I encountered this Lithuanian fairy tale in Folk tales From the Soviet Union: The Baltic Republics, compiled by Robert Babloyan and Mirlena Shumskaya and published in 1986. It begins ‘beyond the nine mountains and the nine forests’, where a young prince is growing up in an unusually wholesome environment. Both his parents are alive and not obviously evil, the kingdom is not poverty-stricken or at war, and no one’s tried selling him off to a sorcerer, but being a small child – and a rather spoilt one at that – he chooses to focus on the one negative in his life, that he has no siblings.
Admittedly, his parents are pretty squirrelly about the subject and avoid answering any of his questions. There is also a walled courtyard beside the palace, lined with lethal diamond spikes, that the prince has always been warned away from. They may as well just put up a sign saying WE HAVE A BIG SECRET.
One day, as the trigger-happy little prince aims his bow at a raven seated on the wall, the bird spills the beans. Before the prince was born the king and queen had three daughters, who are now kept locked up on the other side of the diamond spikes, and the raven just happens to know where the key is hidden. “Once you are in the garden,” it advises the prince, “open the window of your sisters’ chamber and let them breathe some fresh air.”
That night the prince unlocks the secret door. His sisters are delighted to see him, and happier yet at being released. Starlight! Flowers! Oxygen! Their joy is shortlived, however; suddenly the ground shakes and the three girls are seized by a whirlwind. Their horrified brother can do nothing to save them.
The next morning the king is thundering at all his courtiers. Bravely, the prince goes to confess, and finally – when it’s too late – gets the rest of the story. “Before you were born the wise men who read the stars warned me that your sisters would be carried off by a dragon. That was why I built that wall and kept them under lock and key,” the king rages. “But you disobeyed me and defied my orders. So, worthless youth that you are, leave my kingdom and do not return until you have brought back your sisters.”
Brilliant plan, that! Why lose only three children when you can lose all four? The queen gets no say in this, by the way, and barely manages a goodbye before the gates are shut on the prince’s back. With no idea where his sisters have gone, he starts walking down the road. He walks. And he walks. At last, lost and luckless in the middle of nowhere, he approaches a hut to ask for shelter and explains his predicament to the woman who answers the door. Being an old lady in a fairy tale, she of course Knows All. Most of what she knows is ‘lol, you’re useless at this hero stuff’.
More exactly: “The way that lies before you is far and dangerous, and you are timid of heart and unused to work. Stay with me for three years, learn to earn your own living, and then I may be able to help you.” The prince has nowhere else to go, so for three years he uproots trees, ploughs fields and generally does all the other work of a farmhand. When his apprenticeship with the old woman is complete, she gives him a ball of yarn to guide his way and a piece of bread that grows no smaller no matter how much he eats.
The thread leads him to a copper mountain and the copper forest that grows upon it. When he tries to break off a branch to make a staff, a witch with four eyes appears from nowhere to punish his vandalism. The prince distracts her by throwing the ball of yarn and dashes up the mountainside, and its top he sees his eldest sister seated at a spinning wheel. At first she’s delighted to see him, but as evening falls her mood turns anxious and she hides him away inside a large ornamental chest. This is because her husband is coming home. Yes, she is now married! To someone who flies in as a falcon and becomes a young man. “What would you do, Falcon, if my brother came to pay me a visit?” the princess asks. “Would be glad to see him,” the falcon man replies, “and would thank him for delivering you from captivity.”
Satisfied her brother will be safe, the princess releases him from the chest. No one sees fit to explain how a girl cursed to be captured by a dragon should end up married to a shapeshifter instead, but the falcon man is under a spell too – an evil sorceress enchanted him to take the shape of a bird for another six years unless he can find the Sun Princess in the meantime, and though he flies around the world three time a day, he’s never been able to reach her. The prince immediately offers to find her himself. As an expression of appreciation, the falcon man gives him a kerchief which will apparently be in some way useful, for reasons he does not actually go into.
The prince continues on his way. The old woman’s yarn is still unrolling, leading this time to a silver mountain, a silver forest and two annoyed witches. Tossing the yarn again, causing them to collide, he runs up the mountain and sees his middle sister sitting embroidering. She’s not so easily convinced he’s her brother (good on you, sceptic sister!), but when he tells her about the copper mountain and the reunion there, she welcomes him into her home.
Like her sister before her, the princess grows worried at nightfall. “Bear, my husband, might come and claw you to death,” she tells her brother baldly. He promises to hide, but she needn’t have worried. When her husband comes home, casting off his bear shape as he crosses the threshold, she tells him the prince has already left so she can gauge his reaction. Seeing he’s fine with it, she calls her brother out of hiding and in the ensuing conversation the bear man explains his situation is very similar to the first princess’s husband: curse, shapechanging, the elusive Sun Princess as an escape clause. The prince insists he can find her and the bear man gives him a pot of porridge as a farewell gift. With instructions. Anyone who touches the pot, apart from the prince, will be stuck to it.
Onward rolls the yarn, over hill and beach and ocean. The prince follows it past the gnashing teeth of sea monsters and more obstructionist witches to the golden palace of his youngest sister. Like the other two princesses, she is married to someone she doesn’t really trust – a cursed young man who tosses aside the scales of a pike as he enters the palace. Like the other two brothers-in-law, he’s better than she believes him to be. Upon hearing of the prince’s quest, the pike man offers a golden casket that should only be opened in a time of great trouble, and wishes him good luck.
The prince travels ever further and at last comes to the kingdom of the Sun Princess. The gates of her palace are framed by columns of fire, but the prince rolls his ball of yarn between the flames and passes through safely. A voice enquires after his purpose. “Are you here to woo the princess?” it adds, pointedly. “What if I am!” replies the prince, and is answered by airy laughter. A very precise whirlwind deposits him on the doorstep of a hut; its nine doors open, and he finds himself pushed inside a dungeon. As a little note of irony, the only light comes through a tiny heart-shaped window.
Nor is the prince alone. In the dark around him are twenty eight old men, all of whom set out once upon a time to woo the Sun Princess, and met with deathless imprisonment instead. The eldest of their number has been in this dungeon for SIX HUNDRED YEARS. The prince attempts a pep talk about banding together, but no one’s buying it.
A handful of oats are suddenly thrown through the window and the old men scrabble on their knees for each grain, the only food they ever get. The prince is appalled. When a jug of water is also lowered through the window, he throws it back out. “What have you done!” the old men cry. “Now we won’t get any water to drink till tomorrow, and if the Sun Princess is angered, why, she’ll not give us any.” The prince, however, came well prepared. Remember the kerchief? All you need do is spread it out to produce a fabulous feast, enough for all the prisoners to share.
The princess’s lady-in-waiting, Bright Dawn, is watching. She reports the kerchief to her mistress, who tells Bright Dawn to go bargain for it immediately. Her dazzling beauty blinds the old men and they hurry away to hide, but the prince faces her without flinching. “Tell the Sun Princess that the kerchief is hers,” he says, “and that I wish her health and happiness.”
The Sun Princess only laughs when she hears his message. As she samples each dish, she assumes her newest prisoner will be fighting for oats like all the rest. When her second lady-in-waiting, Evening Star, goes to watch through the window, she instead sees everyone feasting just like the day before. Not only that, the golden casket is playing beautiful music and the prisoners are getting up to dance.
Evening Star demands the casket, and the prince tells her to come get it. The panicked old men beg him not to sell, but he is busy charming his guest, because he actually has a plan. When Evening Star tries to rise, she finds herself stuck to the porridge pot. Though she thrashes wildly, she can’t get free, and the old men watch on with bitter satisfaction. The prince continues giving her mead, so she’s blind drunk when at last her mistress comes looking for her. So beautiful is the Sun Princess that the old men cower to protect their eyes and the prince forgets all his clever ideas. “Take whatever you wish,” he declares, “my casket, Evening Star here, or me, your obedient servant.” “I’ll have all three,” says the wickedest princess of them all.
She brings the prince into the palace and gives him keys to all forty of the rooms, but he is allowed to open only thirty nine. Should he ever unlock the fortieth door, he will regret it. He’s so smitten with his beautiful, psychotic bride that he forgets all about his brothers-in-law – and considering how large a part they’ve played in his survival to this point, that’s a pretty crappy thing to do – but he does ensure the twenty-eight captives are released. Then he gives himself over completely to being an adoring husband.
The Sun Princess’s palace is full of wonders. One door leads to a menagerie of terrifying beasts, another to jewel-like butterflies, yet another to Winter herself. But of course, the greatest allure of all is the mystery of the fortieth room. Convincing himself that the Sun Princess would forgive him anything, the prince eventually unlocks the door and finds only a mossy pillar wrapped in chains. As he turns to go, it begs him for water.
Even living in this place hasn’t sapped the prince of all his morality. He gives it ladle after ladle from a bucket on the floor and with each drink the pillar stretches until suddenly the chains fall and the prince realises it’s not a pillar at all, it’s a giant. “Many thanks to you, my good youth!” he bellows. “Now the Sun Princess will be mine!” He leaps into the air and catches up the princess, leaving only the fiery trail of her hair in their wake.
In her absence the world goes suddenly very cold and very dark – not just for the prince, who against all logic loves her, but for everyone else too. Saddling up the fastest horse from the royal stables, the prince sets off in pursuit, and after three days searching reaches the giant’s castle. A three-eyed goat is standing watch over the princess while the giant sleeps. The prince’s plan is to sing the goat to sleep, which might actually have worked had he remembered the third eye. As it is, the goat only closes two eyes, and no sooner have prince and princess legged it than the giant is woken by loud bleating. “Wake up, giant, the prince has carried off the Sun Princess!” “We’ve plenty of time,” the giant mutters drowsily. “We’ll dig some potatoes first and then go after them.”
YES. REALLY. I could not make this stuff up.
So he digs up a whole sack of potatoes and still catches up to the fleeing couple. Out of gratitude for the water, he does not kill the prince, but he makes it clear that mercy won’t be extended a second time. Before she’s dragged away, the Sun Princess tosses the prince a ball of yarn. Though they escape again in exactly the same way, the giant soon follows with a rush of icy wind (and a sack of potatoes) and this time he cudgels the prince on the head before snatching up the princess. Her last act is to throw the prince a kerchief.
The world descends into a chaos of ice and famine while the prince lies insensate. Ravens are swooping down to peck out his eyes when all of a sudden Falcon, he of the first kerchief, frightens them away. He’s lifted some healing water from the Sun Princess’s palace en route and uses it to waken the prince, then advises he go to the witch Laume. “Get her to take you on as her herdsman,” he says. “And do all her cat tells you to. The giant keeps his strength in the egg of a wild duck that lives by the side of the sea. You must ride the witch’s horse there, catch the duck and take away the egg.”
As before, the ball of yarn leads the way, and the prince stops at a hut festooned with cobwebs and surrounded by rats. The witch Laume is willing to take the prince on – if he herds her twelve mares safely for three days, he may have whatever he wishes in return, but if one goes missing he’s a goner. Now the death threats are out of the way, come inside and have a spot of lunch!
While the prince is at the table, a cat jumps on his knee and mutters in his ear, “Give me a bit of the meat you are eating, prince, and I will help you.” It turns out the mares are actually Laume’s daughters (the families in this fairy tale are messed up) and when the cat turns double agent, he discovers that the witch has ordered her daughters to become fish and hide from the new herdsman. The next day the prince sets out and all seems to go well – but unbeknownst to man or cat, it seems Laume has also drugged his food, because as soon as he eats the cheese the prince falls asleep and when he wakes the mares are gone.
Fortunately he has other allies. Shaking the kerchief, he summons up his brother-in-law Pike, who goes after the hidden fishes. They are forced to resume their horse shapes and be led home, where they are beaten by their vicious mother. “Never did any of my herdsmen get away from me alive,” she swears, “and this one won’t, either!” She orders them to become woodpeckers the next day and hide in trees to elude the prince, but he calls on Falcon to aid him and once more returns with the full herd. The poor girls are whipped and raged at and told they are a disgrace to the family. If they can’t stay hidden as grubs on the third day, they’ll suffer for it.
But Falcon digs them out, and the prince comes back to claim his reward. Though Laume is in a literal frothing rage, beating and cursing her daughters, she cannot contravene her own terms and the prince demands she give up her smallest filly. Weak as it looks, this horse is her favourite grandchild (whatever the affection of an abusive murderer is worth) and as strong as all the others put together.
The prince carries his new mount away. With every mile they go she becomes bigger, until she’s large enough for him to ride. She asks where he wants to go and when he tells her, soars away into the clouds, flying all the way to the shore where the wild duck swims. Having no bow and therefore no means to catch the bird, the prince is prepared to break down in tears, but Pike comes through again and drags the duck to shore. The prince tears it in half (ugh), seizes the egg from inside and remounts his horse, riding towards a fire on the horizon, where the giant’s castle stands. “I have come to free the Sun Princess!” he cries.
The giant comes striding out, cudgel in hand. He is about to strike when the prince takes out the egg and throws it to the ground, killing the giant instantly. As the Sun Princess runs from her prison, light returns to the world and her marriage belt becomes a rainbow. So happy is she that she even releases the three brothers-in-law from their spelled shapes and soon five chariots set off for the prince’s homeland. One for each of his sisters, riding with their husbands; one for the prince and Sun Princess; and one for their infant son, New Moon.
WHICH IS NO ENDING AT ALL. What about the witch’s abused daughters? What about this prophesied dragon, who never shows up? Or if he did, it was for lightning strike matchmaking. What about the raven? What about those traumatised old men and the sorceress, who sounds an awful lot like a certain vindictive monarch? I thought Princess Blue-Eyes had a mean streak, but she looks positively adorable in comparison to the Sun Princess.