Fairy Tale Tuesday No.32 – My Candlestick

This Greek story comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1973 collection Damian and the Dragon, and begins with a typical plight for a royal family – the prince is refusing to marry and provide the kingdom with heirs, despite constant needling by his parents. His mother thinks he may be suffering from a secret love and when she sees three pretty peasant girls playing ball outside a little house near the palace, she decides the prince is probably infatuated with one of them and too afraid to tell his parents about it. She summons the eldest girl.

“My dear child,” she says, “I believe the prince is in love and dares not tell me. If it should be you whom he loves, I would welcome you as my daughter-in-law.” Which is very, very sweet. The only problem is that the girl has never spoken with the prince in her life. The queen will not be satisfied until she has tested her theory, however, and so leads the girl to the prince’s room to see how he reacts to her.

The answer to that is: not at all. The prince comes in, sits down, writes for a while, then gets up again and walks out without a word to the strange girl sitting on his sofa. She falls asleep there, and in the morning wakes up to find the anxious queen at her side. Granted a ring as recompense for her trouble, the girl is sent home, and the middle sister summoned instead. Exactly the same thing happens with her. With determined hope, the queen sends for the youngest girl, who has had time to think about this arrangement. She insists she is not well dressed enough to meet with the prince, and the queen happily decks her out in a fortune of diamonds. She looks beautiful enough to be a princess. Is she the one?

Well, if she is, the prince doesn’t know it. He doesn’t pay her any more attention than he did to her sisters. But the youngest girl is not inclined to allow herself to be ignored. When coughs and loud sighs fail to attract a reaction, and her bidding him good evening fails to rate even a courtesy response, she starts addressing everything else in the room. Hello, canary! Hello, cage! Hello, candlestick! Perhaps you will have the politeness to speak to me? The prince is finally aggravated into putting down his pen. “My candlestick!” he repeats. “My candlestick! At your orders, my candlestick!” And he walks out without another word.

She curls up on the sofa, like her sisters before her, and sleeps. In the morning, however, when the queen comes to question her, she doesn’t go quietly home with a nice little reward for a wasted evening. Instead, she lies through her teeth, inventing an entire conversation on the spur of the moment. The delighted queen insists she stay another day and be petted over like she is already a beloved daughter-in-law. The girl’s sisters know her better. They suspect a lie and test it by bringing a pedlar’s pearls to her, asking whether her adoring prince will buy them. Well, their little sister is committed now. That night when the prince comes in and sits down to write, the girl appeals to the candlestick. The prince, without looking at her, replies: “My candlestick! My candlestick! The keys are in the cupboard. The gold coins are in the drawer. Open the drawer and take what you will.”

He walks out, as before. The girl goes to the drawer and takes out two handfuls of coins. When the queen hears that the prince ‘gave’ her the money to buy the necklace, she is thrilled; the sisters, even with the hard evidence of the coins the girl gives them, still don’t believe her. They test her again with a pair of bracelets. The same happens as before; the youngest girl asks her favour of the candlestick, and the prince replies the same way, all without so much glancing at her. The queen is over the moon. “Surely my son is deeply in love with you! We have found out his secret at last! You shall not go home. You must stay on at the palace.” All without actually discussing the matter with her son. Apparently he has taken sullen teenage boy behaviour to astronomic levels.

Which makes things very awkward when the girl’s sisters ask when they are going to be invited to dinner. Her quick tongue gets her into trouble again, promising them she will ask that very night. Then she hides in the prince’s room, where she is least likely to be asked questions, and bursts into tears. She is still crying when he comes in. He begins to write, as usual, and she manages to sob out “My candlestick!” The magic words. His reaction is the most personalised it has ever been. “Come over here, my little candlestick. What ails you, that you weep so?” The girl pours out her trouble. She has no authority to order a dinner, and if her sisters come, they will see that she has no real position in the palace at all. She will be utterly humiliated. That’s why she’s crying. The prince keeps writing, but he is listening. He grants his candlestick the orders she needs, then walks out of the room, still without looking at her.

The girl passes on his instructions to the queen. Preparations begin on a great feast, but her real fear is still with her, the knowledge that ‘her’ prince will not say a word to her sisters, and in doing so will prove her entire relationship with him to be a lie. That night she sits in silence, crying tears he never turns to see. But if her imagination got her into this mess, it will get her out again too. She charms a page into helping her arrange for the prince to be ‘called away’ at the last minute before the feast is to begin, by sounding horse hooves in the courtyard and running in with a fake message. Then she joins the three other women at the table – the queen, who is pretty much planning the wedding by now, and the two deeply suspicious sisters. When the page comes running in with their prearranged story that the prince is outside, wanting a word alone with his love, the girl walks out, going as far down through the palace as she can and wandering the vaults in a state of panic.

Her pacing foot lands on a stone that moves. On the verge of hysteria she may be, but she’s still got her sense of curiosity, and when she lifts the slab to find a staircase leading down into darkness, she follows it. At the bottom of the stairs is a passage, and through there a barn full of thistles. There, lying on the thistles, is the prince, and beside him is a Nereid from the sea. Between them sleeps a small child.

Compromising? Little bit. Devastating, even, if your life plan was to get the world’s least talkative prince to marry you and you find out he’s got a girlfriend already. The girl looks at the sleeping family for a while. Then she goes straight back upstairs and tells the queen that her son has been called away to stand as godfather for a friend’s child. He wants presents to take with him – specifically, two white scarves and a rose-coloured one, all three embroidered with gold, a silver comb and a gold-embroidered silk coverlet. The sisters sense a cover story, but the queen believes the girl implicitly and gets her everything she asked for.

In the room of thistles hidden beneath the palace, the girl carefully lifts the sleeping little boy and lays him on the coverlet, tucking him in with the rose-coloured scarf and combing the thistles from his hair. She does the same for the prince, and for the Nereid, combing their hair and covering them with the remaining scarves. Then she leaves them sleeping and returns to the feast to pretend everything is Just Fine.

Amongst the thistles, though, the Nereid wakes up. She sees the silver comb glittering in the dark, feels her own smooth hair, and rouses the prince violently from his unnatural sleep. “Wake, deceiver, wake!” she shouts at him. “Who is she that loves you? Who is she whom you love? Who is she that has come and done all this?” The prince wearily denies it all. He is under an enchantment; he can see no other woman other than the Nereid, has no life outside her existence. How could he have betrayed her? But that’s obviously not a good enough answer, silver combs don’t just grow out of the ground. Finally the prince tells her of the girl who talks to a candlestick – the girl he has never seen. The Nereid responds by whacking him across the face. In doing so, she frees him from her magic: he sees clearly once more. Stars, too, maybe. He must marry that girl, the Nereid tells him furiously, the girl who loves him enough to show such kindness, and with a whirlwind that hurls him against the wall, both she and the child are gone from his life forever. Talk about messy break-ups.

The prince climbs out of the vaults to wander the palace grounds, grieving yet unable to say exactly why, dazed in the aftermath of enchantment. In the evening he goes to his room and finds the youngest peasant girl already there, sobbing on his sofa. This time, he goes to her. He tells her never to speak of what she saw, any more than he will allow himself to speak of what he remembers. She has freed him from the hands of the Nereid. From this day on he belongs to her.

I will first say I do not approve of dishonesty. The brazen ingenuity of this girl, however, in the face of truly royal rudeness, is difficult not to admire. The prince is a more tragic character. He had a life with the Nereid, and there is at least the implication that he had a child with her as well, even if that isn’t stated outright. It is so rare in a fairy tale for there to be genuine consequences that his grief, however short-lived he tries to make it, is a powerful thing. Even at the end, when he is deciding to move on (rebound! Watch out, youngest sister!) it’s clear he is not over what happened to him. Which is as it should be. As long as there is the candlestick to play mediator, though, I think they’ll be okay.

4 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Tuesday No.32 – My Candlestick

  1. I like this fairy tale, although I agree with you that it does seem to reward dishonesty. However, the prince is very confusing to the third sister, isn’t he? She doesn’t do any real harm to anyone with her stories. I wonder what happens to the poor baby. I love fairy tales that make you wonder.

    • If all the girl had done was tell lies to further her own ends, she wouldn’t be a very sympathetic protagonist – but as you say, she doesn’t do any harm. Quite the opposite, really. Even when she knows where the prince keeps his gold, she doesn’t take it without getting his (admittedly complicated) permission first, and she keeps it together admirably when she finds him with the Nereid, deciding to help rather than judge.
      As for the Nereid’s son, who can tell? Hopefully he inherited some magic of his own.

  2. I like the idea that the Nereid’s son would have his own magic. It would be fun to write a story of him going to look for his father after he’s grown. Thanks for sharing your fairy tales reviews.

  3. Pingback: Stupid Favorite Fairy Tale Ships | Moth of the Day

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