This week’s is an Italian fairy tale from the 1982 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Book of Heroes and Heroines and begins with a shoemaker’s daughter called Lionella who is one day sent out to buy cabbages for soup. That doesn’t sound much like the beginning of romance and adventure, but the wonderful thing about fairy tales is that you never know.
The market gardener is not home when she arrives, so she pulls up a cabbage and lays down several coins in its place for the gardener to find when he gets back. No sooner have the coins touched the earth, however, than they vanish, and a little window appears instead. Lionella kneels to look through it, and sees an absurdly handsome young man looking back at her, arms outstretched. “Come to me, lovely maiden,” he implores. “Every night I have dreamed of you, every day I have held the image of you in my mind. Come to me now!” And the window opens, revealing a luxuriously furnished underground room.
Lionella, jumping down, is given no chance to look around; the prince grabs her, kisses her a few dozen times, then tells her, “Go home now, my darling, but come again tomorrow. Come every tomorrow. You will always find a cabbage growing in the place where you pulled one up today. And every day you must pull up that cabbage again, and then every day you will find under it the window that will open and bring you into my arms.”
So obviously he is weird. But terribly handsome! Lionella goes home and tells her parents everything, only to have the whole incident dismissed as a silly girl’s dream. They are wrong; the young man is real all right. His name is Filo D’Oro and he was born a prince, but was stolen as an infant by an ogress (trolls and ogres are notoriously inept at understanding how adoption works) who now plans to marry him off to her niece and thereby keep him in the family forever. Filo D’Oro does not conform to these plans and the ogress doesn’t take his resistance well; basically she locks him up underground and tells him he’ll never meet another woman, so he’ll have no choice but to marry who he’s told. It might even have worked if not for a good-natured fairy who happens past and decides to dabble in a little match-making. Hence the dreams, and the secret door concealed by a cabbage. Witches tend to use fruit in their magic; fairies, it seems, favour vegetables.
The prince and the shoemaker’s daughter meet every day in the underground room, with the ogress none the wiser. One night she comes to visit her adopted son and dangle the promise of freedom under his nose, but there is a stick involved – if between this night and his wedding day he should look upon the face of any woman other than his intended bride, he will fall into a sleep from which no one but that chosen bride will be capable of waking him. Unwisely, she doesn’t specify who the bride has to be. Filo D’Oro knows exactly who he intends to marry, and it isn’t the ogress’s niece. Lionella is the only woman apart from the ogress who knows where to find him. How could anything go wrong?
Well, not quite the only woman. Lionella, being the soul of honesty, has made no secret of the fact she goes every day to meet her boyfriend the kidnapped prince in a magic room under the market garden, and her mother is not entirely happy with the arrangement. By now convinced of his existence, she wants to meet this mysterious young man, and when her daughter won’t allow that, she follows Lionella in secret to watch how the magic is done. Unaware she is being observed, Lionella pulls up the cabbage as usual and descends. When she emerges and leaves the garden, her mother pulls up the inexhaustible cabbage too, finds the window and knocks. It doesn’t open. She tugs at the frame. It still won’t open. Eventually, exasperated, she throws a nut through the glass, finally attracting the attention of the prince below. He looks up and for one instant sees Lionella’s mother, while she sees him. Then the window vanishes, leaving her staring at a cabbage instead.
Still, she’s seen her daughter’s boyfriend now, and goes home to congratulate Lionella on a good catch. Lionella is appalled. She runs back to the garden to find Filo D’Oro and explain she had no part in her mother’s prying, but when she pulls up the cabbage, no window appears and no prince either. The magic is broken.
So where is he? Well, the ogress has been busy all this time arranging her niece’s wedding, and at last she’s ready to collect the groom. When she comes for him, however, she finds him slumped across the floor of his prison in an enchanted sleep. It’s inconvenient, but the ogress knows the counter-curse, so she has him taken to a carriage and driven to the palace where her niece is waiting. “I cannot waken him,” she explains, “that is for you to do. Come, give him a shake, give him a slap!” The niece willingly obliges. When her first attempts fail she tries pinching and punching, but she’s not his chosen bride, so it’s no use. At last the ogress has him laid out on a bed and sits beside him through the night, crying. She does love him, in her own strange way. Still, she’d rather he sleep forever than marry anyone other than her niece.
Which is unlucky, because the girl he did intend to marry isn’t giving up. Every day she returns to the garden in case the magic somehow returns, and when that fails, she sets out into the world to find her lost prince for herself. She asks everyone that she meets if they have heard of Filo D’Oro, and a startling number of them have, but no one knows where she can look to find him and so she trudges on – until one day, while she is drowsing under a tree, a conversation in the branches above catches her ear. Doves are gossips, as everyone knows, and these two are picking over the tale of Prince Filo D’Oro in detail. It turns out that four of their feathers, burned to ashes and scattered over the prince’s head, would be enough to wake him up – and when Lionella leaps up to ask the birds if they will donate those feathers to the worthy cause, they are very obliging. In fact, they even offer to show her to her prince’s side. Following their soft calls, she runs through the darkening forest, coming at last to a small cottage and an elderly woman.
Not just any elderly woman, either! This is a fairy, most likely the fairy, who has been expecting Lionella’s arrival and is ready with a shovel and a hot fire. For the feathers, just the feathers! When they have been burnt to ashes, she makes Lionella dinner, tucks her into bed and in the morning gives her breakfast and instructions at the same time. This includes directions to the ogress’s palace.
It doesn’t take a genius to guess what has brought a pretty young girl all that way alone. The ogress tries to hide her fury, graciously inviting Lionella inside. “No,” Lionella tells her. “I will not come up, because you will eat me.” The ogress puts on her best shocked face, but it doesn’t work, and neither do any of her other assurances. Eventually she is forced to swear on the soul of her beloved son, an oath she has to keep, that Lionella will come to no harm inside her house. Her enchantment being what it is, she hasn’t much choice if she wants Filo D’Oro to ever wake up. “You shall not kiss him!” the ogress shrieks, recognising fairy magic when she sees it, but Lionella does not intend to kiss him. She scatters him with the ashes instead and he wakes up at once, jumping out of bed and throwing his arms around her. The two crazy kids get married that same day.
Which leaves the ogress in a difficult position. She doesn’t want her son marrying some human hussy, but if she kills Lionella outright he’ll never forgive her. Then she hears that Lionella is about to give birth, and a horrible spell comes to her. “So long as my hands are clasped,” she swears, “no power on earth, no power in the regions under the earth, no angels, no fairy folk, no devils, no one, no one shall enable Lionella to bring her baby into the world!”
Trapped in unending labour, Lionella is in terrible pain and Filo D’Oro can do nothing for her – but if something isn’t done soon, both mother and child will die. At this point, while everyone else despairs, a young page comes up with a plan of his own. He has Filo D’Oro toll the church bells, as if Lionella has died, and the ogress is so delighted that she jumps up and unclasps her hands, breaking her own spell. At last Lionella’s baby is born. The bells ring out an altogether happier sound and the clever page comes running up the road to break the news to the ogress, who just can’t believe her bad luck. She literally bursts with rage, and all that’s left of her are a scatter of flint stones blown away by the wind.
I was feeling quite sorry for the ogress, in spite of her pig-headedness, right up until that very nasty bit of magic at the end. Actually, Filo D’Oro’s insta-love makes much more sense when you think about how many spells have shaped his life. I suppose that in a world of ogres and fairies, when you get your shot at happiness you seize it with both hands and just hope for the best. Although we never saw what happened at the baby’s christening…Filo D’Oro and Lionella are acquainted with a fairy, after all. They may not be quite done with magic yet.