Fairy Tale Tuesday No.110 – Mainu the Frog

As the existence of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Magic Animals implies, some creatures seem more prone to lives of enchantment and adventure than others and one fairy tale classic is the frog. Amphibians with attitude have been known to make prophecies, jump from the mouths of cursed girls and turn into royalty, but not many frogs can claim the resourcefulness of this African fairy tale’s titular character.

It doesn’t begin with him, though. The first character we meet is Kiman, who once glimpsed the daughter of the Lord Sun and the Lady Moon – or more accurately, the girl’s reflection in a pool – and has been determined to marry her ever since. She is described as being all ‘white and gold’, and while that might be referring to genetic luminescence, I’d very much like to know if it’s an original detail or if the description has been Anglicised. My guess would be the latter.

Having never spoken to this girl is not an insurmountable obstacle to Kiman, but her never leaving her parents’ celestial realm kind of is, so he’s been making the rounds asking for assistance from all the most powerful animals he knows. None are remotely interested in his one-sided love story. Eventually Kiman is in such despair he plans to drown himself in a pond. Fortunately for him, he has not quite exhausted all avenues of assistance. As he declares his intentions, Mainu the Frog emerges from the pond. “You haven’t asked me to carry your message,” he points out.

“How can you get to heaven,” Kiman says, ungratefully, “when people who have wings cannot?” Mainu just tells him to write a letter already. He then takes the missive in his mouth and travels to the well where the servants of heaven come to collect water. When they let down their jugs, Mainu hides inside one and is carried up to the palace of Lord Sun and Lady Moon. Once the water-carriers leave, Mainu hops from his hiding place, spits out the letter on a table and goes off to hide in a corner.

When Lord Sun enters for a drink of water, he is baffled. Having ascertained his water-carriers did not leave the letter there, he goes to consult with Lady Moon. Many hours later, all the water in the jugs has been used up and the water-carriers return to refill them. Mainu hides in one, returning to the well the same way he left. He tells Kiman he has delivered the message but does not as yet have a reply. “How do I know that you are not telling lies?” Kiman demands. He frets for six days, then writes another letter and has Mainu deliver that one too. This time Lord Sun writes back. “Kiman, son of Kimanze, you who send me letters about marrying my daughter. How can I agree before I know you? Come yourself, bringing with you the first-present. When I know you, I can say ‘Yes’.” A win for reasonable parenting!

He leaves the letter on the table and Mainu gives it to Kiman, who is over the moon, if only metaphorically. He tells Mainu to help himself to whatever food is in the house and sets out immediately to assemble an appropriate introductory gift. Mainu doesn’t like any of the food, but has a bit of milk and sticks around until Kiman returns in the morning with a bag of forty pearls. Kiman also writes another letter, explaining he cannot visit himself, being very busy assembling a suitable wooing-present. Clearly presents are a thing? Whatever Lord Sun and Lady Moon wish, he will do his level best to give. Mainu baulks at the pearls, but manages to stuff the bag into his mouth and the letter too.

This time Lord Sun and Lady Moon read the letter together. “Who is it comes with these things?” Lord Sun marvels. “I have never seen him. I don’t know his name or what he is like. But he has come a long way; he must be hungry and should be fed.” Lady Moon lays out a meal and they go away to consider their reply. Lord Sun wants a sack of gold as a wooing-present, a price Kiman is more than happy to pay. There is only one problem – Mainu is physically incapable of carrying such a burden to heaven with him.

Kiman is not good at handling difficulties. He threatens suicide again. Mainu tells him to calm down, asks for a piece of gold and goes off to look for a solution. He calls on a medicine man called Omari, who in exchange for the gold piece teaches the enterprising amphibian two spells: how to make big things small and small things big, and how to breathe blindness or sight into someone’s eyes. Hopping back to Kiman’s house, Mainu proudly demonstrates the first of his newfound skills. Instead of being happy, Kiman thinks of another problem. If his suit is accepted, how is his bride supposed to get down? Presumably not in the mouth of a frog…

“Have I failed you yet?” Mainu wants to know. Kiman admits he has not. Mainu has calculated for this exact obstacle and sets his plans in motion as soon as night has fallen in the palace. Searching through the rooms of sleepers, he comes to the girl Kiman is so desperate to win and breathes blindness into her eyes. Which is horrible for her, and frightening for her parents, who consult their family wizard on what’s best to do. “The maiden is promised in marriage,” the wizard declares, “but not married. The longing of him to whom she is promised has caused this mischief. Let her be given to him, and her eyes will open…I have spoken.”

Yes, we know you have spoken. Were you possibly bribed, wizard? Because your diagnosis really sucks.

The next morning Lord Sun has a rope of cobweb spun between heaven and earth so that his daughter can descend, a task which takes all day. While the construction of the rope is underway Mainu returns to Kiman and gives him notice. “Frog, I fear you are lying,” Kiman says. “And if you are lying I will have your life.” Stop being ungrateful, Kiman, and stop pretending you’re the hero of this story. You are not fooling anyone.

Mainu goes back to the well and waits. That night Lord Sun and Lady Moon descend, bringing with them a crowd of attendants and their blinded daughter. They then lose their good parenting points by leaving her alone beside the well instead of hanging around to meet her future husband. She bursts into tears. At this moment Mainu introduces himself and blows on her eyes, restoring her sight. He then leads her to Kiman’s house and looks on with satisfaction as they are married.

There’s a sub-section of fairy tales that are allegedly about idiots in love but are really about their exceptional assistants, including ‘Long, Broad and Sharpsight’ and ‘Princess Felicity’. They have the unfortunate side effect of turning the girl the theoretical protagonist wants to marry into a prize, as opposed to a person, but I love competent people and have all kinds of head canons about these support characters. Despite his unethical approach, I think Mainu the Frog deserves a spot on that list.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.108 – The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body

In this Norse story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Giants, a king with seven sons gets suddenly terribly anxious about their marital prospects and sends the elder six off in a grand procession to seek brides. They strike gold with unexpected ease when they encounter the six daughters of another king, who is equally delighted at settling the sisters so conveniently. So swept away with their good fortune are the princes that they forget their father’s instruction, to bring back a bride for their youngest brother Halvor, who remained at home to keep the king company.

The six couples are on their way back to the princes’ kingdom when they come to a high black hill, wherein resides a giant who has a literally petrifying glare. One glower from him and the whole procession are turned to stone. Is it wrong that my first reaction is to ship him with Medusa?

Anyway, time passes and the princes’ father grows ever more anxious. Halvor wants to go look for them and at last the king has no choice but to let him go. As the older princes took all the best horses, the only one left is elderly and Halvor travels at a very restrained pace, slow enough to notice a grounded raven on the road. “Oh, dear prince,” the bird calls out, “I’m starving! Pray give me some food, and in your greatest need I will come to your aid.” Halvor doubts this, but offers his bag of supplies and the raven eats the lot.

Some way down the road Halvor encounters a salmon struggling on the riverbank. “Lift me up and put me in the water,” she gasps, “and in your utmost need I’ll come to your aid.” The prince obliges.

It turns out the horse was much too old for the trip; it falls dead and the prince has to leave its body by the roadside as he continues on foot. In this way he meets a wolf so ravenous it is pitiful as opposed to terrifying. When it asks for food, the prince has to explain he gave away everything he had to a raven, but then he remembers his dead mount. It’s terribly sad for the poor horse, but lucky for the wolf, who eats his fill then bounds back to the prince with renewed energy to offer himself as alternative transport.

With startling speed, they reach the giant’s hill and the fossilised pageant. Set into the hill is a door, through which the wolf insists the prince enter. Once inside, Halvor passes many empty rooms before eventually reaching one in which a beautiful girl is sitting. She is a princess, kidnapped by the giant, and appalled at the sight of her visitor. “You may be brave,” she says, “and think you will kill the giant, but no one can kill him, for he has no heart in his body!” When Halvor refuses to leave without rescuing his brothers and her too, the princess douses him in perfume so the giant won’t catch his scent, has him slide under her bed and covers him up with robes for good measure.

Soon after the giant comes in and the princess dances and sings for him, putting him into an amenable temper. “You have already given me everything I want,” she says, laying it on thick. “But there is just one question I should like to ask you – if I dared. Where do you keep your heart?” He tells her it’s under the doorstep. Of course, when the prince and princess dig into the doorstep with a pickaxe, there’s nothing to be found, so the princess come up with a different plan. They tidy the scene to hide traces of their search and she piles flowers all around. When the giant comes back, she tells him the flowers are in honour of his heart’s hiding place.

“Ho, you silly little bit of summer sunshine,” the giant chuckles, pinching her cheek and being generally patronising. He admits his heart is not under the doorstep; it’s in the cupboard. As soon as he’s gone the next morning, the two plotters rummage through piles of stored lumber, only to prove the giant was lying again. “I could sit down and cry!” the princess sighs, but sit she does not, nor does she cry – she shows Halvor how to make flower garlands instead and enlists his help in festooning the cupboard. “How could I help but deck the place where your heart lies hidden?” she flutters at the giant that evening. He tells her it’s not really there but is very reluctant to share its actual location, because he may be a creep but his instincts are good. The princess is more than a match for him, though. Decked out in her most beautiful clothes, she dances and plays the harp and showers her captor in praise until he’s so drunk on flattery he swears her to secrecy and tells her the truth.

“Over yonder lies a lake,” he explains, “and in that lake lies an island; on the island stands a church, and in that church there is a well; in that well there swims a duck; in that duck there is an egg; and in that egg lies my heart.” If those directions sound vaguely familiar, they are. The giant in ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’ tried a similar trick. Giants, it would appear, have removable hearts as a rule, and like to place their trust in ducks.

The princess does not have the break her word, because Halvor was listening. Travelling on wolfback, he reaches the ‘yonder’ lake with tremendous speed. The wolf swims across still carrying the prince, but when they arrive at the church they find it locked, with the key hung in a high tower. No problem – the prince cashes in his favour with the raven, who retrieves it. He then reaches into the well, but as he picks up the duck it drops the egg, and Halvor has to call on the salmon to retrieve it.

“Now give the egg a squeeze,” the wolf prods, and Halvor does. From far away they hear the giant screaming, begging for his life. It seems that by holding his heart Halvor can communicate across great distances, or maybe he just shouts really, really loudly – either way, he dictates his terms and before long the procession are restored to life. Now the wolf wants Halvor to break the egg in half. The prince thinks this is dishonourable, which is absolutely true, but the wolf points out the giant will just go around turning other people to stone if he lives, which is sadly also true. He snatches the egg from Halvor’s hand and bites it. The giant doesn’t just die, he bursts.

Returning to the black hill, Halvor greets his brothers and their brides, then goes inside the giant’s house to look for the princess. He leads her out proudly, announcing, “Here is my bride!” He has no horse to carry her home, but who needs a horse when your bestie is an obliging wolf? The king is overjoyed at the return of all his children, and holds a seven-way wedding at once. The wolf and raven both attend, and the salmon receives an invitation too, though it’s not practical for her to accept. Halvor’s not a bad friend himself.

This is what I describe as co-operative rescue – neither the prince nor princess are capable of achieving their plans alone, but work together to overcome their common enemy. I feel quite sorry for the giant, who might not have been able to help turning people into stone if he could do it with just a glare, but he also kidnapped a princess and she had to humiliate herself flattering him to get away, so…yeah, under the circumstances, my sympathy is limited.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.106 – The Nine Doves

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.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.102 – The Blackstairs Mountain

Not to be confused with ‘The Legend of Black Mountain‘, this Irish fairy tale is from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches. A little girl and her widowed grandmother live on a hilltop; the windows of their cottage look out across a valley to the looming bulk of the Blackstairs Mountain, where witches are known to live.

This therefore being a somewhat insalubrious neighbourhood, the widow and her granddaughter have developed a witchery-proofed security system. Every night before they go to bed, they loose the band that works their spinning wheel and lay it aside (never trust a spinning wheel); pour the washing water into a channel to flow away under the front door; cover the burning turf in the hearth with ashes; and lastly, put the broomstick through the bolt sockets of the front door (never trust a broomstick either). In this way, grandmother and girl can sleep safely.

They live by spinning and selling thread. One day they take their work to market, despite the stormy weather, and as they come home that night they lose their way in the heavy rain. By the time they reach home, they’re so worn out they forget all about the four tasks. They are on their way to bed when a heavy knocking makes them suddenly remember. A voice screams from the other side of the door, calling out to the washing water and the spinning wheel band, the broomstick and the turf coal. It demands to be allowed inside, and the door flies open.

A crowd of witches burst into the cottage, bringing with them the actual Devil. It’s all too much for the grandmother, who falls in a dead faint – and while that’s an understandable reaction to Satanic incursions, it leaves her granddaughter alone in their midst. The Devil settles comfortably by the fire and pulls out his nose to play it like a trombone. Dancing to the music, the witches knock over the furniture and smash the crockery and tip the dresser through a window. They even start a game of leaping back and forth over the unconscious old woman, but the girl is largely ignored. For some time she looks on, horrified – then she pulls herself together and slips out the door.

Is she escaping? No, a moment later she comes racing back into the house shouting as loudly as she can. “Granny, Granny, come out! The Blackstairs Mountain and the sky above it is all on fire!”

The Devil stops his music and leaps through the broken window. The witches run after him, shrieking lamentations as they hurry back to their mountain. The girl wastes no time; the moment the last witch is out of the house, she has the door bolted with the broomstick. When the other three tasks are completed, she goes to her grandmother and wakes her with a splash of cold water. She’s just sitting up when a furious howl rises from the Blackstairs; the witches know they have been tricked, and are coming back.

There is a sudden silence. All the more terrifying for their restraint, four quiet knocks sound at the door. “Washing water, let me in!” a voice wheedles from the other side. “Turf coal, turf coal, open to me, open!” But not one of the domestic conspirators is in a position to obey. The spell of safety holds. Outside the witches scream and rage, while the girl and her grandmother huddle on the floor like they’re back out in the storm. At last the witches give up and return to their mountain, leaving the wreckage of their impromptu party in their wake. The girl and her grandmother never forget the ritual again.

See, this is how I came to love fairy tales as a child: a little girl gets to outwit the forces of wickedness and save the day on her own. She also overcomes the inherent traitorous qualities of a broomstick and a spinning wheel, which gives me all sorts of meta joy. The witches have a whole mountain to hold their parties on, they’ll cope.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.100 – An Adoration of Dragons

Cue the curse-breaking and mass reanimations! Since starting this project two years ago I’ve spent one hundred Tuesdays reviewing fairy tales and if you aren’t equipped to get that joke by now, I do not know what to do with you people.

As I’ve already reviewed ‘Sleeping Beauty’, however, I looked elsewhere for this week’s fairy tale. A milestone such as this requires celebration, and what better way than DRAGONS! It’s often assumed that all fairy tale dragons want to do is eat princesses and lurk in caverns of gold – and that the happy ending demands death by knight – but there is so much more to them than that and I have a quartet of fabulous fiery beasts only too happy to prove it.

Story 1: Chien Tang

This Chinese fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons and its titular hero is a dragon in the service of Heaven. His duty is to bring down the rain when it is most needed and blow the clouds away when it is not. When not thus occupied, he lives peaceably in his well. The grateful populace often come there to sing his praises, dropping poems and flowers as tokens of their appreciation, but one day the fairy tale version of an internet troll comes by to make trouble. He throws a bundle of rags and a rude little down the well for Chien Tang to read.

You know what they say about letting sleeping dragons lie? That’s because BAD THINGS happen when you offend them. Chien Tang is so outraged that he whips up a ferocious storm and makes it rain for nine whole years. Villages are washed away and the people either drown or flee.

This is known as an overreaction.

At last the Supreme Ruler of Heaven has had enough and throws Chien Tang into a lake to think about what he’s done, whilst chained to a pillar so he can’t do it again. The pillar belongs to the palace of the Dragon King, who is incidentally Chien Tang’s brother. The Dragon King has recently married off his beautiful daughter to the dragon king of a nearby river – in hindsight, a dreadful mistake. Her husband is abusive and treats her like a slave.

Dragons, it’s important to note, can be shapeshifters. The princess is out herding goats in human form when she meets a young student called Liu. Seeing how unhappy she looks, he offers his assistance and she reveals the whole miserable business. A similar explanation is contained in a letter she has written for her father, but until now she’s had no means of sending it. Acting on her instructions, Liu goes to the Dragon King’s lake and strikes the tallest tree on the bank three times. This draws the attention of a young dragon who takes him down to a magnificent bejewelled palace, where the whole court await his message. When the Dragon King himself enters and the truth of his daughter’s marriage comes out, everybody begins to weep and wail. Too late, they remember that the princess’s uncle is within hearing range.

Outraged on behalf of his niece, Chien Tang breaks free of his chain and soars to the rescue. He takes care of the situation with incredible speed: first devouring his niece’s awful husband, then dashing up to Heaven to ask forgiveness for the whole flooding thing, before returning to the lake with the glowing princess in his arms. She marries Liu instead, who now has excellent motivation to be the ideal spouse.

Story 2: Pepito

This Greek story is from the same collection. Pepito is a young woodcutter struggling to support his widowed mother. One day, while out at work in the forest, he is approached by a well-dressed merchant offering a sweet deal – several days service on a short voyage in exchange for a hatful of gold pieces. Pepito does not need to be asked twice. The merchant has a whole fleet of ships waiting, and when Pepito arrives they set off.

Three days later they drop anchor alongside an island that is ninety nine percent mountain. Pepito’s job is to get to the top and throw down whatever he finds there. There’s a catch: the only way to reach the top is to be sewn inside a carcass so that the hungry local eagles will carry him up, then cut his way free before they tear the carcass to pieces. Pepito manages, just. The eagles are deeply unhappy about being tricked.

Fighting his way free of the bull hide, Pepito looks around and realises just what it is the merchant wants so badly. The top of the mountain is a meadow where brightly coloured flowers grow thickly – and scattered around them just as thickly are jewels and coins. Pepito is entranced. At the merchant’s distant shout, though, he snaps to his task and begins hurling treasure over the side of the mountain. He works all day, until every ship is loaded. Then the merchant sets sail, abandoning Pepito with no way to get down.

All of that treasure seems considerably less appealing now. Pepito throws a huge gemstone out of sheer misery, accidentally revealing a ladder that was hidden beneath. It leads down to a dark passage, and that in turn leads to a lush valley. A marble palace amidst the green fields implies habitation, so Pepito heads for that. As he walks through the open gates there appears to be no one home, but a loaf of bread and flagon of milk are laid out in one room. Pepito is draining the last of the milk when a whirring of wings alerts him to the return of the owner. It is a magnificent dragon with a golden beard and golden horns! Far from being angry at Pepito’s arrival, the dragon is thrilled to have company. He beams welcoming fangs and wags his tail, trying to look approachable.

Pepito cautiously introduces himself. “I haven’t got a name that I know of,” the dragon sadly replies. “You see, there’s no one to call me anything. And no one to talk to except the fishes in the stream. And they’re so silly – they do nothing but giggle.” It’s all too much. He bursts into tears. Pepito, remembering a rumour that dragons love pearls, offers one he pocketed in the meadow and the dragon cheers right up, fitting the jewel into the scales of his neck.

They are oddly matched housemates, but Pepito hasn’t much choice in the matter and the dragon is a deeply conscientious host, giving his new friend the best of everything. Then one day Pepito notices a door he hasn’t seen before and wants to know what’s behind it. At first the dragon tries to deflect him. Eventually, however, he’s pressured into handing over the key. On the other side lies a pretty but otherwise unremarkable garden and Pepito is just about to leave when a pigeon flutters down, turning into a beautiful girl. She takes off her robe of feathers and bathes in the garden’s fountain. Disregarding the basic rules of privacy, Pepito tries to talk to her, but she just pulls on her robe and flies away.

The dragon explains the situation. The girl’s father is a magician and her mother is a witch; they cursed her to be trapped in the shape of pigeon, only allowed to become human when she bathes in the fountain. This is the kind of punishment magical parents consider appropriate for disobedience. Pepito is immediately fired up with the resolve to rescue her, which isn’t really that difficult – all he needs to do is take away her robe of feathers. Next time she comes down to the fountain, he seizes it and proposes marriage.

The girl seems okay with that. It’s better than being a pigeon, anyway. The dragon is less than pleased at the interruption to his bromance, but produces some beautiful clothes for the girl to wear instead of her robe. He advises Pepito to burn the feathers, but Pepito thinks they’re too beautiful and the girl assures him she’ll never want to wear the robe again. The dragon turns himself into a priest to marry them, then back into a dragon to be their sole and somewhat sulky wedding guest.

The couple live very happily in the dragon’s palace. In time they have two children, a boy and a girl, and the lullaby their mother sings to them reminds Pepito of his own mother. The dragon, who has grown very attached to the whole family, nobly offers to send Pepito home, on the condition he eventually comes back. In a blink of dragon magic, Pepito finds himself transported to his mother’s cottage, his wife and children with him. The joy of the reunion is supplemented with the long-promised gold.

Pepito buys a farm (forgetting all about his promise to the dragon) and has his mother come live with him. He gives her the feather robe to hide, but it’s so beautiful that she sometimes brings it out to admire, and on one such occasion her daughter-in-law comes in unexpectedly. She reaches out to touch the feathers and the robe lifts by itself, wrapping around her. A pigeon once more, and the children cursed with her, she cries out a clue for her husband: “seek me in the castles green and the castles red and the five white towers!”

Pepito’s mother passes on the directions when he gets home, but he has no idea what they mean. His only hope is the dragon. Disguising himself, he goes to the port and hires on with the same merchant. This time he turns the tables; the merchant gets him where he wants to go, but doesn’t get so much as a penny out of it. Instead Pepito climbs straight down the passage to the dragon’s hidden valley.

His friend has been desperately lonely since he left and is so overjoyed to see Pepito again that he turns somersaults. His mood takes a downturn when he realises Pepito is just there for information and plans to go away again when he gets it, but being an awesome person and the best of friends the dragon tells him what to do anyway. Deep in the dragon’s palace are stored a rusty sword, an old hat and the stump of a poplar tree – all of which are considerably more powerful than they appear. The sword will cut down whatever it’s told, the hat will make you invisible, and the stump will carry you wherever you need to go. Abandoned twice over, the dragon sadly watches Pepito go.

The five white towers stand on a white mountain, which sounds like a riddle about teeth or something but isn’t. Pepito’s wife is in the courtyard of the fifth tower, dressed in rags and feeding chickens. Amongst the poultry are two little pigeons. Pepito whips off his hat to reveal himself and his family rush to greet him, but this reunion isn’t set to go smoothly. The doors to the tower fly open and Pepito’s wife barely has time to cram the hat back on his head before her father the magician comes storming out. It turns into a bit of a farce – the magician running all over the yard, trying to lay hands on Pepito, sending gusts of wind to pry at his magic hat, all without success. At last the magician gives up. “You can take your wife,” he declares, “if by tomorrow morning you have thrown down this mountain and made a flower garden of it.”

Pepito has no chance. Pepito’s wife does. She has him throw a tile in the tower well, and at once a small army of workmen rise out of it to start pulling apart the mountain. Sure enough, by morning the towers stand in a field of flowers.

That’s not enough for the cursed girl’s parents. The witch comes bursting forth next, riding an extremely unhappy dragoness, to help her husband catch Pepito. He can’t elude both of them, so draws his sword of last resort and orders it to cut off both their heads. At once the two little pigeons turn into Pepito’s children and he has his family climb aboard the poplar to go home. “You can go home, too,” he suggests to the dragoness. She starts crying. Home for her was the well in the yard, and it’s horrible down there. “Would you like to have a handsome husband and live in a palace?” Pepito the matchmaker enquires. It doesn’t take much effort to convince the dragoness, and the whole lot of them return to the dragon’s valley together.

He’s waiting there miserably for Pepito to return. At the sight of his friend, he bounds over, hoping this time he’s back for good – which he’s not. But then the two dragons are introduced, and it’s love at first sight. As Pepito and his family fly away, they look back and see the dragon and dragoness dancing through the flowery valley to their own happily ever after.

Story 3: Yanni

In this Macedonian fairy tale (also from A Book of Dragons), a boy called Yanni is on his way to visit his sweetheart when a dragon jumps out at him from behind a fountain and explains his new title is ‘dinner’. “If your dinner I must be,” Yanni bargains, “let me first say goodbye to my dear little sweetheart!” The dragon consents.

Yanni arrives at the girl’s house in a state of understandable depression. When he tells her what’s happened, she insists on accompanying him back to the fountain. The dragon is delighted at the sight of them (“My dinner comes double!”), but the girl has a plan. “Go on and fear not,” she tells Yanni. “I have eaten nine dragons for breakfast – I will now eat the tenth one!”

She’s terribly convincing. The dragon edges nervously back. “Pray tell me, friend Yanni,” he says, “whose daughter is that one?” The girl steps in front of her lover. “I am the daughter of Lightning,” she declares, “grand-daughter of Thunder. Move aside, Yanni. I will flash with my lightning, I will crash with my thunder! I will eat this small dragon!”

The dragon flies away as fast as he can and never comes back.

Story 4: Damian and the Dragon

This Greek story comes from a different Manning-Sanders anthology, also entitled Damian and the Dragon. It starts with a king, who has three sons and one daughter. One morning he asks each of his sons to tell him their dreams from the night before, because these will reveal their true selves. The elder two princes dream of possessing great estates, or at least are smart enough to say they do, so their father grants them large chunks of the kingdom. The youngest prince, Damian, doesn’t want to admit to his dream at all, but when pressed, admits in his dream his father brought his washing water and his mother a towel, like servants. The king is furious. Though Damian tries to explain it’s only a dream and not what he really believes, he’s sent on a walk in the woods with the royal executioner, and it’s plain he’s not intended to come back.

The executioner doesn’t have the heart to go through with it. He confesses the plan. Damian comes up with a compromise; he has the executioner cut off his finger and stain his shirt with the blood, to take to the king as evidence of his ‘death’. He then walks away from everything, all because of a stupid dream.

For six months he lives as a beggar. At last he comes to a large castle, where he hopes there may be work. No one answers his knocks, so he walks into the courtyard – and sees a dragon coming in at the same time, driving a flock of sheep. Damian quickly hides behind a pillar. He needn’t have worried; the dragon has no eyes to see him with.

When the dragon starts milking the sheep, Damian sneaks over to drink some. Later, he watches the dragon settle in the great hall of the castle with a pipe and decides to adopt him. Seriously, he comes over and introduces himself as his son.

The dragon is surprised, but not displeased. As he can’t see, Damian’s presence is actually very useful. The prince turns housekeeper, cleaning the long-disused chambers of the castle, bringing in wood, even scouring the milk pail. He makes an excellent son and the dragon, providing square meals and a supportive attitude, makes an excellent dad.

One day, while the dragon is out tending the sheep, Damian finds a flute forgotten on a shelf. When he plays it, all the furniture begins to dance. Even the castle begins to waltz around him. The dragon returns home puffing, having been obliged to dance as well. Damian conscientiously offers to tend the sheep the next day and the dragon agrees, on one condition: he must not go near the green hill with the little house on top. Witch-maidens live there, and they collect eyes. That’s how the dragon lost his.

Damian promises obediently to avoid the hill, and of course the moment he’s out of the castle that’s exactly where he goes. The witch sisters who live there see him coming and immediately covet his bright eyes – but before they can catch him, Damian starts playing the flute. The witch-maidens are forced to dance along with everything else. One nearly gets hold of Damian, but he seizes her hair and ties it to a branch instead. The second witch makes a desperate leap – but no, he catches her and ties her up the same way.

“Restore my father’s eyes,” he commands. The sisters tell him the eyes are in a box on their mantleshelf, in the shape of two apples, but are guarded by a pair of imps. Damian must greet them with a cry of ‘Chuck! Chuck’ – by no means ‘Bo!’ – and cuddle them so they’ll let him pass. He doesn’t trust a word of their instructions, and cries ‘Bo!’ instead. The imps fall in the fire with shock and puff out of existence. That leaves Damian to take the apples unimpeded. The witches call for him to let them down, but he insists on restoring the dragon’s eyes before going near them again.

That evening he convinces the dragon to eat both apples and two golden eyes appear in his head. The first thing the dragon does is hug Damian; the second, to go vapourise the witches. When he comes back he gives Damian a ring of keys, and tells him that anything he fancies in the castle is now his. Damian finds whole rooms of gold and silver, heaps of precious stones, all kinds of treasure – but has no use for any of it. At last he takes a few gemstones, a beautiful suit of silver clothes, a rather impressive sword and a suit of armour. He’s on his way back to the dragon when he notices one more door, to which he has no key.

The dragon is very reluctant to let him in. First he pretends the key is lost, then he tells the prince that if he enters the room, he’ll never come back. Seeing how upset his adoptive father is, Damian tries to forget the door, but can’t get it out of his head. Eventually the dragon caves and gives him a tiny key. “Unlock that door if you must,” he says, “but remember that wherever you go my love goes with you.” Dragon dads are the best dads.

Damian is puzzled by this attitude. He only intends to take a quick look. On the other side of the door is a stable, and in that is a silvery mare. “So, my prince,” she exclaims, “you have come at last! We must be away faster than the wind!” The king, it turns out, has made another huge blunder. He’s announced that whatever man can leap across the great marsh behind the palace may marry Damian’s only sister – and a great many men have tried. The neighbouring kingdoms are up in arms to avenge their drowned sons. Damian may know his father’s faults firsthand, but he doesn’t want him to die. Jumping on the mare’s back, he returns home with whirlwind speed.

That’s not enough for the mare. She insists he buy a bladder from a butcher’s shop and put it over his head so it looks like he’s bald, then cover her up in the hide of a dead horse. Next, she has him buy ragged clothes to replace his silver suit. They are going to leap the marsh and mustn’t be recognised. Damian thinks that’s a terrible idea – he’s the last person who wants to win his sister’s hand – but the mare is determined and he reluctantly goes along with her plan.

The king is in a dreadful temper. He’s sick of watching suitors drown but too stubborn to change his own criteria. He doesn’t recognise his son, who is admittedly very well disguised, and is appalled when this ‘bald beggar’ manages what no one else could. “Whoever calls that fellow my son-in-law shall have his head cut off!” he shouts, but the whole crowd around the marsh is saying it and so he stumps furiously back home to punish the princess instead, because he can. She’s shut in the stable on a diet of bread and water. The queen, though, has a comfortable bed and a good meal sent down, so that’s all right.

Basically the no.1 rule for survival in this family is don’t tell the king.

Being in a murderous state of mind, the king heads defiantly off to war, despite being badly outnumbered. On the way Damian falls deliberately into a ditch to embarrass him. The moment the rest of the army has passed by, he jumps out again, whips off his disguise and races to the battlefield in shining armour to save the day. Well, save his father’s day. The opposing armies are beaten back and the silvery mare leaps into the clouds, making the king believe it was an angel sent by God to save him. Have I mentioned he has a bit of an ego?

That night Damian breaks into the stable to visit his sister. She’s thrilled to see him and laughs at his story. Overhearing, the king mistakes this for unbecoming hijinks and wants to execute her on the spot. His wife seizes his arm, panicked. “In heaven’s name, what are you about?” she cries. “Perhaps the poor girl is only laughing for grief!”

Um. Your excuses could do with some work, honey. The king settles for sending out a maidservant to tell the princess to shut up, but the maid gets caught up in the excitement of the prince’s return and the noise from the stable only gets louder. The king, working himself into a towering rage, rushes out to kill the lot of them, only to see his saviour standing there in shining armour. He still doesn’t recognise Damian as his son. The prince refuses to come out, saying he’ll visit the palace tomorrow. In preparation, the king has every room adorned in gold and silver and a glorious feast laid out. During the banquet, he even brings Damian his washing water, and has the queen bring a towel.

Afterwards, Damian stands up, saying he wants to tell a story. The king orders that anyone who interrupts shall have their head chopped off, and actually calls the executioner over to stand ready. So Damian begins with three princes, and three dreams – and the king interrupts. At every juncture of the very familiar tale, he has exclamations and questions and the executioner doesn’t know quite what to do. When Damian reaches the part about the bloody shirt, he holds up his missing finger and turns to the executioner to thank him for his life.

The king hides under the table. How did this man ever end up RUNNING A COUNTRY?

But Damian is all “bygones!” and pulls him out. He doesn’t want the king to grovel, and he definitely doesn’t want the throne. He does insist on the executioner getting a dukedom. Things change for the better in the kingdom, because whenever the king is on the point of losing his temper all Damian needs to do is hold up his stump of a finger and his father is instantly quieted.

What about his other father, though? The dragon who was an actual decent parent? Nudged into remembering by the silver mare, Damian rides back to visit and finds the dragon crying while he milks the sheep. “Father!” Damian whispers, the way he did when they first met. “Here is your son.” Huge hugs ensue. And every full moon after that, Damian comes back to visit.

Some dragons are villains, some are just cowards, and yet others are heroes. Claws can be fearsome or beautiful – it all depends on who tells the story. The reason I started writing Fairy Tale Tuesdays in the first place was because the stories I knew were so much more complicated, and so much better, than the versions I was seeing told. Tradition is made from what we choose to remember, so next time you read a fairy tale, remember this. The princess is not always waiting for rescue; sometimes, she battles kings and witches and Destiny itself. The prince is not always a hero. Sometimes, he’s the one who needs saving. The stepmother isn’t always a villain, and the dragon doesn’t have to die.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.99 – The Juniper Bush

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.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.95 – Prunella

This Italian fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches. It begins when a little girl reaches into the abundant branches of a wayside plum tree and is snatched up by a witch in need of free domestic service. Her house is built entirely of plum stones and plums are the only food the girl ever gets to eat; the witch even renames her ‘Prunella’, which means ‘little plum’. Though the girl tries repeatedly to escape her new mistress, the magic laid over the witch’s house always brings her back. So Prunella remains, and somehow despite her enforced servitude and extreme diet, she grows into a healthy, beautiful young woman.

Not that she’s aware of the beautiful part – the witch has no mirrors in the house – until one day she glimpses her reflection in the still water of their well and lingers so long admiring it that the witch comes to find out what she’s doing. They look at their reflections side by side and it’s plain that while this lifestyle suits Prunella, it’s done nothing for the witch. Prunella is tactless enough to say so outright. She’ll regret that.

The witch’s first effort at retribution is to assign her servant a traditionally impossible task: she gives Prunella a basket to fill with water, and if she fails, her life will be forfeit. Prunella takes an equally traditional approach, falling into a heap beside the well and crying her heart out. At this point, a handsome young man conveniently materialises at her elbow. His name is Benvenuto, he’s the witch’s son, and he is in love with Prunella. In exchange for a kiss, he’ll fill the basket. Blackmail much?

Prunella turns him down flat, because she hates his mother. He respects that and fills the basket anyway. The witch is infuriated when Prunella comes back with the task completed, immediately realising who must have helped her. She storms out of the house, but leaves Prunella another task to be getting on with – she must turn a sack of raw wheat into loaves of bread in the space of an hour, or die.

And Prunella tries, though she’s well aware it can’t be done. With only five minutes left before the witch’s return, she’s not even finished grinding the flour, and surrenders again to tears. Benvenuto reappears like this is a pre-arranged signal. He makes the same offer, she rejects him again, and he works his magic on the wheat just the same. The witch walks through the door to find a pile of crusty loaves on the table.

Of course she knows it’s her son’s doing and his clear line of alliance doesn’t improve her mood AT ALL, but she decides to have a go at subtlety. She rouses Prunella at dawn with an unconvincing apology and a new task. “My sister lives on the other side of that mountain. She has a casket of jewels belonging to me, and I want you to go and fetch it. There is a pretty little string of pearls in it, I seem to remember. I fancy they would look well round your white neck.” On the one hand, she’s making super suspicious offers – on the other, Prunella gets to leave the house. She’s accustomed to living by the witch’s whims anyway, so she sets off happily enough.

Benvenuto intercepts her at the foot of the mountain with the bad news: his aunt is a witch too, and a particularly nasty piece of work besides. She’ll kill Prunella as soon as look at her. “But give me just one kiss, and I will save you!” Benvenuto declares. Prunella tosses her hair scornfully. “If I am going to my death, then I go to my death. I will not kiss the son of a witch.” You have to admire her consistency. Benvenuto, who does, helps her out for a third time with four seemingly unremarkable gifts to ease her way.

Continuing up the mountainside, Prunella comes to the witch’s gate and pours the first gift, oil, on its rusty hinges. This allows her to sneak inside unheard – well, unheard by everyone except the enormous guard dog, who comes racing over to rip out her throat. Prunella tosses him a loaf of bread and he falls on that instead. Crossing the courtyard, she sees a woman at the well trying to draw up a bucket with her long hair. Prunella offers her Benvenuto’s third gift, a rope. Inside the house, another woman is trying to clean the hearth with her tongue and gets a broom. Prunella snatches the promised casket off its shelf and runs out the door.

In her haste, the door slams, and the witch wakens. She screams at each of her servants in turn to kill the thief, but they all react to the witch’s cruelty by letting Prunella pass. She returns to her own mistress with the casket, and the first witch throws a violent tantrum. Yet another task is devised: Prunella must guess which of the witch’s three roosters is crowing throughout the night or be killed for her failure.

As before, Benvenuto turns up at the last minute with his kiss-or-be-killed special offer. When the first rooster crows at midnight, he tells Prunella it is the yellow bird. The second crow comes from the black bird. When the third rooster crows, however, Benvenuto falls silent and Prunella has no answer for the witch. Instead of letting herself to be murdered by her raging mistress, she jumps from her window.

Benvenuto catches her. “I love you, Prunella,” he tells her. “I do not ask anything of you, except to be allowed to save you.” She falls unconscious, and when she wakes she’s on the other side of the sea, where the witch will never find her. Benvenuto bids her a quiet goodbye and turns to go, but Prunella calls him back. “Have you forgotten that I am the son of a witch?” he asks. “Yes,” she answers, “I remember only that you are good and kind.” So they make a new life for themselves together, far away from the house of plum stones and the wrathful witch.

The moral of the story: you just can’t trust fruit in a fairy tale. I’ve always had a soft spot for Prunella, who might be brutally blunt but survives her servitude with healthy self-respect and a strong sense of boundaries. She only consents to marry Benvenuto when her circumstances don’t depend on it; when, in short, it’s a real choice. He’s a rather sad character, clearly estranged from his maniacal mother, feeling he has to blackmail a girl into caring about him but helping her no matter what. As for the witch sisters – seriously, they are so not prepared for the inevitable minion’s union.