I misremembered the title of this one, from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Dragons, and was disappointed to discover it wasn’t a princess who had the titular golden hand after all. What she does have is golden hair, which just isn’t the same. Her parents, following a long tradition of bad decisions, keep her cloistered away from the world until they decide it’s time to marry her off. Let’s have a quick think about how overwhelming an expectation that would be for an enforced introvert, shall we? At least they let her choose from the gathering of suitors. And her choice is…get the hell out of here.
“I will choose tomorrow,” she tells her father. “But give me this one day of freedom. Now that I am so soon to be married, surely I am old enough to run and play in the garden by myself?” Call ’em on it, lady! The king agrees and she runs into the garden alone. This is probably the most exciting experience of her life to date, so of course a dragon has to come swooping by and wreck everything by kidnapping her.
The king sends out his heralds to alert the potential heroes of the land to the situation, offering the usual reward of marriage and half a kingdom to whoever proves successful. Two of the resulting applicants are brothers, the sons of a neighbouring king. They travel for two years, coming in time to wild country, where a mountain stands in their way. Leaving their horses behind, they climb it on foot. At the very top is a silver palace, balanced (quite precariously, I should think) on a cock’s foot. At one of its windows sits a girl with hair so brightly golden it glitters in the sun.
The princess is found! The end of their quest in sight, the brothers begin to run uphill, but their approach has not gone unnoticed. The silver palace begins to spin, conjuring up a ferocious wind. No sooner have the brothers regained their feet from that, than a savage cold descends and freezes them where they stand. Their bodies are soon buried by snow.
For years their parents wait for news. At the end of three years, the king stops hoping his sons will ever come home, but the queen is dogged. She questions every traveller who comes their way, even after the princes’ horses make their own way back without their masters. One day a holy man stops at the palace and, when she asks him as she has all the other travellers, to pray for her boys, he tells her they are dead. “But you shall have another son,” he adds, “the like of which the world has ever seen.”
And he’s right. The queen’s third child is born – surprise! – with a hand of gold, and is so precocious that three days after his birth he jumps out of his cradle and demands to know what’s making his mum so sad. She explains about his lost brothers, and he immediately resolves to save them. You know how some people swear you can do anything with enough willpower? This prince is in with that. He grows so fast that by the end of a month he’s a young man, trained to ride a horse and wield a sword. He also grows pure golden hair and a moustache to match, but instead of being shut away for safekeeping, he’s permitted to ride off in search of his lost, presumed dead brothers.
At length he comes to a field of poppies. On the far side of the field is a cottage balanced on a cock’s foot – ah yes, I said a cottage, not a castle! – all tangled up in briars. The smell of the poppies almost sends the prince to sleep, but he rides on until he comes to the cottage, and he orders it to turn around and open up so he can get in. He does it so authoritatively that the cottage obeys him. Inside is an ancient woman at work with a spindle, flanked by two beautiful girls respectively weaving and embroidering. Having exchanged greetings, the prince proceeds to explain his quest to them, and ask if they can help him find the dragon.
“If you take my advice, you won’t look for him,” the old woman says firmly. “I have not been out of this cottage for a hundred years for fear he would carry me off. Eh dear! I was a pretty girl a hundred years ago!” Which is heartbreaking, not to mention the logical extension of a society in which beautiful women are snatched and stolen like hoarded treasure. That’s not the prince’s problem, though; his answer is that the dragon won’t want to carry him off, he’s not pretty enough. How very modest. And ridiculous. The old woman strikes a bargain with him, her expert advice in exchange for a promise. It turns out that there are four wells in the dragon’s house – the Waters of Heroism, Revival, Resoration and Youth – and she wants a drink of the latter, which seems only fair as it was the threat of the dragon that stole the best years of her life.
The prince agrees to the terms. In exchange he is given a pincushion. Not just any pincushion! When he throws it in front of him it will lead him to the dragon’s mountain, which is where the prince will meet his real obstacles – the dragon’s parents. In defence against his mother, the blazing South Wind, the old woman gives a flagon of restorative drink; in defence against his father, the icy North Wind, she gives a protective hood. The prince thanks her politely and sets off in pursuit of the pincushion, which can fly.
In time he comes to the dragon’s mountain, where he faces the same bitter cold as the first two princes, but the hood protects him. As he climbs he comes across a small mound in the snow, and uncovers the bodies of his brothers. It’s a strange moment for him, who never knew them, and he stops to say a prayer over them, but the pincushion gives him no time for that – onward it flies, and onward he goes, into the path of a scorching wind the kills every other living thing on the mountain. The old woman’s drink gives the prince the strength to keep going. As he sets foot on the very top of the mountain, the pincushion jumps into his pocket and goes still; this, apparently, is all the guidance he’s getting.
In front of him lies the silver palace, at one of its windows the glittering hair of the princess who has been held captive all this time by narrative irony. Unfortunately, there’s a chasm in the way. The prince, though, as you may recall, has a way with houses like this, and orders the palace to turn around and open up for him. It twists obediently on the spot, bridging the chasm. The prince strides inside.
He finds himself in a hall of mirrors. In every one is a reflection of a running girl with glittering hair, all whirling around him, until suddenly the real one catches his arm. The princess, very nobly, tries to make him leave before the dragon returns. The prince, also nobly, refuses. The old woman’s flagon being emptied, though, he asks for a drink. The princess gives him water from the Heroic Well, and…you know, some people would think being born with a hand of gold and growing up within the space of one month was enough crazy for anyone to deal with, but now he’s Superprince with epic powers that include accidentally breaking chairs by sitting on them too hard.
He’s gone through two already when the palace begins to spin wildly and the dragon himself bursts in, riding a winged horse. Because he’s not exactly your ordinary dragon: he has the legs of a tiger, the talons of an eagle and a snake for a tail, which must be terribly confusing. He does, however, breathe fire. He leaps at the prince with a roar of rage, but is caught by the golden heroic hand and smashed through a wall. This is totally a superhero movie now.
The prince throttles the dragon to death. Then, calmly, he goes about filling three bottles from the wells of Revival, Restoration and Youth. Killing the dragon is only one item on his to-do list – no.2 is rescuing the princess, riding away with her on the winged horse, and no.3 is returning to the bodies of his brothers on the way down the mountain. He revives and restores them, and swings them up onto the extraordinary winged horse to ride off and fulfil item no.4 – making good on his promise.
The old woman is still spinning, but abandons her work straight away when she sees the prince at her door. He gives her the water from the well of Youth and she seizes it, tossing it back over herself. It turns her into the beautiful girl she once was, before a dragon drove her into hiding, and she is so delighted with the results that she offers the prince a reward. He can’t think of one; all he really wants to do is marry his glittering princess. His brothers come up with their own ideas – they want to marry the old woman’s handmaidens. “Well,” the erstwhile old woman shrugs, “take them! By their smiles I can see they are willing. And now that I am young again, I can’t be bothered with grown-up daughters. So now I will wish you good-day!”
And that’s it, really, she just walks out to start her new life, leaving her daughters to join the others on the back of the one winged horse (how is there SPACE?) for the return flight to the princess’s home. Her parents have mourned her as dead for years and now suddenly she’s back, with her strange boyfriend, his back-from-the-dead brothers, and their insta-brides. But who cares! Weddings all around!
There’s only one problem left. The princess, who has, after all, had to defend herself against the advances of a dragon all this time, has made the vow that she won’t wed anyone who can’t answer her three riddles, and though the dragon is gone she must still honour her own terms. She asks each one, and each time the prince guesses the right answer, because these are things only another human could understand – her shadow, her bed, her shoe. The final hurdle overcome, he sends the winged horse to bring his own parents to the triple wedding, fulfilling item no.5 – proving his mother’s fiercely defended hopes to be true.
I feel so terribly sorry for this princess. Her part in the story is a string of injustices that are never really rectified. Hopefully her prince is heroic enough to give any daughters they may have all the freedom they want. There’s so much glorious weirdness in this Slavic fairy tale, though – all the local architecture seemingly being balanced on bird feet, the old woman who dances off into the world to remake her life without fear, the sat-nav pincushion – that I like it anyway.
And if the prince and princess do have daughters, who will therefore be princesses too…maybe one of them will inherit a golden hand.