Friday, April 6, 2012

King Thrushbeard

I took a couple of passes at this story before I found one I liked. Versions of this story exist all throughout Europe, including one version by the Brothers Grimm. Though the title of the story, the cruel name given to the king and the exact nature of the trick played on the princess are different, they generally end with the princess learning her lesson and living happily ever after. As the story does fall into the "Taming of the Shrew" category of story, however, I am forced to cross my fingers and hope that my readers understand that the deception played upon our princess is due to her being a genuinely unpleasant and mean person, and not just because "a woman needs to know her place" or some other such sexist nonsense.

Let’s face it, kids n’ people: Times have changed. We have cars instead of horses, horses instead of bicycles, bicycles instead of unicycles, polar bears instead of—

(NOTE: This introduction has been abandoned as it was clearly nonsense)

Times have changed. Especially for you lady-types who may or probably not be reading this. Today, you can do whatever you want. Do any job, use any last name, live anywhere, marry whoever you want, marry no one, have babies, don’t have babies. The world is your oyster…unless you don’t like oysters, in which case the world can be, like, your linguini or something. Maybe with some shrimp in there. Or is it shellfish you don’t like?

(This is your last warning!)

Okay, sorry. What I’m trying to say is that being a woman has changed a lot since this story took place. Back then, a young girl had only one job in life: Marry well and bear many sons. This was true of all girls, be they poor or really quite wealthy. Common or ever-so-royal. So whether you were Gwen, the nice girl whose dad was the village smithy, or Princess Caroline, when you reached that certain age (18, in this case) it was time to get engaged.

So Princess Caroline knew that she would have to marry and be beholden to her husband and do what he said and keep his house and raise his children. But Princess Caroline wasn’t just a rich, beautiful princess…she was also selfish, haughty, vain and good-old-fashioned spoiled rotten! She thought she was the most wonderful and important person in all the world, and she refused to marry anybody who wasn’t good enough for her. Suitors came from miles around to seek her hand in marriage, but she invariably found something wrong with each and every one.

“I’m not marrying you! You look like you’re already in love…with pastries!” she said to a slightly overweight prince.

“That nose of yours would put out my eye if I tried to kiss you!” she chortled to a very nice nobleman who had a slightly big nose.

“And you…” she started to say to another suitor, but stopped once she got a look at him. This man, a king from a neighboring country, was actually very handsome. But still not quite perfect in Caroline’s eyes. “Is that your beard,” she asked pointing at the king’s chin, “or did a thrush fly into your face and get stuck there?”

This was too much for her father. Insulting another king to his face like that! He scolded her most violently and vowed then and there that, whether she liked it or not, she would be married to the next poor beggar who came to the castle.

As it turned out, the king didn’t have to wait very long to make good on his promise. The very next day a poor beggar man with a dirty face and a long, slightly frightening beard came knocking at the back door asking for something to eat. “He’ll get more than that!” declared the king, and within an hour, the deed was done: Caroline and the beggar were married!

Now, I know that, ordinarily, the part of the story right after the wedding is the part where I say “And they all lived happily ever after,” but that’s not really how it went down this time. Caroline was horrified at being forcibly married to this beggar man with a dirty face and a long, slightly frightening beard (sometimes it looked like something might be living in it). She begged her father to relent, but he was immovable. He told her it was her own fault for being so haughty and cruel and that it would teach her a much needed lesson in humility. But all Caroline felt was sorry for herself as she rode with her new husband to his shack.

On the long trip away from her home in the castle to the home of this weird little beggar man, they passed through a rich, beautiful forest. “This is a rich, beautiful forest,” said Caroline. “I wonder who owns this land?”

“This is the forest of King Thrushbeard,” said the beggar man, referring to the suitor Caroline had slighted the night before. “And it might have been yours.”

Caroline thought about this and fell into silent despair. After they left the forest, they came to a quaint, fertile stretch of prosperous farmland. “What beautiful farms,” said Caroline. “I wonder whose they are?”

“This is the farmland of King Thrushbeard,” said the beggar man. “And it might have been yours.”

Again, the realization of all her vanity had cost her struck Caroline mute. Until they came to a village which sat next to a beautiful castle, perhaps even more extravagant than her own. “What a beautiful place this is,” she said. “I wonder whose—”

“King Thrushbeard!” said the irritated beggar man. “Might’ve been yours. Well, here we are! Home sweet home!”

The look of horror and disgust on Caroline’s face would be pointless attempting to describe, so I’ll just describe the shack she was looking at…actually “shack” might be a little too generous. Maybe hovel…or cave…actually, it could’ve passed for a large mouse hole it was so shabby and rundown. But, Caroline knew it was her home now and there was nothing she could do about it.

The first days of Caroline’s new life were curious and more than a little depressing. Her husband woke her with the sun so she could start on the housework and the chores while he was out all day doing who knows what (well, I do, but I can’t tell you yet). You wouldn’t think a house so small would have kept Caroline as busy as it did, but being unaccustomed to labor of any kind, it did take her most of the day to get the place clean. Then her husband returned and they shared a meager meal of bread and stale cheese with a small bottle of really bad wine (or really good vinegar, neither was quite sure). After dinner, they were both so tired that they went straight to bed--or rather, straight to cot--and before they fell asleep, Caroline’s poor, oddly-bearded husband whispered in her ear: “I love you.” She didn’t say it back.

So it was from then on. Up in the morning, husband gone, lots of housework, terrible dinner, bedtime, “I love you,” and she still never said it back. As the days wore on and Caroline grew more accustomed to the housework, it took her less time and she had a chance to go out into the village. She didn’t have as much money as she was used to, but she was able to buy a few little tinkets to make her life slightly more bearable. A few new things to wear, some good wine, sofa pillows, candles, and other things which pass for "necessities" if you're a girl.

Don't deny it, you know it's true.

Her husband was, of course, quick to notice the improvements and complimented her on what a good homemaker she had become. She found she felt good when her husband complimented her. And that’s when it struck her. People had been complimenting her all her life. For her grace and beauty and other princessly attributes. Before she had just said something like “Yes, I know,” and ignored the person who had said it. But when her husband complimented her, she actually liked it. She said thank you. It took her a while before she realized that it was because he really meant it. What she did really mattered to him. What she was doing was actually for him. And she got tremendous satisfaction doing something for someone else, which she had little-to-no experience with before her marriage.

That night, they went to bed, and before faling asleep, our beggar man whispered into Caroline’s ear, “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” said Caroline and fell into a peaceful sleep.

The next morning Caroline awoke to a shock. She was not lying on the straw mat she had been when she went to sleep. She was not wearing the cheap nightgown she had put on after dinner. She was, in short, not in the shack. She was lying on a big, soft (but not too soft) bed with satin sheets, exquisite curtains, goosedown pillows and it was all in a big, lavish bedroom, even grander than the one she had known in her father’s palace.

“Good morning, darling,” said a voice. Caroline looked up and just imagine her surprise when she saw…King Thrushbeard? “I hope you slept well. In fact, I’m sure you did or you would’ve woken up when I was carrying you here from our shack.”

“Our…shack?” was all Caroline could manage to say.

The King laughed. Then, in answer to her question, reached into his coat pocket and removed the long, frightening beard which he'd been wearing as a disguise. “I’m sorry to say that I’ve been deceiving you. Your father and I felt that you should be taught a lesson after that comment you made about my beard, so we hatched this little plan. I dressed up as a beggar with a really scary beard and took you away to that awful, rundown hovel where we’ve lived for the past several weeks.”

“You mean, all this time…you’ve been the king?”

“That’s where I was all day. Running the country. My advisors probably thought I’d gone mad when they saw me putting on this awful beard and sneaking down to that shack every evening for dinner.”

“You could’ve been in the castle, having banquets with the finest food in the—”

“I promise you, I was much happier having bread and wine with you,” said the King. “Or vinegar, I guess. We never did figure that one out.” He took Caroline’s hand, a sorrowful expression crossing his face. “I am sorry to play such a trick on you. It hurt me every day to lie to you. But I knew the day would come when you would answer me when I said ‘I love you,’ and it did. So now, the choice is yours.”

“What choice?”

“The truth is, we were never really married. Not legally. Which means now you have a choice. You can go back to your father’s castle and marry some other suitor…or you can stay with me. Marry me all over again.”

Now, you might think that Caroline would be furious at the King for playing this insanely elaborate, beard-related hoax on her. And maybe, somewhere inside, she was a little mad. But more than that, she was grateful. She looked back at the person she was when this whole thing started and she felt sick. How could she have thought so highly of herself that she didn’t think anyone would ever be good enough for her? How could she have been so cruel to such nice people? But living with King Thrushbeard all this time had taught her a lesson she would not soon forget.

And, so, there was a royal wedding. And this time I do get to say that they lived happily ever after…you know, cuz, before I didn’t get to say that and this time I do. Cuz they did, this time. I mean, they didn’t really get married last time, but this time they did and they wed and wedded and welded and were as happy as a penguin on a pogo stick on his way to the—

(Okay, you were warned!)


Next Week: Shelly Hobbes returns!

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