There are times when I find a fairy tale that’s too wonderfully peculiar not to review, and this Swedish story – taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Cats and Creatures – is a perfect example. It begins in the traditional fashion, with a king who is trying to marry off his three sons all at once. I don’t know what the princes want, but their father requires potential brides to be royal, rich and beautiful, in that order. Unfortunately, he knows of no girls who can fulfil all his expectations and turns to his sons for ideas. His youngest, who is for some reason nicknamed Boots, suggests they consult the good fairy.
“What good fairy?” the king wants to know. “That one over there,” Boots tells him, pointing at the door. An old woman has just walked through the door. The king asks her whether she is, in fact, a good fairy. “Well,” she replies vaguely, “I’m not a bad one.” No, this is not a pantomime! I’m quoting the ACTUAL DIALOGUE.
The old woman goes on to offer her two cents on the bridal conundrum. She advises the three princes to each take an axe and go into the forest, walking until they find a clearing where three pines are growing. The tallest tree is for the oldest prince, Fedor. The second tallest is for Peder, the middle child. The shortest is for Boots. The princes must chop down their assigned trees, and when they fall, the trunks will point them towards their destined brides.
Making a life changing choice based on the say so of a total stranger who just happens to have wandered into your house might sound like a really terrible idea, but the princes are obedient souls and duly head off into the woods. Fedor’s tree points north, Peder’s points south, and Boots’…falls sideways into a juniper bush. His brothers decide this means he’ll end up marrying a wood demon and, laughing unsympathetically, return to the palace to prepare for their different journeys.
Boots sits sadly on his fallen tree, looking at the juniper bush. Rats and mice are milling about under its branches, running out to peek at Boots then dashing away again. At length an elderly mouse climbs up the prince’s knee, bows and asks him with great courtesy to step inside the bush to meet with their queen. Boots crawls under the bush – I told you he was obedient – and finds a door there. Though neither he nor the bush appear to change in size, he fits through easily.
On the other side, a mouse wearing a tiny golden crown sits on an ivory throne. She orders her loyal rodents to bring Boots a feast, which they do – if in increments – and when he has finished eating, gives him a robe that glitters like stars and can be folded until it almost disappears. “Now you must go,” she instructs the prince, “because your brothers have found their brides and are on their way home. When the wedding day is fixed, then come and fetch me.”
Well, at least she’s not a wood demon!
When Boots gets home his brothers are boasting about the beauty of their chosen brides. Each has also brought home a gift as evidence of their wealth – a silver casket studded with pearls and a golden goblet, respectively. The older princes are feeling quite smug until Boots shakes out the shimmering robe. His father puts aside the other gifts and dresses himself in the robe at once, strutting back and forth so his courtiers can admire the effect. Satisfied that the goodish fairy has guided them well, he decides all three princes should get married on the same day and sets about preparing for a triple wedding.
Soon the day arrives when the brothers must collect their brides. Returning to the juniper bush, Boots finds an honour guard of rats and mice – all armed with swords and muskets – lined up to greet him. Inside, the queen is waiting with another feast. Boots, too bewildered by his situation to even argue, allows himself to be fed and tucked up in a bed. When he wakes, tiny attendants bathe him and dress him in beautiful garments of silk and velvet. Mice are exceptional dressmakers. Disney says so, it must be true. They even give him an appropriately sized sword in a jewelled scabbard before bringing him over to the queen for inspection. “You’ll do,” she decides, and climbs inside a tiny carriage.
Throughout all this Boots has done exactly what he’s told, but at this point it sinks in he’s marrying a mouse. Trailing after the queen and her escort, he hopes that this is all a dream and he’s not really going to rock up to the wedding with a rabble of rodents. In a display of uncanny timing, the queen stops her carriage and calmly orders Boots to behead every mouse and rat in the procession, starting with herself. He’s then to gather up the heads and throw them through the door under the juniper bush.
Boots is shocked and a little guilty. “What were you thinking a moment ago?” the queen demands, turning angry at his reluctance. “A rag tag mob of rats and mice…a wretched rabble…well, get rid of the rabble! Are you such a coward that you fear to strike off the head of a mouse?”
She has hit a sore spot. Boots draws his sword immediately and cuts off her head in one stroke. The rest of the company swarm him, not in vengeance but demanding he do the same to them, and Boots swings his sword in circles until he’s surrounded by lifeless little bodies. Though he feels dreadful about the slaughter, he follows through on the last of the queen’s instructions, throwing all the heads under the juniper bush. As he does so, there is a thunderous clap of MAGIC that strikes him senseless.
When he opens his eyes, a carriage has drawn up beside him and a beautiful girl is leaning out the window, calling his name. Seeing that he doesn’t recognise her, she reintroduces herself as the queen of the juniper bush. She was cursed by an evil sorcerer, as happens from time to time, who turned all her people into woodland creatures and her kingdom to a forest. Now that Boots has broken the spell, the bush has become a palace and the forest a spread of verdant fields. All the prince’s attention is occupied by the beautiful juniper queen, however, who tells him to climb inside the carriage so they can continue on to their wedding. Her escort – now cavaliers in plumed helmets and courtiers in carriages of their own – accompany them along a brand new road, and erstwhile beetles and stones form an adoring crowd shouting their queen’s praises.
On the border between the juniper queen’s country and that of the king, the old lady Boots picked out as a good fairy is sitting waiting by the road. He jumps out to greet her exuberantly, kissing both her cheeks and asking for her blessing. She predicts a happy ending.
At last the couple reach the king’s palace, where Fedor and Peder stare in disbelief. They’re not pleased at being outshone, but the juniper queen hits it off with their brides straight away. The wedding celebrations go on for a week. Then Boots and his queen return to her kingdom to reign happily ever after.
Fairy tale kings generally have slightly odd ideas about marriage, but this one spells out his priorities with unusual clarity. He doesn’t care if a potential bride has a wonderful personality, a serene temperament or wicked skills with a siege engine – hell, he doesn’t even account for one of his sons choosing a girl on their own. If a candidate doesn’t fit the triptych of superficial charms, she’s out of the running. Which makes it quite satisfactory that the bride he likes best started out as a mouse with attitude, and ends up as a neighbouring monarch with an impressive army. That fairy knew exactly what she was doing.