Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sleep well? I don't think so.

I've just been reading another story from my recent acquisition, The Ruby Fairy Book, and I am marvelling anew at what people thought was suitable reading for children in the early 1900s.
Reading this particular story - it's by Luigi Capuani and is called The Cotton-Wool Princess - has given me a most unpleasant feeling that I have rarely felt since childhood, a kind of claustrophobic repulsion, the sort of feeling I used to get when waking up from a particularly nasty nightmare.
I mentioned this on Facebook and fellow author Keren David exhorted me to "tell" - as there isn't really space on Facebook I thought I'd put it all down here, so I can horrify you too, dear reader.
The story concerns a King and Queen who live "a thousand years ago" and have a beautiful young daughter. The King of France and then the King of Spain both seek her hand in marriage, but her parents are too fond of her to part with her. In a fit of pique, the disappointed Kings club together and hire a magician to wreak revenge on the princess. The magician gives them a magical ring which will do something horrible to the princess once it has been on her finger for 24 hours.
The Kings now have the problem of how to get the ring onto the princess's finger, since they are no longer on speaking terms with the palace. The King of Spain disguises himself as a goldsmith and is thus able to present it to her. Twenty-four hours later the palace is rent with screams but when everyone grabs candles and rushes to the princess's room she shrieks at them to take the lights away, because she has turned into cotton wool.
I don't know why this strikes me as being so very much more horrible than dropping dead, falling into a sleep for a hundred years, having a toad drop out of your mouth every time you speak or any of the other nasty fates a maiden can undergo in a fairy tale - but it does. In fact it gives me a churning feeling in the pit of the stomach!
The princess's father the King then resorts to the obvious measure of saying that whoever can cure the princess may marry her.
Along comes the kind-hearted son of a shoemaker, who proves his goodness by rescuing a toad from some boys who are stoning it. The toad turns out to be a powerful fairy in disguise, and she then advises him how to help the princess. She tells him how to get to the castle of the evil magician who has cast the spell on the princess, and gives him a magic sword. The magician is terrified of the sword and apparently agrees to help, by giving the lad a second magic ring, which he says will make everything right.
The young man goes to the palace and assures everyone that he can cure the princess, but when he puts the ring on her finger she bursts into flames (see pic above) and screams the place down! The shoemaker's son wisely legs it and calls upon the fairy for help.
The fairy tells him the magician has double-crossed him (no sh*t, Sherlock...) and gives him a magic dagger with which to threaten him. The lad goes back to the magician's castle and loads him in chains, fastening them to the ground by the dagger, and says that he will not let him go until the princess is alright. The magician tells him to remove the first ring from the princess's finger and all will be well.
The shoemaker's son hastens back to the palace and having assured everyone that this time the princess really will be alright, he removes the ring from her finger. Instantly she turns from cotton wool back into a flesh and blood princess - but it now appears that she has no tongue, ears or eyes because all of them were burnt away by the flames!
The shoemaker's son rushes back to the enchained magician, intending to kill him for his trickery, but the magician, seeing that it is all up with him, finally tells the young man how to remove the spell. Then follows much shenanigans with the magician's siblings, all of whom appear to be as unpleasant as the magician himself; rather bizarrely they give him a piece of red cloth, two lentils and a pair of snails.
The lad returns to the palace and puts the piece of red cloth into the princess' mouth, and it turns into a tongue. You would think that the princess would be grateful for this, but in fact the minute she can speak she gives him an earful, calling him a miserable cobbler.
The young man is somewhat taken aback at this ingratitude, but he puts the lentils into her burnt eyes and all of a sudden she can see again. The very first thing she does is to put her hands over her eyes and complain how ugly everything is.
By this point, were I the young man, I would probably be tempted to make the princess eat the snails, but he patiently claps them to the sides of her ungrateful head, where they are instantly transformed from molluscs into "sweet little ears." This does not prevent the princess from giving him another earful of abuse.
The shoemaker's son storms off to find the fairy, who laughs herself silly over the whole sorry affair and reminds him that he has not yet removed the second ring from the princess's finger. "Oh dear! I did not think of that in my confusion," exclaims the youth, 'seizing his head between his two hands in mingled terror and shame' - an early instance of #facepalm. He rushes back to the sour-tempered princess and removes the second ring, at which her sweet and kindly nature is restored and the pair of them are finally able to marry and live happily ever after.
I suppose I am pleased for them, but I don't think I shall be reading this story again in a hurry, nor reading it to either of my children at bedtime...

Above: not suitable for children?

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