Monarchs with beautiful daughters have an unfortunate history of going overboard on security and one such is the king in this Greek story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons. He’s so obsessed with his daughter’s safety that he shuts her up in a glass tower – not just glass, either, opaque glass so she can’t see any of the ugly things in the world. Even the meat she eats must have the bones removed before it’s served to her, in case she chokes. Finally she’s had enough of being coddled and orders the servants to bring her ordinary food, which she manages to eat perfectly well without killing herself. She then throws the leftover bone at the glass wall, creating a DIY window.
The first thing she sees is a flock of doves flying past. Eight of the number are black and fly straight past, but the ninth is white and circles the tower a couple of times before fluttering inside. The princess immediately, and fruitlessly, tries to catch it. In the process a ring falls from her finger and the dove catches it up before flying away.
The next day the same thing happens, only this time the princess drops a bracelet and the dove steals that instead. On the third day, the kleptomaniacal bird takes her handkerchief. On the fourth day, her dad shows up to ruin her fun. “It must be repaired,” he says at once, when he sees the window. “But it is very special glass. It came from the east; it may take months to get another piece. And I can’t let you stay here until it is mended. Why – anything might come in!”
Thus the princess is sent to stay with her godmother in the country, which is actually great, because her godmother could not care less what she gets up to. The height of her concern is warning the princess it would be better not to leave the garden. So the princess just stands at the gate and chats with all the passersby.
At this point we’re going to take a diversion into the life of a local boy, described in the book as a ‘simpleton’, though he seems no easier to fool than anyone else. He makes a living cutting wood in the forest with his donkey and one day it gets loose, trotting blithely away through the wood and vanishing through a door in a tree trunk. On the other side is a stair ascending into a vast chamber. Having followed his donkey this far, the boy is astonished to see the animal suddenly disappear. The door vanishes at the same time, leaving him no choice but to investigate the room for other options.
At the far end is a fireplace. The boy sees partridges cooking in the cauldron hung over it and takes one, prudently hiding in a nearby cupboard to eat. He’s barely finished his meal when nine doves come flying through the wall and shake off their feathers. The white one becomes a man. The eight black ones become dragons. The boy starts regretting all his life decisions.
The dragons depart, leaving the young man behind. He claps his hands and a maid comes in to serve up the remaining bird. Perplexed as she is by the disappearance of half his dinner, the young man himself doesn’t seem to care and the boy in the cupboard feels insulted on the food’s behalf, but keeps watching. When the dishes have been cleared away, the young man takes out a handkerchief, a bracelet and a ring, kissing each then starting to cry. “Oh my princess!” he cries. “What has become of you? I fly past your tower. I fly through the window. I fly and I seek you, but I cannot find you!”
He’s sobbing against the table when the sound of the dragons coming back snaps him out of it. He has just enough time to sweep the keepsakes into a pocket before the dragons return to the room, resume the shape of doves and fly away, taking the transformed young man with them. Left alone again, the boy emerges and rediscovers both the door and his donkey. It calmly leads him out into the forest, where he has nothing else to do except go back to chopping wood. When he goes to add the new logs to his sack, he finds his donkey tied up exactly where he left it before the whole doors and dragons adventure began. You might consider that a little odd, and you would be right, but the boy accepts things as they are because he has plans for the afternoon. Like everyone else within gossip radius, he’s heard that there’s a princess in town who likes conversation and he’s determined to meet her.
Yes, she’s back in the story! She’s made it a policy to ask all passersby at her godmother’s gate whether they’ve seen her lost possessions, as this may lead her to the white dove, and at last it pays off when the boy relates the full story of his bizarre day. The princess demands he take her to the woods and show her the door. At first he refuses, uncomfortable at the idea of walking around with royalty, but she talks him into it and they return to the hidden room. The princess settles in to wait, shutting herself in the cupboard. As before, the doves fly through the wall, one turns into a man and the man starts crying over his stolen mementoes – only this time the princess throws open the cupboard doors and declares her presence. True love is in the house!
It turns out the young man is a prince, stolen from his cradle by the eight dragons because they wanted a son – a dragon son, specifically, but as their spells have only succeeded as far as a bird that’s simply had to suffice. “How can I ask the hand of a princess, even though I love her with my whole soul,” he cries, “when half my time I am a dove, and only half my time a prince?”
The princess is not unsympathetic to his problem, but is more interested in escaping before the dragons get back. They run all the way to the glass tower, which cannot be as far away as I assumed, and take refuge there. Distance is not much protection, however. When the dragons resume the shape of doves, the prince is forced to the do the same. The princess takes the tearful bird in her hands and introduces him to her father, explaining the difficult circumstances.
“But this is a very astonishing and awkward thing,” the king protests, “that you should want to marry a dove!” “He isn’t always a dove,” the princess repeats patiently. The dragons fly around her tower, but as there is no longer a hole in the wall they can’t get in and must return to their lair to think up a different plan. The moment they become dragons again, the dove turns into a prince, and the king gets what’s going on. He agrees they’d better marry at once, while the groom is still human.
See, that’s why I write Fairy Tale Tuesdays, I love getting to say things like that.
While the glass tower is much more enjoyable with company, both prince and princess are soon tired of it and risk a walk in the garden. Sadly, this is a trap. The eight black doves fly past and the prince, now a dove once more, is obliged to fly with them. The princess dashes to her father with very precise architectural instructions, and given that’s the foundation of their relationship he is quick to oblige. In due time a house is built for her, surrounded on all sides by a high iron wall with only one gate, and the princess goes to live there. She sends her maid to the woodcutter boy, asking him to take a letter to the room in the forest, and the maid charms him into agreeing. The letter being delivered, and the prince having agreed to his wife’s plan, she waits for her chance.
One day the nine doves come flying past her house. The princess lets the white dove in, then slams the solid iron gate shut and even when the other doves take the shapes of dragons, they can’t break it down. In their helpless rage, they spontaneously combust, which I suppose is a pretty creditable cause of death for fire-breathing lizards.
The prince is not yet safe. The dragons put three pins through his head before they set out, trapping him in the shape of a bird and leaving him in great pain. Kissing her dove, the princess touches something sharp and realises what’s happened. When she pulls out the pins, the prince takes his human form permanently, and they can start their happy ever after officially. It won’t be in a glass tower.
After all his help, the woodcutter boy is summoned to name an appropriate reward. His first thought is a pretty apron for his mother, which is granted, but the king wants to give something grander. The boy racks his brains. His second request is half a bucket of oats for his donkey, and lastly, a silver feather to wear in his hat. Perhaps that’s not as extravagant a gift as the king was prepared to give, but the boy is happy and that’s all that matters.
I admit, I feel a bit cheated. DRAGON FOSTER PARENTS, people. While it certainly seems they weren’t good parents, it’s a concept that deserves proper exploration! Another aspect of this story that needs explanation is the mysterious donkey. How did it get loose, then get tied up again? How did it disappear and reappear at will? How did it climb stairs, for pity’s sake? It’s a good thing the boy remembered those oats, is all I can say.