collected by Sorche Nic Leodhas and published by The Bodley Head Ltd. in 1962.
A Scottish king is defending his castle and lands from the raiders of a rival and it is only when the invaders have been repelled that he realises they have taken his daughter away with them. Resentful about his failure to claim the castle, the enemy king keeps the princess as a trophy, and though her father searches for her for a long time, he can find no trace of her and eventually mourns her for dead. A year later, the evil king has a brilliant idea. He will marry the beautiful princess to his son! (Yes, it took him that long to think of it.) He announces his plan to the girl in question, who doesn’t like it much, but no one cares.
That day, after a grand dinner at the king’s table, a wandering harper is invited into the hall to play for them. As he sings, his eye falls on the princess. He recognises her, but can’t put a name to her face until a song she knows brings the first smile of the night to her sad face, and he realises who she is. The story of her disappearance is not widely known. Last the harper heard, she was dead, but he has his doubts about that now. When his performance is over and he is eating in the servant’s hall, he tries to find out who the girl is and where she comes from. The only thing they will tell him is that she has been there for a year, and she is to marry the king’s son in a month’s time. That is enough to convince the harper. He steals away that night and takes the shortest road he can to the Scottish king’s castle, where he kicks up such a fuss that the guards there at last allow him in. The grieving king does not want to hear his music. It reminds him of the daughter he has lost. For the sake of his court, though, he agrees to let the harper sing, and what a song it is – of a winter’s night cut to pieces by swords, a beautiful girl stolen away, the same girl found like a rose in the wilderness.
It doesn’t have quite the effect the harper was expecting. The king leaps up, knocks the harp to the ground and demands to know who the girl is in a manner that can only be described as threatening. He has been waiting a long time for good news. When he hears that it is truly his daughter, the news spreads until the whole castle is rejoicing. A young knight overhears it all. He was in love with the princess long before she was stolen away and he is also the one who points out that if the enemy king sees an army approaching his hidden keep, he just might do something unpleasant to the girl it intends to rescue. Instead the knight suggests that he go to the enemy king’s castle disguised as a begging friar and get the princess away, after which the king can descend and take the place apart.
On the very night he sets out to retrace the harper’s steps, an Ailpein bird flies into the court of the wicked king, seeking refuge from the icy wind. Considering it an ill omen, the king orders it to be shot, but the princess catches it in her arms and refuses to let it be harmed. The king is in a good mood, dreaming of the gold he can force out of her father. He relents, letting her keep the bird, even if he can’t resist a ribald joke about other things she will soon have in her arms. The princess takes the bird back to her room and sits on the window sill, stroking its head. “Go on your way, for the storm is over,” she tells it, “and I would not have you a prisoner as I am.”
As she cries, wishing herself the wings to go home, the bird speaks. He cannot take her to her father, for he needs to return to his own land, but he can take her away from the wicked king’s castle. It’s a no-brainer. Stripping off the dress the king gave her to make her pretty for his son and putting on the dress she wore when she was first abducted, she is ready to leave. The Ailpein bird opens his wings, and keeps opening them, wider and wider until he is large enough to take the girl on his back. By dawn, they are beyond the borders of her kidnapper’s kingdom and by nightfall they are in a land of ice and snow, landing outside an immense white castle where they are greeted by a lordly white owl. The princess is put to bed in a nest of warm feathers. The next morning she returns to her place on the Ailpein bird’s back and they fly onward, until they come to a land as red as the other was white, where even the sky is on fire. Here they stay in a black castle, ruled over by a raven. As with the owl, the birds greet one another like brothers, all cheery hospitality that is also extended to the princess. She is fanned all night by the wings of other birds so that the heat does not touch her. On the third day they come to a tall mountain made of glass and on the other side, wide green country where a golden castle shines among the trees. This is the Ailpein bird’s home and now the princess’s too.
It’s an excellent turn of events for the princess and certainly an innovative way of escaping an arranged marriage. Unfortunately, the knight who has come to rescue her doesn’t know about that. By the time she reaches the golden castle, he has reached her former prison. What he finds is total chaos. The king is in a rage, the servants are in a panic, everyone is searching but the princess has completely disappeared. What is the knight to do now? As he ponders his conundrum, an old woman comes up and sits beside him, asking him to hear her sins. Guiltily remembering his disguise as a friar, the knight tries to think of a way to say no, but she is already talking and it isn’t sins she’s telling him about – or at least, they aren’t hers. Somehow she has recognised the knight for what he really is and has decided to help him. She tells him about the bird who took the princess away, and gives him detailed instructions on how to find her again, along with three white feathers that she found on the floor the morning after the princess disappeared. They will help him. Probably. She isn’t terribly clear on that part.
The knight is a strategist and recognises that this old woman is a useful ally. He leaves a message with her, which she in turn passes along to a runaway guard trying to escape the king’s wrath. With an army on its way to exact vengeance for the princess’s abduction, the knight sets off to find where she is now, travelling through kingdom after kingdom until he comes to the lands at the end of the world and only tundra lies before him. The ice is treacherous and the cold is bitter. Then he remembers the white feathers given to him by the old woman. Taking one out, it transforms in his hand into a thick white cloak, and he continues on his way untroubled by the cold. He reaches the owl’s castle, but there is no Ailpein bird to plead his case. If he wants a night’s lodging, he must prove himself to be the strongest in a battle.
Not difficult, you might think, he’s fighting an owl after all. Only it isn’t an owl anymore. It is a young man with red-gold hair who throws off his feathers and wrestles his guest all night until dawn breaks and finds no victor between them. Two words: totally pointless. Deciding that they are now not only equals, but brothers too, he gives the knight lodging and afterwards flies him to the border of his land. Here ice gives way to fire and he can no longer be of help. But the knight still has two feathers. He takes out a second one and it lifts him up over the boiling earth, carrying him to the raven’s castle, where he is once again challenged to a wrestling match. The raven downs his feathers, the two men wrestle, and when the night passes with neither besting the other the raven takes the knight for his brother just as the owl did. The next day they fly to the border of the Ailpein bird’s land. The knight uses his last feather to climb over the mountain of glass onto the green plain. At the doors of the golden castle, he is met by the Ailpein bird himself.
Another duel? Oh, no. The knight explains that he is here to bring the princess back to her father and the Ailpein bird says the magic words: “That she must decide for herself.” That’s right. No macho posturing, no demands for single combat. HE LETS THE LADY CHOOSE. Then he caps it off by telling her that though he loves her, he will let her go if that’s what she wants. I. Am. Melting.
It’s hard for the princess to decide. “I love you well,” she replies, “even as you love me. Happy I have been here, and I do not forget that you saved me from the wicked king and his son. But I must go home.” The Ailpein bird puts on a brave face, empathising with her father’s grief and applauding the knight’s steadfastness. The next day he flies both princess and knight to the borders of the three birds’ kingdoms and bids them farewell.
The knight finds horses at the first town they come to and together he and the princess ride home, passing the wicked king’s castle on their way. The princess is frightened to go near it, naturally enough, but there is nothing left where it stood – her father’s army tore the place down stone by stone. At last they reach her home. Reunited with her father, all is joy and happiness. The king, in his gratitude, then bestows her hand upon the knight who (sort of) rescued her. During the wedding feast, three birds fly through the window and land on the floor, tossing away their feathers to become three gorgeous gatecrashers. The party goes on for a week. Even when the wedding celebrations are over and the birds take on their feathers once more, they do not say goodbye. “We shall meet again!” they promise, and with that, they disappear into the sky…until next time.
This is a story of unexpected complications. Even the best laid plans laid by knights and wicked kings can sometimes go spectacularly wrong.The princess, for instance, doesn’t stay politely still while waiting for the knight to come. In fact, he doesn’t really rescue her at all. The harper gets the intel, the Ailpein bird whisks the girl away from the castle, the old woman comes up with the plan to get her back. It was a group effort. I recognise that she couldn’t marry everybody, which is the traditional fairy tale royal way of saying thank you, but if she had to marry somebody…I’m on Team Ailpein, all the way.