After hearing writers like J. R. R. Tolkien read fairy tales growing up, I grew curious. Could these old stories really inspire the fantastic? There have been many fairy tale compilations over the years, but the one that intrigued me most was Andrew Lang’s collection. In the late 1800s, Lang wrote twelve volumes, each one a separate colour: The Blue Fairy Book, The Pink Fairy Book, The Crimson Fairy book, etc. Over 420 fairy tales to peruse.
What exactly is a fairy tale? I thought they had a moral or warning tucked within their stories, but those apparently are fables. All right, then perhaps they gave a commentary of the times, stating an ideal way of life, guiding behaviour with societal and cultural expectations. Nope, those are legends. What then is a fairy tale exactly? A story involving the ‘fantastic.’ Or better put, a story taking place ‘once upon a time’ in a world unlike ours where magic abounds and mythical creatures dwell. They serve to entertain and delight. Some are long, some are short. Originally meant for adults, they have been tamed to appeal to children.
Fine and dandy. So, what’s my point? Well, I thought I would delve into the realm of fairy and see for myself what those tales were all about. 420 stories… one story a day… (give or take) and my commentary on said stories. Seemed like a fun experiment.
First up is The Bronze Ring.
Once upon a time there was a fair princess. Her father decided she should marry the Prime Minister’s son. She, however, was in love with the gardener’s son. The king felt this was an unacceptable match, but the princess would not be swayed. The king made a challenge to the two suitors. He sent them on a quest: visit a far country and the first to return shall marry his daughter.
The prime minister’s son set out on a gallant stead with a pocket full of coins. The gardener’s son had a slow, lumbering mule and barely a pence to his name.
During their travels each man came upon an old beggar woman. She asked each in turn for help. The prime minister’s son turned up his nose and travelled onward. The gardener’s son stopped and gave the woman food and helped her to a nearby town. Her thanks were so great that she told the gardener’s son a secret: if he followed her instructions to the letter, he would receive a bronze ring. This he did in earnest and of course obtained the bronze ring. A ring that had magical properties, granting the owner anything his heart desired.
The gardener’s son wished for a magnificent ship made of gold and silver and manned by a regal looking crew. He sailed on this ship to the distant country and took up residence there for a time in a great palace. Not long after he arrived, the prime minister’s son hobbled into the city, destitute and in rags. The gardener’s son took him into his service, branding him as a servant, and outfitted him with a ship to return home.
In time, despite the terrible state of the boat and bedraggled crew, the prime minister’s son made it back to the princess first. The wedding was arranged straight away. But the king, upon gazing out his window, saw a magnificent ship moored at the bay and said to himself, “Who is this great prince? I must welcome him at my court.”
The gardener’s son strode into the king’s hall and pointed out that the man set to marry the princess was in fact his servant. When the king learned of this, he revoked the man’s claim and instead let the princess marry the man she loved.
ASIDE: One might think this is the end, but lo, there is more to this tale.
Upon hearing of the magnificent ship, an old, miserly magician knew the gardener’s son had found the bronze ring, and he set out to claim it for himself. After some trickery, he took the ring into his possession and ordered the genie of the ring to make the gardener’s son’s ship a pitiful thing, his crew all beggars, and his hold full of cats.
Since the gardener’s son was on a diplomatic mission at the time, imagine his surprise when the ship beneath his feet changed, the boards rotting and old. He knew someone had stolen his ring. His crew grew hungry, and they landed upon a strange island inhabited by mice.
Now, mice and cats do not mix well, and the mice became rather worried when the cats began eating their fellow countrymen. They called upon their queen to stave off the attacks. She sent diplomats to speak with the captain of the strange ship. He told the messengers that if the mice retrieved the prize he lost, he will take his cats and leave.
The mice sent three of their bravest to fetch the ring from the magician. The old man was crafty. He wore the ring by day and slept with it in his mouth by night. While one mouse guarded the ship, the second soaked its tail in oil and rolled it in pepper. She lay it underneath the sorcerer’s nose. When he managed a great sneeze, the third mouse ran and snatched the ring.
Upon their journey back to the island, the mice began arguing over who was the bravest, and who had in fact won the prize. This of course led to some back and forth and the ring fell into the sea. Imagine their despair! They told the story to the queen who was quite distraught. How would she save her people?
The cook brought her a fine fish for her supper, and when she bit into the tender meat, she discovered something hard. The fish had swallowed the ring. Relieved, she presented it to the gardener’s son who wished for everything to return to the way it was. The gold and silver ship once again materialized, and the cats turned back into sacks of gold and silver coins.
The gardener’s son sailed home immediately and dispatched the wicked magician. The gardener’s son and the princess lived happily ever after.
What is one to make of that tale? What struck me was the fact that the gardener’s son actually lost the quest! He was not the first to make it back to the princess, yet because of his riches, the king reneged on his early decree and gave his blessing for the gardener’s son to marry his daughter.
The nice thing about this story is that love triumphed over all. A princess must have a man worthy of her caste. Those are the rules. With his bronze ring, the gardener’s son met the criteria.
I’m still not sure why we had the added subplot of the wicked magician, other than he was a means to introduce us to a strange island inhabited by diplomatic and sophisticated mice. Perhaps that part of the tale was to show us that the ring is only meant for those who show kindness, after all, the gardener’s son had obtained it by helping the beggar woman. The old magician nabbed it through deceit.
I’m curious to see what the next tale reveals.