THE PRACTICAL PRINCESS and Other Liberating Fairy Tales

BOOK: THE PRACTICAL PRINCESS and Other Liberating Fairy Tales

and Other Liberating Tales





Practical Princess

Stupid Marco

The Silver Whistle

Forgetful Fred


Philbert the Fearful


Possibly the wittiest and best writer of fairy tales with a contemporary twist, Jay Williams here presents the reader with a sextet of irresistibly plucky heroines.

Their fates are, of course, intertwined with an equal number of surprisingly atypical heroes.

There is the Princess Bedelia, “as lovely as the moon shining upon a lake full of waterlilies…as graceful as a cat leaping,” and also practical enough to slay the dragon that is terrorizing her father’s kingdom. Or take Petronella, brave, kind, talented and beautiful, who sets out to uphold an old family tradition, in her own fashion, by rescuing a prince in distress. She succeeds, only to discover that the prince is not worth the trouble. She weds a bold enchanter, instead. As for Sylvia, tired of royal life, she rescues herself from utter boredom by helping a charming, if bumbling, prince, Stupid Marco, successfully complete a quest.

Victoria is an emperor’s daughter, with “large, merry brown eyes and long brown hair in two braids down her back.” The knight, Philbert the Fearful, who saves her from an ogre blithely refuses the gift of half a kingdom that goes with her hand in marriage. He is content simply to have Victoria.

The heroine of
The Silver Whistle
, Prudence, is a commoner with “a snub nose, a wide mouth, straight straw-colored hair, and so many freckles that it looked as if someone had sprinkled her with cinnamon.” Given the chance to be the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, she turns it down: “I don’t think I want to be beautiful, I might be different outside but I’d be the same inside,, and I’m used to me the way I am.” She wins Prince Pertinel’s heart anyhow, because he happens to like freckles.

Yet another commoner is the heroine of
, Melissa, Girl Friday to the Witch of Grimly Wood. Delighted with Fred’s good nature, his talents as a musician, and his offhand attitude toward accomplishing a mission worth millions, Melissa rebels against her employer and ends up the mistress of her own fate-and Fred’s, too.

Mr. Williams is a true craftsman of the topsy-turvy fairy tale. When Forgetful Fred finally achieves his mission, for example, he absent-mindedly loses the treasure before he can ever collect his reward.

Success always comes where and when it is least expected, and surprising plot turns occur with refreshing regularity. What is more, not a single helpless damsel can be discovered in any of these jaunty and thoroughly absorbing stories. Today’s fairy-tale fans will read with relish the exploits of these unheroic heroes and gustily independent heroines.

Selma G. Lanes


Princess Bedelia was as lovely as the moon shining upon a lake full of waterlilies. She was as graceful as a cat leaping. And she was also extremely practical.

When she was born, three fairies had come to her cradle to give her gifts as was usual in that country.

The first fairy had given her beauty. The second had given her grace. But the third, who was a wise old creature, had said, “I give her common sense.”

“I don’t think much of that gift,” said the King Ludwig, raising his eyebrows, “What good is common sense to a princess? All she needs is charm.”

Nevertheless, when Bedelia was eighteen years old, something happened which made the king change his mind.

A dragon moved into the neighborhood. He settled in a dark cave on top of a mountain, and the first thing he did was to send a message to the king. “I must have a princess to devour,” the message said,

“or I shall breathe out my fiery breath and destroy the kingdom.”

Sadly, King Ludwig called together his councilors and read them the message. “Perhaps,” said the Prime Minister, “we had better advertise for a knight to slay the dragon? That is what is generally done in these cases.”

“I’m afraid we haven’t time,” answered the king.

“The dragon has only given us until tomorrow morning. There is no help for it. We shall have to send him the princess.” Princess Bedelia had come to the meeting because, as she said, she liked to mind her own business and this was certainly her business.

“Rubbish!” she said. “Dragons can’t tell the difference between princesses and anyone else. Use your common sense. He’s just asking for me because he’s a snob.”

“That may be so,” said her father, “but if we don’t send you along, he’ll destroy the kingdom.”

“Right!” said Bedelia. “I see I’ll have to deal with this myself.” She left the council chamber. She got the largest and gaudiest of her state robes and stuffed it with straw, and tied it together with string. Into the center of the bundles she packed about a hundred pounds of gunpowder. She got two strong young men to carry it up the mountain for her. She stood in front of the dragon’s cave, and called, “Come out! Here’s the princess!”

The dragon came blinking and peering out of the darkness. Seeing the bright robe covered with gold and silver embroidery, and hearing Bedelia’s voice, he opened his mouth wide.

At Bedelia’s signal, the two young men swung the robe and gave it a good heave, right down the dragon’s throat. Bedelia threw herself flat on the ground, and the two young men ran.

As the gunpowder met the flames inside the dragon, there was a tremendous explosion.

Bedelia got up, dusting herself off. “Dragons,” she said, “are not very bright.”

She left the two young men sweeping up the pieces, and she went back to the castle to have her geography lesson.

The lesson that morning was local geography. “Our kingdom, Arapathia, is bounded on the north by Istven,” said the teacher. “Lord Garp, the ruler of Istven, is old, crafty, rich, and greedy.” At that very moment, Lord Garp of Istven was arriving at the castle. Word of Bedelia’s destruction of the dragon had reached him. “That girl,” said he, “is just the wife for me.” And he had come with a hundred finely-dressed courtiers and many presents to ask King Ludwig for her hand.

The king sent for Bedelia. “My dear,” he said, clearing his throat nervously, “just see who is here.”

“I see. It’s Lord Garp,” said Bedelia. She turned to go.

“He wants to marry you,” said the king.

Bedelia looked at Lord Garp. His face was like and old napkin, crumpled and wrinkled. It was covered with warts, as if someone had left crumbs on the napkin. He had only two teeth. Six long hairs grew from his chin, and none on his head. She felt like screaming.

However, she said, “I’m very flattered. Thank you, Lord Garp. Just let me talk to my father in private for a minute.” When they had retired to a small room behind the throne, Bedelia said to the king, “What will Lord Garp do if I refuse to marry him?”

“He is rich, greedy, and crafty,” said the king unhappily. “He is also used to having his own way in everything. He will be insulted. He will probably declare war on us , and then there will be trouble.”

“Very well,” said Bedelia. “We must be practical.”

She returned to the throne room. Smiling sweetly at Lord Garp, she said, “My lord, as you know, it is customary for a princess to set tasks for anyone who wishes to marry her. Surely you wouldn’t like me to break the custom. And you are bold and powerful enough, I know, to perform any task.”

“That is true,” said Lord Garp smugly, stroking the six hairs on his chin, “Name your task.”

“Bring me,” said Bedelia, “a branch from the Jewel Tree of Paxis.”

Lord Garp bowed, and off he went. “I think,” said Bedelia to her father, “that we have seen the last of him. For Paxis is a thousand miles away, and the Jewel Tree is guarded by lions, serpents, and wolves.”

But in two weeks, Lord Garp was back. With him he bore a chest, and from the chest he took a wonderful twig. Its bark was of rough gold. The leaves that grew from it were of fine silver. The twig was covered with blossoms, and each blossom had petals of mother-of-pearl and centers of sapphires, the color of the evening sky.

Bedelia’s heart sank as she took the twig. But then she said to herself, “Use your common sense, my girl! Lord Garp never traveled two thousand miles in two weeks, nor is he the man to fight his way through lions, serpents and wolves.”

She looked more carefully at the branch. Then she said, “My lord, you know that the Jewel Tree of Paxis is a living tree, although it is all made of jewels.”

“Why, of course,” said Lord Garp. “Everyone knows that.”

“Well,” said Bedelia, “then why is it that these blossoms have no scent?”

Lord Garp turned red.

“I think,” Bedelia went on, “that this branch was made by the jewelers of Istven, who are the best in the world. Not very nice of you, my lord. Some people might even call it cheating.”

Lord Garp shrugged. He was too old and rich to feel ashamed. But like many men used to having their own way, the more Bedelia refused him, the more he was determined to have her.

“Never mind all that,” he said. “Set me another task. This time, I swear I will perform it.”

Bedelia sighed. “Very well. Then bring me a cloak made from the skins of the salamanders who live in the Volcano of Scoria.”

Lord Garp bowed, and off he went. “The Volcano of Scoria,” said Bedelia to her father, “is covered with red-hot lava. It burns steadily with great flames, and pours out poisonous smoke so that no one can come within a mile of it.”

“You have certainly profited by you geography lessons,” said the king, with admiration.

Nevertheless, in a week, Lord Garp was back. This time, he carried a cloak that shone and rippled like all the colors of fire. It was made of scaly skins, stitched together with golden wire as fine as a hair; and each scale was red and orange and blue, like a tiny flame.

Bedelia took the splendid cloak. She said to herself,

“Use your head, miss! Lord Garp never climbed the red-hot slopes of the Volcano of Scoria.”

A fire was burning in the fireplace of the throne room. Bedelia hurled the cloak into it. The skin blazed up in a flash, blackened, and fell to ashes.

Lord Garp’s mouth fell open. Before he could speak, Bedelia said, “That cloak was a fake, my lord.

The skins of salamanders who can live in the Volcano of Scoria wouldn’t burn in a little fire like that one.”

Lord Garp turned pale with anger. He hopped up and down, unable at first to do anything but sputter.

“Ub-ub-ub!” he cried. Then, controlling himself, he said, “So be it. If I can’t have you, no one shall!”

He pointed a long, skinny finger at her. On the finger was a magic ring. At once, a great wind arose.

It blew through the throne room. It sent King Ludwig flying one way and his guards the other. It picked up Bedelia and whisked her off through the air. When she could catch her breath and look about her, she found herself in a room at the top of a tower.

Bedelia peered out of the window. About the tower stretched an empty, barren plain. As she watched, a speck appeared in the distance. A plume of dust rose behind it. It drew nearer and became Lord Garp on horseback.

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