Fairy Tale Tuesday No.121 – The Golden Valley

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 d├ęcor 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.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.112 – Monster Copper Forehead

This Russian fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Monsters and begins with a hunter called Zar, who is having a bad day. Having utterly failed to find any game, he’s dispiritedly turning for home when a creature called Monster Copper Forehead springs out at him from behind the trees. Zar panics and tries to shoot him in the head – which does not work so well, because copper forehead.

“Now I shall eat you!” shouts the monster. Zar offers anything he owns in exchange for his life and Monster Copper Forehead agrees to spare him, at the price of something at home Zar does not know he has. Of course, when he gets home his wife has given birth, and he realises that what the monster wants is his infant son Ivan. Sure enough, Monster Copper Forehead shows up on the doorstep the very next day to claim his prize. When both parents plead to keep their child, saying they’d rather give anything else, the monster points out they have nothing else to give. Nevertheless, he grants them a delay of twelve years. At the end of that time he’ll come back, and this time he will take the boy.

Twelve years is a lot of time for Ivan’s desperate parents to plot. They dig a huge cellar under the garden, stock it well with food, and as the time draws near for the monster’s return, they move in. Zar’s mother is installed in the house instead, with the promise she will not give them away. That promise counts for a lot less when the monster himself arrives. “If you lie to me it will be the worse for you,” he menaces. “I have been known to make my dinner off little old grandmothers.” YOU FIEND. Terrified, the old lady tells him to take the poker and toss it in the garden. By weirdly predictable good luck – or bad luck, depending upon your position – it lands precisely against the hidden trapdoor to Zar’s family bunker. Before long the monster has dragged out all three of its residents.

“If I weren’t a kind-hearted fellow,” he roars, “I’d crack your skull in, Zar, for so deceiving me!” He settles for taking Ivan away to his house in the deep dark woods.

He does not, however, want to eat him – far from it, he does not want Ivan for himself at all, but for a little girl called Berta who already lives with him. He took her away from a wicked stepmother and now keeps her locked up inside the house like a beloved pet. One day while he’s out, however, a huge raven visits the house and calls out to the children. At his suggestion they climb up the chimney, jump onto his back and fly away for home.

Unfortunately for them, Monster Copper Forehead is quick to notice their absence. Using his villain of the story superpowers, he scans the skies and spots the runaways, then stamps his foot and sends a flame spearing up through the air. The fire singes the raven’s wings and he falls to earth, where Monster Copper Forehead is waiting. He snatches up the children and storms home, thoroughly put out.

The raven is not the only bird to have noticed their captivity, though. The next time Monster Copper Forehead is out, a huge falcon comes flying to his house. “Creep up the chimney, young Ivan,” he urges. “Creep up the chimney, little Berta, and I will carry you home.” But the falcon is no more able to elude the monster’s fire than his predecessor, and the children’s escape fails again. This time Monster Copper Forehead blocks up the chimney, to prevent a third attempt.

But he lives in a fairy tale and can no more prevent the Third Thing taking place than he can reverse gravity. This time a huge bull shows up outside his house. The children break a window and clamber onto the beast’s back, and he runs like a monster is on his tail. Which, of course, one is. He runs so fast it is too late to employ the fire, so Monster Copper Forehead pursues on foot instead. He corners the bull at a lake, and it seems like this rescue will fail too – but across the water come the bull’s friends, Sharp-Clawed Cat and Bristle-Haired Dog, who just happen to have a raft. They pick up the bull and the children and Monster Copper Forehead is left stranded on the other side, crying out to the children, begging them to come back. Ivan has no sympathy, being kidnapped and all, but Berta has lived with the monster longer and knows he’s not all bad. One day, while the assorted beasts and birds she now lives with are busy with other things, she borrows the raft and crosses the lake to where Monster Copper Forehead is still crying.

“Ah, ah, you will come back and live with me, my darling!” he cries delightedly, at the sight of her. “No,” Berta corrects him, “but get on the raft, and I will take you to live with us.” I like you, Berta, I like the way you think. Her hopes for forging one big happy family are crushed, however, when she hears her housemates returning, singing about how they want to kill the monster. While their attitude is understandable, given the history, it’s ultimately unhelpful. Berta has extracted a promise from the monster not to harm Ivan; at this moment she realises Ivan has made no similar promise and isn’t likely to do so. Monster Copper Forehead quickly turns himself into a pin and she hides that in the wall. The cat and dog are suspicious and try to search the house, but Berta has prepared supper and soon everyone is eating instead.

The next morning, when they have all gone hunting, Berta pulls the pin loose and it turns into a monster again. She tells him he must go home or her friends will murder him – and I think it’s significant she uses the word ‘murder’ rather than ‘kill’. Monster Copper Forehead would rather run the risk of bows and arrows than return alone to his empty house, so Berta agrees to go with him. “But you must never again lock the door and bar the window and keep me prisoner,” she warns him, and he gives her his word he won’t.

Ivan’s reaction when he realises Berta is gone is mild annoyance. “We have lost our housekeeper,” he complains. “Now we must take it in turns to stay home and do the cooking!” No wonder she ran away to live with her monster. The whole Lost Boys lifestyle suits Ivan for a while, but eventually he begins to think about his parents and decides to go home. As a farewell gift, the cat and dog dig him up a cache of gold coins, and the bull helps him carry them home. His parents had given up hope of his ever returning – they are so overjoyed at his suddden appearance that they adopt all his friends too, an assimilation made much easier by the riches in Ivan’s bags.

So Ivan is happy, his parents and friends are happy, and Monster Copper Forehead – who never liked Ivan that much anyway – is happy, because he has Berta. But Berta herself is beginning to feel her isolation. As she grows up she often feels very alone, and the monster, being a surprisingly attentive father figure, realises she needs other humans in her life. One day he stays out late and eventually comes home with a startled prince tucked under his arm, whom he promptly pushes at Berta like a doll. “What did I tell you?” he exclaims proudly. “Isn’t she good? Isn’t she beautiful? Doesn’t she shine like the very sun, doesn’t she, doesn’t she?”

Ahem. I may have something in my eye.

“She make the darkness bright around her,” says the prince, who is not an idiot. Berta laughs. When she agrees to marry her giftwrapped suitor, the monster gives them both a very literal lift back to the palace. “I will not come in to fright the wedding guests,” he tells them sadly. “I will say goodbye to you here, my little Berta.” He may be an incompetent parent, but he means well and he’s tried very hard. She kisses him affectionately on the cheek, and though he returns home alone, it is with a smile on his face.

SHE DOESN’T MARRY IVAN. I was so sure that was coming, I was bracing myself for it – but no, she doesn’t have to marry the neglectful hunter who saw her only as a housekeeper, she gets a poetically minded prince! She also has a terrifying adoptive parent to call on in times of crisis, always useful when you enter a royal family. If anyone ever threatens her children, I’m pretty sure they’ll regret it. After all, what prince or princess’s life story could not be improved by the presence of a ferociously protective monster grandad?