As we all know, kings in fairy tales have an unfortunate predilection for locking up their daughters, so much so that it’s rather like they’ve confused young women with the silverware. This Hungarian story, from Ruth Manning Sanders’ collection A Book of Enchantments and Curses, contains one such set up. It also includes one of the more unusual ways of escaping a paternal prison.
It begins with Ambrose, a travelling musician, and Janko, his sort of apprentice, who are wandering the world trying to make a living by playing the fiddle and not doing terribly well, really. One day while caught on the road in a fierce storm, Ambrose finds a tiny green cap and a panicked little man to match it. The foul weather, it turns out, was conjured up by a jealous north-west wind that has long been attempting to steal said hat for its magical properties. Its plan was foiled this time, but the little man lives in fear of the day the wind succeeds.
Ambrose, random doer of good and amateur milliner, solves the problem by pulling out his bootlace and tying that over the hat to keep it in place. The little man is so thrilled that he teaches Ambrose a pair of magic words to turn himself into a bear and back into a man again, and promptly disappears in a flurry of somersaults.
With Janko playing the fiddle and Ambrose as a dancing bear, the friends have a distinct improvement in their fortunes. So famous does their show become that they are eventually called to perform at the palace. Now, this king is pretty famous himself. He not only locked his only daughter inside a mountain, he has set up a sadistic little game for her prospective suitors. Any man who can find the princess may have her for his wife; any man who comes looking for her and can’t find her will be decapitated.
The princess does not much like this arrangement. Hoping to appease her, her father sends Janko out into the city with a generous tip and has the tame ‘bear’ taken through a series of secret doors into the mountain so that it can perform for the princess. This Ambrose definitely does. He plays the zither, he does acrobatics, he takes the princess’s hand in his paw and dances with her. She is enchanted and the king, pleased not to part with her on the usual bad terms, is more than willing to leave her alone with the bear for a couple of hours. As soon as he leaves, though, Ambrose takes on his real shape and starts chatting up the princess with rescue plans.
The next day, the dancing bear returns to the palace as a human. He announces himself as Lord Ambrose of Outland, come to seek the princess. The king looks him over and is more or less ‘meh’ about another suicidally self-assured young man playing his stupid game. Ambrose doesn’t immediately make use of his knowledge; he has a bit of fun with the king first, leading him all over the palace and the city, through haystacks and swamps and mud. Then, when the king is a mess but certain of more axe fodder, Ambrose strikes out for the mountain. He strolls up to the first hidden door and kicks stones around until he finds its correspondingly hidden key. The king blusters desperately that this must be a robber’s den, but Ambrose keeps finding doors and opening them until they come to the princess’s own chamber. He has won the impossible game.
Does that guarantee them a wedding and a happy ever after? Not a bit of it. The king brainstorms with a rather unpleasant courtier named Ritter Rok for ways to wreck his daughter’s life a bit more. The perfect excuse comes in the form of war. A king in the south is raising an army. You really can’t blame him – his son lost his head failing to find the princess, that sort of thing does tend to damage diplomatic relations – but the princess’s father jumps on it like this is the best news he’s had in ages. He tells Ambrose that he must go fetch a flail of mass destruction from Hell itself, and can only get married when he comes back. If he comes back.
The princess is sure she will lose her fiance, but as she sits alone in tears the little man in the green hat makes a reappearance. He produces a jar of magical ointment, with which Ambrose is to cover his skin and clothes. Protected by its enchantment, Ambrose walks straight through the gates of Hell and up to the throne of Satan without any difficulty. He politely asks if he can maybe borrow the killer flail. Surprisingly, Satan agrees. He’s expecting the flail to burn off Ambrose’s hands the moment he touches it. When the ointment continues to protect him the devils descend to take him down, but maybe they should have thought of that before they gave him the all powerful weapon…Ambrose ends up getting kicked out of hell by a very embarrassed Satan, and goes calmly home.
The king is furious. He tells Ritter Rok to find a better way of getting rid of the man and Ritter Rok tries to snatch up the flail in order to do just that. He burns, all right. Ambrose, being a genuinely nice person, catches the screaming courtier’s hands between his own to rub on some magic ointment and heal the burns. With his favourite toady no longer available for evil scheming and his daughter arranging her wedding with single-minded determination, the king is out of ideas. Ambrose and the princess marry, with Janko playing at the reception. So beautiful is his music that the princess decides he has to stay and teach her the fiddle too, and the king decides that maybe, what with a master musician adopted into the family and the king of the south changing his mind about the whole going to war thing, that he might be able to put up with his daughter being free after all.
When Ambrose goes to move the flail, however, it’s burned its way right through the ground and disappeared for good. Hell isn’t into sharing.
With men like the regicidal soldier from Andersen’s ‘The Tinder-Box’ and King Thrushbeard from the Grimm tale of the same name portrayed as good marriage material, it’s not that wise to trust a fairy tale’s definition of ‘hero’, but Ambrose is an easy man to like. He returns stolen property without thinking twice, wins the princess with a dance routine and a rescue plan, and even defends his attempted murderer from the man’s own stupidity. If any suitor deserves to inherit a kingdom, it would be him. What’s more, his long imprisoned wife has barely stepped off the altar before she’s arranging music lessons. She is finally getting a life, and Ambrose is the one backing her up. Now THAT is what I call charming.