It is as bad an idea to make assumptions as it is hard to avoid them. For instance, people assume that the word ‘fairy tale’ is limited to the traditional princess story of childhood picture books and Disney classics. They assume that the princesses are passive, instead of philosophical, and that modern women should be embarrassed by them. They assume that the prince will always be the hero, riding to the rescue, when princes are just as likely to require rescue themselves. They assume that the woman locked in the tower is powerless. Turns out sometimes the people actually in the fairy tale assume that too, but that doesn’t mean they’re right.
This Irish fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1973 collection A Book of Sorcerers and Spells and begins the way so many do – the happiness of a royal family is shattered by the sudden death of the queen and the intense grief of her two young children, Michael and Rosa. The king decides that the best way to restore equilibrium to their lives is to take another wife. Displaying the usual romantic good sense of a fairy tale royal, he marries a woman both ambitious and evil. So far, so familiar, yes? But then one day the king walks in on his new queen reading a book of spells and muttering curses, and somehow intuits that he has married a wicked sorceress! Not only that, he does something about it. He locks the sorceress up in a tower at the edge of the sea and in a secret place surrounded by seven hills, about as far away from her as it is possible to be, he builds a beautiful little palace for the children.
For some years this plan works. The children grow up peacefully, visited often by their loving father, while the sorceress broods over spells she cannot use. But then one day, when the prince and princess are almost grown up, a raven comes tapping at the window of the tower beside the sea. “Good day and welcome, you bird of ill omen!” cries the wicked queen. “Good day to you, woman of evil thoughts!” replies the raven. And as they are being so honest and open with each other, the sorceress has him help her enact her carefully plotted revenge.
Off the raven flies to the palace between the seven hills, which is not quite so well hidden as the king hoped. He is let in through a window by friendly Princess Rosa, and promptly delivers the sorceress’s long-awaited curse – that Prince Michael shall not eat twice at the same table, nor drink twice from the same cup, nor sleep twice in the same bed, until he has brought home the calf that makes music, the calf of the red-mouthed cow that lives on the Island of Loneliness.
Furious, Rosa throws the raven to the ground, but that doesn’t bother him – he flaps off squawking with evil laughter. Rosa then runs all the way to the palace of the king, to tell him of their trouble. In a complete about turn from normal fairy tale father behaviour, he comes up with an actual workable solution: to provide his son with a new bed and table each day, and new crockery, so that the terms of the curse will be fulfilled while he remains safe in his own home. Michael, though, is determined to leave, or else he will have the curse hanging over him all his days. He makes his way through the world in search of an island that many have heard of but no one knows how to find, exhausted by ceaseless travel and homesickness.
Then one evening he comes to a castle where a beautiful young woman sits combing her hair and waiting for mysterious men to come staggering in. She greets Michael by name, giving him detailed advice and her wand to help him on his way. Duly set up with new hope, he follows her instructions to the letter. He goes down to a beach where the beautiful woman’s wand turns an oak stump into a boat, pushes it out to sea and sails through the night until he comes to the island itself. He finds the red-mouthed cow asleep and her little calf running rings around her in the manner of children everywhere, making enchanting music by its own inexplicable means. Then Michael taps it with the wand and immediately it stops circling its mother, turning to follow him instead.
But the music is gone, led down to the boat, and the cow wakens. She runs after her calf and when Michael turns her back with another tap of the wand, I admit I kind of hated him. He returns to the maiden’s castle with the calf at his heels, to kiss her hand in thanks and return her wand. Then at last he can return home to his overjoyed sister. Curse broken, all over and done with, it’s happy ever after time for all, right? Well, no. The furious sorceress calls to the raven once again and sends him off with another curse. The princess is not opening any windows for it this time, that’s for sure, but he finds a way in all the same and Michael is driven out again by the long-distance malice of his stepmother. This time he will not be allowed to rest until he fetches the golden dulcimer from the Isle of Calamity. Charming locations he gets to visit on these quests.
He doesn’t waste any time asking for directions. He’s been through all this before and heads straight to the one person who might be able to help him, the maiden who is still in that castle combing her hair. She is as unsurprised as before by his troubles, with a plan already prepared. Bestowed again with her wand, Michael sails across the sea to the Isle of Calamity, where in a black house on a mountain top the dulcimer is surrounded by sleeping wolves. The prince manages to take it without their noticing, but as he is running down the mountainside the sun rises and the wolves awake to find their treasure missing. A howling fury of teeth and fur follows Michael to his oak boat, but when it seems he will surely be devoured the maiden’s wand comes to his rescue for the second time, turning back the wolves to their mountain while he sails away with the dulcimer.
Surely by now he can live his life in peace? No again, I’m afraid, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed. The queen gives the raven yet another curse to take to the palace between the seven hills, forcing Michael from home for the third time in search of the Princess Above All Measure Beautiful. He wearily retraces his journey to the castle of the magical woman who has helped him twice before. But this time, it seems, she has no advice to give. She says nothing. Despairing, he turns to go and she runs after him, laughing at how silly he’s been. The Princess Above All Measure Beautiful is standing right before his eyes. Then, like this has been a sort of extreme date, she kisses him and calls out her carriage so he can drive her home. Being that type of princess, her horses have wings. They swoop down to the palace between the seven hills, where Rosa runs out delightedly to greet them.
So the third curse is broken. The raven returns to the sorceress to deliver the news and laugh at her rage. She rattles at the railings of her balcony, screaming out curses to the uncaring air – and in screaming too hard, and leaning too far, falls from the tower altogether, tumbling to her death. Freed forever from her curses, Michael marries his magical princess and Rosa marries a handsome prince of her own whom she meets at the wedding. And the raven who played messenger to the sorceress’s inexhaustible malice? He lives happily ever after too, laughing at the outrage of the world.
‘The Palace of the Seven Little Hills’ is a story of the type I like most. It overturns expectations and thumbs its nose at assumption. In this story, the curses are almost like a duel between the two women in their separate towers, each appearing to be so passive, yet in conflict as much as if they were fighting it out with broadswords. And I quite literally cheered when the king worked out in the third paragraph that the woman he’d married was actually evil. Someone get that man to write a parenting manual for fairy tale royalty!