I have a theory. The fairy tale economy would at first glance appear to be in constant jeopardy, given the bottomless sacks of gold coins and whole meadows of jewels that people keep stumbling across, but my theory is that dragons are protecting everybody from wild inflation by hoarding as much magic gold as they can.
Let’s face it, though, a passionate love of gold is a constant throughout the fairy tale world. We have already met a prince with a golden hand, a sorcerer with a golden head and countless women with golden hair. Princesses lose golden balls, wear golden gowns and hide golden trinkets. In this Sicilian story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Monsters, one royal family locate the natural phenomenon of their dreams: a whole valley of gold.
It begins, as so many fairy tales do, with a king and his three sons. They are unusually content for fairy tale royals, even taking little father and son bonding trips to survey the kingdom. One day the king and his eldest boy, Rosario, set out together with a full retinue and near midday reach a beautiful green valley. Rosario is very much taken with the spot and wants to stop for a picnic, but his father is sure somewhere better is close at hand. They keep riding. The next valley they come to is a wasteland, where the only buildings are ruins. Rosario wants to go back. The king insists on travelling onward.
And what a good decision that is on his part, because as they reach the crest of the third valley they are dazzled. Everything in this valley, from the encircling mountains to the trees and the stream and even the birds, is living gold. Rosario is smitten and wants to stay here forever. He asks his father to build him a little house in the valley. The king is incredulous; while the valley is pretty amazing, it is also the middle of nowhere. But Rosario is determined, so the king has the house built and stocked with provisions. Once it is done, Rosario’s parents come to see their son settled in. “A prince, and heir to the throne, to live like a hermit in the desert,” the king worries on the way home. “He will soon tire and come back to us,” the queen reassures him. “It is only a foolish fancy.”
She’s proven right faster than anyone expected. Rosario is at first delighted with his house and new-found independence, but in the night he’s woken by a thunderous banging. The walls shake, the windows shatter and Rosario is thrown from his bed. He snatches a cloak and runs for his life. Behind him, the house collapses and the night air is filled with roaring laughter. For the valley is already occupied: a giant creature approaches the prince, sparking gold, and Rosario flees. He doesn’t stop until he gets home. He tells his family that the valley is bewitched and his father approves his choice to return home, but his younger brother Giovanni scoffs at the story and asks permission to build another house in the valley. “It was merely a little earthquake,” Giovanni insists, “and earthquakes only happen once in a blue moon!” So a second house is built and he moves in.
He’s home very soon afterwards, thoroughly convinced it was not an earthquake.
That leaves only one brother who has not tried the grown-up royal version of camping in the back yard. Cosmo believes his brothers’ tales but is captivated by the mystery and wants to go see the valley for himself. The king tries to protest, pointing out how dangerous the monster is likely to be, all to no use. Rather wearily, he has a third house built.
Cosmo spends the day peacefully enjoying his new home. Instead of going to bed like his brothers did, he stays up with a book by the fireside. At midnight, he hears heavy footfalls approaching the house and sees two huge golden eyes peering in the window. Cosmo gets up and politely opens the door, bidding the monster good evening. “Why aren’t you in bed?” the monster demands. “I don’t go to bed when I’m expecting a guest,” Cosmo replies. “I stay up to welcome him.” The monster is astounded. He expected awe and terror, but the prince wants rational conversation.
The house, as it turns out, is the problem. This is the monster’s valley and he doesn’t like the sudden invasion of princes. “It belonged to me before your father, or your father’s father, or your father’s father’s father, were born,” he shouts. “It’s my home! Mine! It was my home before any of you mannikins existed on earth! And here you come messing it up with your lath and plaster, after all the trouble I’ve taken to make it pretty!”
Cosmo acknowledges it is exceptionally pretty. The monster won’t be mollified. He suggests, rather wildly, that they fight. Cosmo is willing to do so, but points out the monster has the advantage of size and weight and the ability to bring down houses on top of their owners. Reluctant to start an unfair contest, the monster wants an alternative and Cosmo proposes a battle of wits. No, monster, no! Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.
The contest does not involve poison or pirates, anyway, it is a game of riddles. The monster is so very old that most his riddles are terribly well-known, so to avoid hurting his feelings Cosmo pretends to think very hard before answering each. The monster has more trouble with Cosmo’s offerings. The prince gives him broad hints when he gets stuck, but he simply cannot puzzle out the last riddle and the prince wins the game.
“I don’t see how you’re going to kill me,” the monster remarks. “Kill you!” Cosmo exclaims, appalled. “Why should I want to kill you?” The contest was not a matter of who should live or die; it was about whether Cosmo could stay in the valley. The monster admits he’s earned the spot, but laments his lack of architectural flair. To put it simply, the house is an eyesore. “Well then, big clever boy,” Cosmo says gently, “make it prettier.” Eagerly the monster elbows him aside and starts running his enormous hands all over the house – and whatever he touches turns to gold. Now the place matches the rest of his décor and the valley’s two residents can focus on the really important matter: becoming the most adorable best friends ever. Because though the monster’s hugs are really terrifying (the prince almost gets crushed on the trial run), he’s good company when you get to know him.
The king and queen do not know him. They are getting very worried about their youngest boy, and being excellent parents, decide to go investigate. The whole family return to the valley with soldiers as backup, only to find Cosmo peacefully feeding crumbs to the golden birds. His brothers stare. His parents are deeply relieved and want him to come home. “I think I would rather stay here for a while,” Cosmo says. “I am only a younger son, I am not needed at court, and I am looking forward to more visits from my monster. He can teach me a lot of things.” “Teach you things!” repeats his mother. “What sort of things?” “Things about monsters,” Cosmo explains, and will not leave.
So every evening the monster comes to Cosmo’s house and tells him stories about the world before humans came along. Being millions of years old, he’s got quite an interesting history. In exchange, Cosmo tells him riddles. One night, the monster arrives with one of his own. “What makes the world to shine?” “You, with your golden touch?” the prince suggests, but that is not it. Nor is the sun. The prince keeps guessing, and each time he is wrong. At last he gives up and the monster shouts the answer triumphantly. “A good friend! And I’ve got one!“
SO. MANY. FEELS.
It wasn’t easy deciding what to review for my very last Fairy Tale Tuesday – whether I should choose an old favourite or one newly found, a traditional tale or one more obscure. In the end, though, it had to be a Ruth Manning-Sanders retelling. My love of fairy tales began with her, and always goes back to her. It was because of her I knew how complex fairy tales could really be, how much they deserve to be remembered, and retold. Because a king and queen can be wonderful parents, and three brothers can love each other. Sometimes gold is just pretty, and a monster can become the best friend you’ve ever had.