This story is a Greek fairy tale from the Ruth Manning-Sanders collection Damian and the Dragon. I know, the title makes it sound like something from The Wizard of Oz, but take it from me – this one’s weirder.
A king on his deathbed takes one final chance to wreck his six children’s lives, because that’s the sort of thing that kings in fairy tales feel obliged to do. “When I am dead,” he tells his sons, “you must get your sisters married, then marry yourselves. The first wooer who comes is for your eldest sister; the second wooer who comes is for your second sister; and the third wooer who comes is for your youngest sister. In whatever shape these wooers come, promise me not to refuse them.” So the girls are literally obliged to marry to the first bloke who comes along. But wait, there’s more. “When your sisters are married, you, my two elder sons, may marry whom you please. But for my youngest son, I have a fairy shut up in a crystal cabinet.”
I…I do not have the words. He has his son’s future wife shut up in a cupboard. Maybe it’s best for everybody that he dies shortly afterwards, before this sort of thing becomes a habit.
The first suitor who shows up is a lion. An actual lion. Who can talk. The eldest brother asks where he is from, and the lion explains that for useless humans like them it would be a journey of five years away. “Five years!” the second prince exclaims. “What are you thinking of? If our sister were to fall ill, how could we get to see her? We cannot let her go!” The eldest brother agrees. Neither mentions that maybe it’s weird to marry your sister off to a carnivorous quadruped, but at least they’re proving they possess a trace of sibling solidarity. Not so the youngest prince. He drags his eldest sister out and hands her over to her ‘bridegroom’. “Go where your fortune takes you,” he tells her, which is SO NOT USEFUL, I don’t even know. And no one has even checked on the woman in the cupboard yet!
Their next visitor is a tiger, who lives a journey of ten years travel away and wants to marry the second princess. Again, the elder two brothers object, and again, the youngest brother insists their dead father’s directives be carried out. Take a guess what happens when the third suitor turns out to be an eagle, whose lands are fifteen years of travel away. Is anyone going to make a stand against dead men’s bad ideas? Nope. She’s gone.
Luckily for the elder princes their father had no brilliant ideas for managing their marriages, so they try the revolutionary idea of finding human beings they actually like. Which leaves the youngest brother with his promised bride. Remember her? The one in the CUPBOARD?
When he unlocks the crystal cabinet, a beautiful fairy woman emerges. King’s plans be damned, though, she’s having none of that. “I am not yours yet!” she warns the prince. “If you want me, you must take an iron staff and iron shoes, and come to the Illinees, the Billinees, the Alamalacusians, unto the marble mountains and unto the crystal meadows.” With that she vanishes.
That sounds, to me, like a very roundabout way of saying ‘not a chance, creep’, but we’ve already seen that this prince takes everything very, very literally. So he dresses himself accordingly in iron and sets off. After five years of travel, he comes to the home of his eldest sister and her lion husband, where he begs a drink of water from the housemaid. While he holds her pitcher, one of his rings slips off. It makes its way to his sister, who recognises it and has him brought inside at once. The ensuing reunion is interrupted, however, when she hears her husband returning and quickly turns her brother into a broom. So that he won’t be eaten. Dysfunctional relationship? Teeny bit.
But it turns out everything’s okay, because while the lion is quick to assure her he’d murder her elder brothers should they ever show up, he’s fine with the youngest one. She turns the broom back into a prince, allowing her brother to explain his own screwed up romance. The lion would help if he could, but he has never heard of the places named by the fairy, and neither have any of the beasts under his command. Therefore, after a night’s rest, the prince journeys on. At the end of another five years, he comes to the house of the tiger. His reception is similar there. The tiger is happy to see him but knows no more of the Illinees, Billinees than the lion, so the prince travels on for another five years (seriously, he is persistent) until he comes to the house of the eagle. This brother-in-law is as welcoming as the others, and like they did before him, calls together his subjects to question them on the prince’s behalf.
At last someone has news; a latecomer hawk knows how to reach the fairy woman’s home and is willing to take the prince on her back. It is a long journey, but long journeys have kind of become this prince’s way of life. The hawk drops him off at the Alamalacusians, a range of vast marble mountains that wear out his iron shoes and break his iron staff. When at last he overcomes them, crystal meadows stretch ahead, and beyond those the towers of the Illinees, Billinees. Which is an actual city. At the gates, the fairy is waiting to transport them magically back to his own palace for a wedding. As far as she’s concerned, the long way around is what happens to other people. When they deserve to suffer a bit.
And that…is it. The lion, tiger and eagle don’t turn into handsome princes; they remain resolutely a lion, a tiger and an eagle. The elder brothers, as far as I can tell, will never see any of their sisters again. The fairy doesn’t even address the whole issue of being locked in a goddamn cupboard. There’s a thing in some fairy tales, you know, where you have to obey certain rules even when they make no sense and dreadful things happen if you don’t. Clearly the youngest brother knows he’s living in one such tale, but I’d take his elder brothers over him any day, oblivious though they may be. At least they are sane.