Friday, June 29, 2012

Prince Darling

This one is another that I first heard through “Fractured Fairy Tales” and was astounded to find was an actual, real fairy tale. This one also comes to us from Andrew Lang, though there’s no telling where he heard it. Halfway through writing my version, I realized it made a pretty good practical demonstration of “irony,” which some people (I’m talkin’ to you, Ma!) still have a hard time with.

A lot of people are confused about irony. Basically, it means to use words to mean something other than their literal meaning or when things are the oposite of what you’d expect. So, for instance, if a professional woodcutter found himself with nothing to build a fire, that would be ironic. If a hairdresser was bald, that would be pretty ironic. If it rains on your wedding day, that’s not ironic, just unfortunate. Or, if, for example, a man’s name was Darling but he was actually cruel, selfish and unkind, that would be very ironic. It would also be what this story is about: Prince Darling.

Prince Darling’s father was, as you may have been able to deduce for yourselves, a king and he was known to be an honest, benevolent, merciful king who gave a care. In fact, he actually was darling (which, if his name had been something like “Meanie” or “Jerkface” would have been ironic, but since his name was Dennis, it wasn’t. Are we pretty clear on irony as a concept? Good. On we go). One day King Dennis was out walking in the woods, thinking about all the nice things in his life.

“I like my castle…I like my court jester…I like spaghetti…I like sitting in the big, comfy throne…I like rabbits. Like that one!” And sure enough a little white rabbit ran straight up to him, terrified by something and leapt right into the king’s arms. “There, there, little bunny,” said the king. “You can come home with me. I’ll take care of you.” So the king took the bunny home and saw to it that she was well taken care of.

That night the king was awoken (awakened? Awokened? How the heck do you say this?) by a strange visitation. A beautiful woman in a white gown appeared to him. “Good King Dennis,” she said in a voice that was nothing short of angelic. “I am the Good Fairy, Melisande. I heard that you were very kind, so I disguised myself as a cuddly bunny, knowing that only a real jerk could be mean to a cuddly bunny. Because you have proved yourself worthy, I will grant you a wish.”

Well, the king thought about it for a moment, but in the end it was clear what he should wish for. “Nothing in my life is more precious to me than my son, Prince Darling. Unfortunately, I’m worried that he might be on the wrong path. For my wish, I would like you to look after my son and do what you can to make him a good man and a good king.” The fairy agreed to do this and, a few years later, when the king passed away, she set to work.

Prince Darling loved his father very much and missed him terribly. Other than that, he was super-psyched to be the king! It’s worth mentioning at this point that kings in those days didn’t usually take a very active role in their kids’ upbringing. Darling had been raised by a governess (which is like a nanny) who was not very strict with him. She gave in to his every tantrum, his every slightest whim was granted. As a result, Prince Darling as a young man was very, very spoiled and selfish. And his idea of a king’s duties basically involved doing whatever he wanted all the time and arresting anyone who tried to stop him.

Clearly, Melisande had her work cut out for her.

She appeared to King Darling as she had appeared to his father: as a cute, cuddly bunny. When Darling drew his crossbow, however, she knew this wasn’t gonna work, so she turned back into a lady. “I promised your late father that I’d look out for you,” she said, sternly. “Now I can’t force you to be a good person, but maybe I can help you to realize when you’re being bad.” With that, she slipped a gold ring onto Darling’s finger. “Everytime you do or say anything you shouldn’t, that ring will prick your finger like a needle. Hopefully, that will teach you the difference between right and wrong.”

And, really, that should’ve worked. When Darling did something small, like get into a temper for not getting his way, he felt a small pinprick on the ringed finger. When he did something worse, like shouting at the servants, it was more like the tip of a knife pricking him. And when he did something really awful, like kicking a puppy (seriously, who kicks a puppy?) the ring actually made his finger bleed. At first, when he felt the pain, he stopped what he was doing and tried to do the right thing. But after a while he got really sick of it.

“I’m the King!” he shouted to no one in particular. “Why should I let some stupid fairy tell me what to do?” So he pulled the ring off his finger and hurled it into the lake. There it was promptly swallowed by a fish who, two days later, was caught by a fisherman who found the ring and gave it to his wife who had an unfortunate habit of judging her neighbors and gossiping about them. But now, every time she did, the ring pricked her finger and she learned to be kinder to others, which just goes to prove that the ring bit would’ve worked on anyone but Darling.

At any rate, the now un-ringed king was riding through his country one day, when he saw a beautiful shepherdess by the side of the road. Captivated by her great beauty, he rode up to her and announced that she would marry him.

“No, sire,” said the shepherdess. “I am in love with another. A young man from my village. I will marry none but him.”

“But I am your king and I have great love for you.”

“If you truly loved me, sire, you would want me to be happy and marry the man I choose.”

“Nonsense!” said King Darling. “I’m the king, I want you, so I get to have you. That’s how this works! Now marry me or be put to death.”

“I think…neither!” And in a flash, the shepherdess had turned into Melisande, glaring angrily at King Darling. “I thought I would give you one last chance to do something right. But, I daresay, after all these years of thinking only of yourself, you’ve forgotten how to do anything right. You may look like a man on the outside, but on the inside you are a monster! And I think it’s about time you looked the part!” The fairy waved her hands and cast a spell on King Darling. Another flash and she was gone, and the king was transformed into…into a…a sort of…he was. Well, he looked kinda like this:

Not so much pretty, huh?

Melisande had made it so that Darling looked as nasty on the outside as he was on the inside. He couldn’t even talk anymore. All anyone heard was a horrible snarling sound. He couldn’t go home in this state, so he ran deep into the forest, to hide from all the world.

At first, Darling simply cursed Melisande's name and blamed her, and his father, for everything that had happened to him. But solitude is great for self-reflection, and after a few weeks of living in the woods, hiding from all other living beings (except, I guess, trees and stuff), Darling began to understand that some of the fault was his…a few weeks later, it occurred to him that most of the fault was his…after six full months, he accepted that it was all his fault. He had thought only of himself and treated others with cruelty and what had happened to him was all he deserved.

As luck would have it, it was on this day that Darling, feeling so sorry for himself that he didn’t look where he was going, fell into a deep, dark pit that hunters had dug to catch bears and the like. When the hunters saw Darling in the pit, however, they didn’t know what to make of him. Or even what to call him. In the end, they decided that he would make a great addition to the royal menagerie, so they packed him in a cage and took him to the palace.

Darling was apprehensive at the thought of returning to his palace after all this time. True, he’d only been gone three months, but he didn’t know what to expect when he got back. He thought maybe his people would still be looking for him, wondering what had become of him. Maybe they took him for dead and were still in mourning over their lost monarch. He certainly didn’t expect a coronation to be going on.

“WHAT?!?!” he shouted, though it sounded like a horrible growl to everyone around him.

“Yes,” repeated one of the hunters to the palace guard. “A brand new kind of animal, just discovered in the forest. We’d like to give it as a gift to the new king.”

Darling’s cage was taken into the throne room and presented to the man who would soon be crowned king. To Darling’s surprise, it was his old tutor, a kindly old man who had always loved Darling like a father. From the conversations he’d overheard upon his arrival, Darling surmised that he had been made steward of the throne once he, Darling, had gone missing all those months ago. As steward, his job was to keep the kingdom running in the absence of her rightful monarch. But, as it turned out, he was a much better king than Darling. He cared about other people, he was unselfish, he was generous, merciful, compassionate. He was very much like the late, great King Dennis, in fact. So the people of the kingdom had decided to make it official and crown the steward king. None of them even seemed to care what had happened to Darling!

“Please, please, my people,” said the steward as he addressed the assembled. “I accept the throne of this kingdom only because you demand it, and as king, I am nothing if not a servant to my people.” This struck Darling as odd, but he kept listening. “In my heart, however, I know I am only filling in for our true king, young Darling, who went missing only three months ago. I know he wasn’t perfect.”

“That’s for dang sure!” cried someone in the crowd.

“But I knew him all his life,” continued the steward, unperterbed by this interruption, “and I knew his father before him. And I saw in Darling the potential to be a great king. I would give my very life to see him in his rightful place on this throne.”

“Works for me!” growled Darling and with the great animal strength he now possessed, he tore his way out of the cage and lunged straight for the steward. But before he could strike a killing blow, he looked into the old man’s eyes. And he saw the eyes of the kindly tutor who had patiently taught him for all those years. And the eyes of the good, wise fairy who had given him so many chances to change, each of which he had ignored. And the eyes of his dear, departed father who had one wish, and used it to make his only son a better man.

Darling realized that he couldn’t do it. The country was better off without him. He wanted to be a good king, but the first step was putting the needs of his people ahead of his own. So he went back into his cage and covered his face with his paws.

“Darling,” came a familiar voice. “You have finally proved yourself worthy of the crown. Now get up. Your people are waiting for you.”

As Melisande’s voice faded away, Darling looked up. The first thing he saw were his hands. Not paws, mind you, but hands. He was still in the cage but he had turned back into his old self. All the guests at the coronation were shocked at what they had seen, but they knew their long lost king when they saw him…and they also remembered what a jerk he was so, fearful for their lives, they all started to cheer.

“No!” cried Darling. “I don’t deserve applause or cheers. I have not been the king you deserve. The king my father wanted me to be. But I have learned a lot recently, and I want a second chance to serve you all better, even though I know I don’t deserve it.”

“If that’s how you feel,” said the steward. “You do deserve it. Hail, King Darling! Long live the King!” And so, the coronation went ahead as planned, with only one slight change: It was our old friend Darling who was re-crowned king. Only by giving up the throne could he prove himself worthy of it, and only by becoming a monster could he learn what it was to be a man.

And it doesn’t get much more ironic than that!


NEXT WEEK: "The Enchanted Bridegroom"

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