I would like to spotlight a fairy tale that you might find interesting, given the times.
“Prince Darling” is the story of a prince who grows up surrounded by wealth and privilege. He has a sweet nature but whenever he loses his temper, his nannies tell him to just wait and be patient because one day he will be king, and then he can have anything he wants.
When father dies and the young man comes to power, he thinks that people are simply there to serve his pleasure.
One day, he falls in love with a shepherdess named Celia, and when she doesn’t accept his marriage proposal, he throws her in jail. An evil advisor tells him to starve her and make her an example to anyone who dares to go against his will. Though he knows how cruel and unjust his actions are, the king is persuaded because he is afraid of being seen as weak. He thinks that to maintain power, one must rule by force.
The fairy tale counters the narrative that “power is force” with another proposition: that true power is the power of goodness. Prince Darling’s father was known as “the Good King.” His compassion and fairness had won him the trust of all his people.
The narrative of goodness is expressed by a fairy who appears to the boy prince after he’s had a temper tantrum and has kicked his dog. She says:
“…if it were right and allowable that great people should ill-treat all who are beneath them, I might at this moment beat you, or kill you, for a fairy is greater than a man. The advantage of possessing a great empire is not to be able to do the evil that one desires, but to do all the good that one possibly can.”
This old fairy tale was written in the seventeenth century by one of the Parisian women known as les conteuses, (female storytellers). They were aristocrats living at a time when the political landscape was dominated by absolutist kings; Henry IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, culminating in Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King.
While Louis XIV ruled from the palace of Versailles, the people of France struggled through severe hardships that included crop failures, widespread famine, and epidemics. Motivated by commerce, revenge, and a nature that was easily piqued, Louis XIV went to war to enhance his own glory, abolished the rights of the Huguenots that had been protected under the Edict of Nantes, (forcing them to emigrate or convert), and virtually destroyed the French Protestant minority.
Meanwhile the fairies were inspiring women’s literature, and les conteuses wrote and published bestselling volumes of fairy tales, known as Les Contes de Fées. In stories like “Prince Darling.” the values of the old departing gods were expressed by fairies who, as one of the writers said, “are no less able to work wonders than the gods of mythology.” (12, Enchanted Eloquence: Fairy Tales by Seventeenth-Century French Women Writers.)
Here is the story of Prince Darling, in its entirety, adapted from Les Cabinets des Fées, as found in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book.
Once upon a time there lived a king who was so just and kind that his subjects called him “the Good King.”
One day, when he was out hunting, a little white rabbit, which his dogs were chasing, sprang into his arms for shelter. The King stroked it gently, and said to it: “Well, bunny, as you have come to me for protection I will see that nobody hurts you.”
He took it home to his palace and had it put in a pretty little house, with all sorts of nice things to eat.
That night, when he was alone in his room, a beautiful lady suddenly appeared before him. Her long dress was as white as snow, and she wore a crown of white roses. The good King was very much surprised to see her, for he knew his door had been tightly shut, and he could not think how she had got in.
She said to him: “I am the Fairy Truth. I wished to find out if you were really good, as everybody said you were, so I took the shape of a little rabbit and jumped into your arms for shelter. If you had refused to help me I would have been certain that you were not what you appear to be. I thank you for the kindness you have shown me, which has made me your friend forever. Now, you may ask for anything you want and I promise that I will give it to you.”
“Madam,” said the good King, “since you are a fairy you no doubt know all my wishes. I have but one son whom I love very dearly. We call him Prince Darling. If you are really good enough to do me a favor, I beg that you will become his friend.”
“With all my heart,” answered the Fairy. “I can make your son the handsomest prince in the world, or the richest, or the most powerful. Choose whichever you like for him.”
“I do not ask for any of those things,” replied the good King; “but if you will make my son the best of princes, I shall indeed be grateful to you. What good would it do him to be rich, or handsome, or to possess all the kingdoms of the world if he were wicked? You know well he would still be unhappy. Only a good man can be really contented.”
“You are quite right,” answered the Fairy; “but it is not in my power to make Prince Darling a good man. He must do that for himself. I can promise to give him good advice. I can point out his faults, and correct him if he will not correct himself. But that is all.”
The good King was quite satisfied with this promise; and after a little time passed, he died.
Prince Darling was very sad to lose his father, whom he loved so dearly that he would have given up all his wealth to have kept him in the world.
Two days after the King died, after the Prince had gone to bed, the Fairy suddenly appeared by his side. She said: “I promised your father that I would be your friend, and to keep my word I have come to bring you a present.” She took out a gold ring and put it on his finger.
“Take great care of this ring,” she said: “it is more precious than diamonds. Every time you do a wrong deed it will prick your finger. If, in spite of its pricking, you go on in your own evil way, you will lose my friendship, and I shall become your enemy.”
So saying, the Fairy disappeared, leaving Prince Darling very much astonished.
For some time he behaved so well that the ring never pricked him. He enjoyed his comfortable life so much that his subjects called him Prince Happy. One day, however, he went out hunting, but could get no sport, which put him in a very bad temper. As he rode along, the ring pressed into his finger, but it did not prick him so he did not heed it. When he got home and went to his own room, his little dog Bibi ran to meet him, jumping round him with pleasure. “Get away!” said the Prince, quite gruffly. “I don’t want you, you are in the way.”
The poor little dog, who didn’t understand this at all, pulled at his coat to make him at least look at her, and this made Prince Darling so cross that he gave her quite a hard kick.
Instantly his ring pricked him sharply, as if it had been a pin. He was very much surprised, and sat down in a corner of his room. “I believe the Fairy is laughing at me,” he thought. “Surely I have done no great wrong in just kicking a tiresome animal! What is the good of my being ruler of a great kingdom if I am not even allowed to beat my own dog?”
“I am not making fun of you,” he heard a voice say. “You done several things wrong. First of all, you lost your temper because you could not have what you wanted, and because you think all men and animals are only made to do your pleasure. Very erroneous. Then, in your fit of temper, you were cruel to a poor little animal who did not in the least deserve to be ill-treated.
“I know you are more powerful than a little dog, but if it were right that powerful people should ill-treat those who are beneath them, I might at this moment beat you, or kill you, for a fairy is more powerful than a man. The advantage of possessing a great empire is not to be able to do the evil that one desires, but to do all the good that one possibly can.”
When the Prince saw the error in his ways, he promised to do better in future. It was not easy, however, for him to keep his word. He had been brought up by a nurse who had spoiled him. If he wanted anything he only had to cry, fret, and stamp his feet and she would give him whatever he asked for. As a result, he had become very self-willed. Moreover, from morning to night, the nurse reminded him that he would one day be a King, and that kings were very happy, because everyone was bound to obey them, and no one could prevent them from doing just as they liked.
The Prince had grown up proud, obstinate, and conceited, and though he was now mature enough to understand these defects in his character, he found it very difficult to correct them. They had become habits, and habits are hard to change. Needless to say, his ring pricked him very often. Sometimes he stopped what he was doing at once; but at other times he would not attend to the pain. Sometimes his finger actually bled.
At last he got tired of being constantly reminded, and wanted to be able to do as he liked, so he threw his ring aside. In that moment he considered himself the happiest and freest of all men. He gave himself up to doing every foolish thing that occurred to him, until he became quite selfish, and nobody could like him any longer.
One day, when the Prince was walking about, he saw a young girl who was so very pretty that he made up his mind that he would marry her at once. Her name was Celia, he discovered. He proposed to make her a great queen, and stood waiting for her answer, certain that she would be elated by his offer.
Instead, she said fearlessly: “Sire, I am only a shepherdess, and a poor girl, but even if I were a princess, I would not marry you.”
The Prince was very much vexed by her answer. “Do you dislike me?” he asked.
“No, my Prince,” she replied; “I cannot help but think you are handsome; but what good would riches be to me, and all the grand dresses and splendid carriages that you would give me, if the cruel things I saw you do every day made me hate and despise you?”
Her speech made the Prince very angry, and he commanded his officers to make Celia a prisoner and carry her off to his palace. All day long the remembrance of what she had said annoyed him, but as he loved her he could not make up his mind what to do with her.
One of the Prince’s favorite companions was his foster-brother, whom he trusted entirely; though he was not a good man. When he saw the Prince so downcast, he asked what was the matter. The Prince explained that he could not bear Celia’s bad opinion of him, and that he was resolved to be a better man in order to please her. Then the evil adviser said to him:
“You are very kind to trouble yourself about this little girl. If I were you I would soon make her obey me. Remember that you are a King, and that it would be laughable to see you trying to please a shepherdess, who should be glad to be one of your slaves. Keep her in prison, and feed her on bread and water for a little while. Then, if she still refuses to marry you, have her head cut off. That will teach other people that you mean to be obeyed. Why, if you cannot make a girl like that do as you wish, your subjects will soon forget that they are only put into this world for our pleasure.”
“I cannot put an innocent girl put to death,” said the Prince. “Celia has done nothing to deserve punishment.”
“If people will not do as you tell them, they ought to suffer for it,” answered the foster-brother. “Even if you think it unjust, it is better to be accused of injustice than to be accused of weakness by your subjects. They will insult and thwart you as often as they please.”
The advisor touched a sensitive point in the Prince’s character, for he was afraid of losing his power, and so, in that moment, he abandoned his resolve to be a better man, and decided instead to try and frighten the shepherdess into consenting to marry him.
To ensure that the Prince would maintain his resolve, the foster-brother invited three young courtiers to sup with them. They persuaded the Prince to drink a great deal of wine, and throughout the meal, they excited his anger against Celia by telling him that she laughed at his love for her. By the end of supper he had become so furious that he rushed off to find her, declaring that if she still refused to marry him, he would sell her as a slave the very next day.
When he reached Celia’s prison cell, he was greatly surprised to find that she was not in it, though he had kept the key in his pocket the whole time. His anger was terrible, and he vowed vengeance against the one who had helped her to escape. His evil friends blamed an old nobleman named Suliman, who had formerly been the Prince’s tutor. He still dared to sometimes correct the Prince, for he loved him as if he had been his own son, but the Prince had grown impatient with his fault-finding, when everybody else flattered and praised him. He had ordered Suliman to retire from his Court, though from time to time, the Prince still considered him a worthy man, and spoke of him with respect.
His unworthy friends bribed three men to tell the Prince that Suliman had confessed to arranging Celia’s escape. The Prince, in great anger, sent his soldiers to find his old tutor and bring him to him, in chains, like a criminal.
After giving this order he went to his own room, but he had scarcely got into it when there was a clap of thunder which made the ground shake, and the Fairy Truth appeared before him.
“I promised your father,” said she sternly, “to give you good advice, and to punish you if you refused to follow it. You have despised my counsel, and have gone your own evil way until you are only outwardly a man. In truth, you are a monster—the horror of everyone who knows you. It is time that I fulfil my promise and begin your punishment. I condemn you to resemble the beast that you have become—by your unchecked anger, by your greed, by your ingratitude and by your malice.”
The Fairy had scarcely finished speaking when Prince Darling saw to his horror that he had taken on the shape of his defects. He had a lion’s head, a bull’s horns, a wolf’s feet, and a snake’s body. At the same instant he found himself in a great forest, beside a clear lake, in which he could see plainly the horrible creature he had become. Then he heard the Fairy say:
“Look carefully at the state to which your wickedness has brought you. Believe me, your soul is a thousand times more hideous than your body.”
Prince Darling turned in a fury to catch her and eat her up, but he saw no one. The Fairy went on: “I laugh at your powerlessness and anger, and I intend to punish your pride by letting you fall into the hands of your own subjects.”
The Prince began to think that the best thing he could do would be to get as far away from the lake as he could, then at least he would not be continually reminded of his terrible ugliness. So he ran toward the wood, but before he had gone many yards he fell into a deep pit which had been made to trap bears. The hunters, who were hiding in a tree, leaped down, secured him with several chains, and led him into the chief city of his own kingdom.
On the way, he snarled, and bit, and tore at his chains, lashing out at the Fairy who had been the cause of all his misfortunes.
As they approached the town he saw that the people were rejoicing, and when the hunters asked what had happened, they were told that the Prince, whose only pleasure it was to torment his people, had been found in his room, killed by a thunder-bolt. His four courtiers, who had encouraged his wickedness, had tried to seize the kingdom and divide it between them, but the people had cut off their heads, and had offered the crown to Suliman. The return of a noble lord was the cause of the rejoicing, for, they said, “he is a good and just man, and we shall once more enjoy peace and prosperity.”
Prince Darling roared with anger when he heard this; but it was still worse for him when he reached the great square before his own palace. He saw Suliman seated upon a magnificent throne, and all the people crowded round, wishing him a long life that he might undo all the mischief done by his predecessor.
Presently Suliman made a sign with his hand that the people should be silent, and said: “I have accepted the crown you have offered me, but only that I may keep it for Prince Darling. Though he may appear dead, I hope that we may someday see him restored to the good and virtuous King he was when he first came to the throne. Alas, he was led away by flatterers. I knew his heart, and am certain that if it had not been for the bad influence of those who surrounded him, he would have been a good King and a father to his people. Let us pray for his return, for which I would gladly die.”
These words went to Prince Darling’s heart; he realized the true affection and faithfulness of his old tutor, and for the first time reproached himself for all his evil deeds. At the same time, he felt all his anger melting away, and began quickly to think over his past life. He left off tearing at the iron bars of the cage in which he was shut up, and became as gentle as a lamb.
The hunters who had caught him took him to a great menagerie, where he was chained up among all the other wild beasts, and he determined to show his sorrow for his past bad behavior by being gentle and obedient to the man who took care of him. Unfortunately, this man was very rough and unkind, and though the poor monster was quite quiet, he often beat him without rhyme or reason when he happened to be in a bad temper.
One day when this keeper was asleep, a tiger broke its chain and flew at him. Prince Darling, who saw what was going on, at first felt quite pleased to think that he should be delivered from his persecutor, but soon thought better of it.
“I would return good for evil,” he said to himself, “and save the unhappy man’s life.” He had hardly wished this when his iron cage flew open. He rushed to the side of the keeper, who was defending himself against the tiger. When he saw the monster come out, he gave himself up for lost, but his fear was soon changed into joy, for the kind monster threw himself upon the tiger and soon killed it. Then he came and crouched at the feet of the man he had saved.
Overcome with gratitude, the keeper stooped to caress the strange creature which had done him such a great service, and, at that very moment, the monster disappeared, and he saw at his feet only a pretty little dog!
Prince Darling, delighted by the change, frisked about the keeper, showing his joy in every way he could, and the man, taking him up in his arms, carried him to the King, to whom he told the whole story.
The Queen said she would like to have this wonderful little dog, and the Prince would have been very happy in his new home if he could have forgotten that he was a man and a King. The Queen petted and took care of him, but she was afraid that he would get too fat. So she consulted the court physician, who said that he was to be fed only upon bread, and was not to have much even of that. Poor Prince Darling went terribly hungry all day long, but he was very patient about it.
One day, when they gave him his little loaf for breakfast, he thought he would like to eat it out in the garden; so he took it up in his mouth and trotted away toward a brook that he knew of a long way from the palace. When he arrived, he was surprised to find that the brook had disappeared, and in its place stood a great house that seemed to be built of gold and precious stones. Numbers of people splendidly dressed were going into it, and sounds of music and dancing and feasting could be heard from the windows.
But what seemed very strange was that those people who came out of the house were pale and thin, and their clothes were torn, and hanging in rags about them. Some fell down dead as they came out before they had time to get away. Others crawled farther with great difficulty; while others again lay on the ground, fainting with hunger, and begged a morsel of bread from those who were going into the house, but they would not so much as look at the poor creatures.
Prince Darling went up to a young girl who was trying to eat a few blades of grass, she was so hungry. Touched with compassion, he said to himself: “I am very hungry, but I shall not die of starvation before I get my dinner. If I give my breakfast to this poor creature perhaps I may save her life.”
So he laid his piece of bread in the girl’s hand, and saw her eat it up eagerly. She soon seemed to be quite well again, and the Prince, delighted to have been able to help her, thought of going home to the palace. Just then, he heard a great outcry, and, turning round, he saw Celia being carried against her will into the great house.
For the first time the Prince regretted that he was no longer the monster, for then he would have been able to rescue Celia. Now he could only bark feebly at the people who were carrying her off, and try to follow them, but they chased and kicked him away.
He determined not to quit the place till he knew what had become of Celia. “Alas!” he said to himself, “I am furious with the people who are carrying Celia off, but isn’t that exactly what I did myself? And did I not intend to be still more cruel to her?”
Here he was interrupted by a noise above his head—someone was opening a window, and he saw with delight that it was Celia herself, who came forward and threw out a plate of most delicious-looking food. Then the window was shut again, and Prince Darling, who had not had anything to eat all day, thought he might as well take the opportunity of getting something. He ran to the food, but the young girl, to whom he had given his bread gave a cry of terror and took him up in her arms, saying:
“Don’t touch it, my poor little dog—that house is the palace of pleasure, and everything that comes out of it is poisoned!”
In that moment, the Prince changed again; this time, into a beautiful white dove. He did not stop to marvel at what had happened, for his first care was for Celia. Rising into the air he flew round and round the house until he saw an open window. He flew in and searched through every room, but could not find a trace of Celia.
At last, in despair, the Prince determined to search through the world till he found her. He left the house and flew on and on for several days, till he came to a great desert, where he saw a cavern, and, to his delight, there sat Celia, sharing the simple breakfast of an old hermit.
Overjoyed to have found her, Prince Darling perched upon her shoulder, trying to express by his caresses how glad he was to see her again. Celia, surprised and delighted by the tameness of this pretty white dove, stroked it softly, and said:
“I accept the gift that you make me of yourself, little dove, and I will love you always.”
“Take care what you are saying, Celia,” said the old hermit. “Are you prepared to keep that promise?”
“Indeed, I hope so, my sweet shepherdess,” cried the Prince, who was at that moment restored to his natural shape. “You promised to love me always; tell me that you really mean what you said, or I shall have to ask the Fairy to give me back the form of the dove which pleased you so much.”
“You need not be afraid that she will change her mind,” said the Fairy, throwing off the hermit’s robe in which she had been disguised and appearing before them.
“Celia has loved you ever since she first saw you, only she would not tell you while you were so proud and self-serving. Now that you mean to be a good King, you deserve to be happy, and so she may love you as much as she likes.”
Celia and Prince Darling threw themselves at the Fairy’s feet, and the Prince did not tire of thanking her for her kindness. Celia was delighted to hear how sorry he was for all his past follies and misdeeds. She made him repeat them over and over, and then promised to love him as long as she lived.
“Rise, my children,” said the Fairy, “and I will transport you to the palace, and Prince Darling shall have his crown again.”
While she was speaking, they found themselves in Suliman’s hall, and his delight was great at seeing his dear master once more. He gave up the throne joyfully to the Prince, and remained always the most faithful of his subjects.
Celia and Prince Darling reigned for many years, but he was so determined to govern worthily and to do his duty that he took to wearing his ring again, which never once pricked him severely.
Illustrations by Jennie Harbour.