This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, this specific story being an Irish one – or at least that’s where the prince is from. He is a reckless young man who loves to gamble on his wit and strength. His parents find his behaviour troubling, but can do little to stop him. One day he goes out hunting and meets with a giant who wants to play cards.
Most people might find such a situation alarming. Not so this prince! He wagers two farms that he will win, and indeed he does. Very pleased with himself, he returns the next day for another match of skill. The prince wins again, this time a herd of fine cattle. His parents try to convince him to stop while he’s ahead, but he can’t resist one last game. This time, the giant suggests they wager their heads. Lulled by his previous success, the prince agrees – and of course, this time he loses. The giant graciously allows him a year and a day’s grace, at the end of which time he must come to the castle at Loch Lein.
The prince returns home in a daze. “No game is finished until the last hand has been played,” the king encourages him, but the time passes all too swiftly and in the end the prince leaves without so much as a goodbye.
It’s a long journey to the giant’s castle. By nightfall on the first day the prince has reached an unfamiliar valley where the only light comes from a small cottage. Inside, an old woman with a mouthful of fangs is sitting peaceably by the fire. She knows who the prince is at once. Of course she does, she’s an old lady in a lonely cottage, they know everything. She not only lets him sleep in her house, she washes his feet and makes him an excellent breakfast the next morning. “Tonight you’ll be staying with my sister,” she announces. “Be sure to do whatever she tells you. Otherwise your head will be in danger.” Then she gives him a ball of thread and tells him to follow where it goes.
The thread takes him to another cottage, at the base of a high hill, where a second fanged lady welcomes him indoors. She, too, gives him a ball of thread, and it leads him to a third night’s lodging with the oldest of the three sisters. “The giant of Loch Lein has a huge castle,” she tells the prince, “and it’s surrounded by seven hundred iron spikes. Every spike – every spike but one – is topped with the head of a king, or a queen, or a king’s son. The last spike is waiting, and nothing in the world can save you from it unless you take my advice.” Her plan is for him to hide by a certain lake where the giant’s three daughters come to bathe, and to steal the youngest girl’s clothes while she’s in the water. This girl, known as Yellow Lily for the flower she wears, will then makes all sorts of rash promises to get her clothes back.
I do not like this solution at all! The prince, however, whose head is at risk, makes no argument. He does as the old lady advised. Discovering her clothes to be gone, Yellow Lily’s sisters prove completely unsympathetic and go home without her. She’s so desperate that she cries aloud, “Let the man who took my clothes give them back to me. I swear I’ll save him from whatever danger he is in.”
The prince returns her clothes. She recognises him at once as the man her father plans to drown in a tank of water. Helpful as she promised to be, she warns the prince to refuse all food offered by the giant and to wait in the tank until she comes to save him. By now the prince is pretty good at following instructions and does as she bids him, though being thrown into a tank by a giant is a pretty big leap of trust. Yellow Lily is good as her word, sneaking in as soon as her father is asleep and pulling the prince out. She then gives him dry clothes, a solid meal, and a real bed.
Through the night she keeps watch, and near morning she drops the prince back into the tank. The giant is surprised at his guest’s continued survival, but not bothered – he has lots of ideas for killing royalty, and the one he has in mind for the day is all about humiliation. He shows the prince to his stables, which hold five hundred horses and have not been cleaned for seven hundred years. “When my great-grandmother was a girl,” the giant muses, “she lost a slumber-pin somewhere in that stable. And often as she looked for it, she was never able to find it.” Apparently, the possibility of cleaning her poor horses’ stable did not occur to her. The prince is to find that pin by nightfall or his head will be put on a spike.
The day does not progress well. All the prince’s efforts to clear the stable only make matters worse, until he’s practically walled in with filth. At this junction, Yellow Lily comes sauntering past to see how he’s doing. I’m guessing it’s quite satisfying for her to see her blackmailer in such straits, but she did promise to help him. Using her bare hands on the mess, within minutes she has the whole place clean. Then she points out the precise location of her great-great-grandmother’s lost pin and leaves, presumably to have a bath. The prince gets thrown back in the tank, but hey, at least he’s clean! And Yellow Lily quickly comes to fish him back out, allowing him to survive a second night of Loch Lein’s hospitality.
By morning the giant has thought up another task. The stables have not been thatched for seven hundred years; not only must the prince manage that in one day, he must do it with feathers, no two the same. The only tool he is permitted is a whistle.
The prince spends all day whistling without attracting a single bird. Eventually Yellow Lily comes by with a picnic. “You stay here,” she says, all but patting him on the head, “and I’ll thatch the stables.” Before he’s even finished eating, she’s done the job exactly to her father’s specifications. The giant is deeply suspicious, rightfully convinced that the prince is getting help from somewhere, and on the third morning comes up with the most difficult task of all. On the slopes below the castle, there is a tree nine hundred feet high, with glass for bark and only one branch right at the very top. A crow has nested there and the giant wants its egg for supper.
Knowing full well it’s an impossible ask, the prince makes the attempt anyway. When he’s failed resoundingly in several different ways, he turns around to find Yellow Lily watching. They have another picnic while she gives the matter some thought. At the end of the meal, she produces a huge carving knife and calmly instructs the prince to kill her. With steps made from her flesh, he will be able to reach the nest.
Appalled, the prince refuses. He has not taken into account the eccentric anatomy of giants, however; once he has the egg, he must arrange all her flesh on the picnic cloth and sprinkle it with spring water, and she will be restored. So the prince does as she asks, slaughtering her with the knife and hacking her body into pieces to use as steps. He fetches the egg, then returns to the ground, collecting the pieces of the giant’s daughter on the way down. One bone is mislaid and the first thing Yellow Lily says as she’s restored to life is a protest at the fact she now has only nine toes.
Unable to prove his daughter had a hand in the task, the giant has no choice but to let his prisoner go. The prince’s parents are astonished at the sight of their son on the doorstep, alive and well, and quickly consult a wise man about how they can keep him that way. He does have a history of idiocy, after all. The wise man advises they marry him off and they choose the princess of Denmark. The prince does not argue about this arrangement, but insists that the giant of Loch Lein and his daughter Yellow Lily be invited to the wedding.
On the day before the marriage the prince’s father holds a grand feast, but the giant is left unimpressed by the festivities. “I’ve never been to a gathering like this one without one man singing a song, another telling a story, and a third playing a trick,” he scoffs. Careful to appease his most dangerous guest, the king sings a song and the Danish bride’s father tells a story. That leaves the giant to play a trick. Not well handled, your Majesties. The giant gives his turn to Yellow Lily, who conjures up a series of illusions. Grains of wheat become two pigeons; the male pigeon pecks and jostles the hen, who protests in a girl’s voice. “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day I cleaned the stables for you.” “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day I thatched the stables for you.” “You wouldn’t have done that to me on the day you killed me and took my bones to make steps.”
Ahem. The italics are mine.
The prince has a speech of his own to make. Once, he reminds the guests, he roamed all over Ireland looking for tests of skill, and lost the key to a casket he owned. After having a new one made, he found the old. Which should he keep? The king of Denmark advises he use the old, as it must fit the lock better, and the prince resoundingly agrees. The story is a metaphor; he introduces Yellow Lily as his true bride. “Your daughter,” he tells the outraged Danish king, ” has lost little. She’s been saved from a loveless marriage. And she will be my father’s most honoured guest.” So he marries Yellow Lily instead, and the party rages on for weeks. Even the giant of Loch Lein stays for that.
This story is notable for unusual character growth and a love story that is actually convincing. Yellow Lily meets the prince in an awful, exploitative situation, but he has a good reason for blackmailing her, he doesn’t hesitate to return her clothes once her help has been pledged, and best of all, she gets some payback. There’s humour, and horror, and cunning tricks. This is a happily ever after I really believe.