Fairy tale royals traditionally have impractical ways of choosing life partners, and the prince of this French fairy tale (taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Princes and Princesses) is no exception. When he announces his intention to find a wife, his father produces an actual catalogue of candidates. Clearly, he was prepared. The prince studies each picture carefully without being especially drawn to any of them, until he reaches the very last page. There he sees The One.
Unfortunately, that’s a page his father planned to remove. The princess’s name is Felicity and she lives in an enchanted castle that no suitor has ever breached. Possibly she does not wish to be disturbed! This possibility occurs to neither man, and the prince dashes off to be a hero. On his quest he brings with him a coach, driver and groom (a princess requires the appropriate transport, white chargers are so last year) and a loyal manservant. When their road takes them into a dark wood and they are forced to make camp, the servant stays up to keep watch.
It’s a good thing he does, because this very spot is where the winds like to meet up and swap gossip and the current hot news is about the fledgeling rescue mission. The wind from France describes the location of the princess’s castle, how to circumvent the ferocious beasts that guard it (wait until they fall asleep on the stroke of noon!) and resist its seductive handmaidens (pretend they don’t exist!). He even explains what a hypothetical rescuer should do if he ever gets to the princess. Well, that’s convenient…
The next morning the servant rouses his master, the coachman and the groom, keeping what he heard during the night to himself. They continue down the road and come to the house of an elderly man, who invites them inside to freshen up before a rescue attempt that he clearly thinks is suicidal. The prince realises that riding through the wilderness actually kind of sucks and decides to stay on at the manor house for a few days. Meanwhile, his servant quietly slips off to ‘explore the country’.
His explorations are very specific. Soon enough he sees a tower and a flapping black flag; from there, he diverts to a nearby meadow where a tall tree rises alone. Here, according to the wind of France, a ring of Virtue has been stashed. The castle can only be escaped using its power. The servant retrieves the ring and continues on to the castle.
From the position of the sun, the servant judges it to be noon, but his timing is fifteen minutes off; he enters the castle garden to find it full of ferocious beasts that are very much awake. When he scrambles up the nearest tree, they tear it down and he is forced to leap to another. Before they can rip that one down too, however, the castle bell tolls the first stroke of noon and the beasts fall into their enchanted sleep. The servant leaps down and hurries from room to room, searching for the princess. Wherever he goes, he meets with the promised maidens, who call out imploringly for him to stay. He pays them no heed, sure he’ll know the right girl when he sees her.
And he does. She’s seated alone, working on her embroidery, and is greatly taken aback by his sudden appearance. He gives absolutely no explanation, either, just grabs her hand and drags her from the castle to where he’s tied up his horse. Behind them, the bell tolls one and the maidens rush into the garden to wake the beasts. “The princess Felicity is stolen, is stolen!” The beasts take up where they left off, racing after the servant and the princess he’s just abducted/rescued. Cut off by a wide river, he raises the ring of Virtue and commands the waters part. Thus he rides safely across, and the beasts are drowned.
Which is AWFUL. They were only doing their job.
Anyway, the princess having been rescued, the only thing left for the prince to do is take her home and marry her. Or so he thinks. The servant is not so trusting and insists on building leafy shelters as camouflage when they stop to rest in the woods. Then he lies awake, listening for the voices of the whispering winds.
They are uneasy, having heard the news of Princess Felicity’s rescue. Only someone who eavesdropped on their conversation could have done it, so they search the woods for listening ears. The servant’s camouflage holds up and at length the winds settle down to talk about current events. “The princess Felicity has been freed,” says the wind from France, “but the prince will not succeed in taking her home. On the way they will meet a grape seller, and the princess, who loves grapes, will wish to eat them. But if she touches them, she dies.” Even if she escapes the deadly fruit, the princess will not be safe. Their carriage will pass a drowning man and when she goes to save him, that will be the end of her. Having discussed the matter thoroughly, the winds part ways, and the servant makes his plans.
Sure enough, there is a grape seller on the road the next day and the princess wants to buy some of the fruit. The servant gallantly offers to fetch it for her, but surreptitiously crushes the grapes and dips the remains in a puddle of stagnant water, to make them appear rotten. The princess of course orders that they be thrown away, and death is quietly averted.
Not far down the road, an altogether more ethically dubious obstacle is placed in their way. A man is adrift in the river, screaming for help, and the princess leaps from the carriage to go to his aid. Before the drowning man can seize her hand, though, the servant slashes off his arm. That looks kind of bad. The prince reacts by stabbing his loyal servant through the heart and leaving him to die on the riverbank. He then takes the princess he didn’t rescue home to his father, marries her with full ceremony, and fully expects his happy ending.
But the princess is troubled. She dreams of a voice that cries aloud, “You have slain the one who delivered you. If you had eaten of those grapes, or if you had touched the hand of the drowning man, you would have instantly fallen dead.” In the morning, she tells her husband, who begins to second guess his actions. Wow, killing your friends is a bad thing to do! Who knew?
He rides off to discuss matters with his friend the old man and makes camp in the woods, as before. This time, he is too worried to sleep, and so for the first time overhears the voices in the branches above. They are discussing the princess Felicity’s inexplicably continued existence and the death of the loyal servant. “Now the prince repents: he would restore his servant to life if he could,” the wind from France remarks. “There is a way, but the prince will never know it. Near to the river bank where the faithful servant lies is the well of the water of life. The prince has but to sprinkle some of that water on his servant’s forehead, and his servant will arise from the dead.”
The prince wastes no time. He jumps on his horse and rides back the way he came, until he comes to the river and his servant’s abandoned body. There he wails a bit about guilt and looks around for the promised well. His eye catches on a small bird creeping through the dust, its wing broken – it disappears behind a slab of stone and emerges with water trickling off its feathers, trilling cheerfully before fluttering off. Having had the clue flourished under his nose, the prince hurries to the well, gathers water in his cupped hands, and splashes it across his dead servant’s forehead.
The man wakes abruptly, exclaiming, “Ah, my master, how long I have slept!” The prince drops to his knees, guilt stricken. “Nay, from this day, your grateful brother!” he declares. They return to the palace together, where the servant is made a lord and gifted a fortune to match.
It’s interesting how far this story diverges from the usual mould. The prince is not a heroic rescuer – he’s not necessarily a bad man, but is plainly a spoiled one who doesn’t give much thought to his actions. His servant does that for him, right down to rescuing the chosen bride. He then gets killed for his trouble, and the princess witnesses it. No wonder she has nightmares! I predict an unhappy marriage on her part and PTSD on the servant’s. Hopefully they will end up running away together and finding a new tower – one that can’t be breached by a chatty air current.