THE THREE PRINCESSES
This Hungarian story, in which the spirited third daughter of an impoverished king is abandoned in the forest with her two elder sisters, comes from ‘The Folk-Tales of the Magyars’ by W Henry Jones and Lewis L Kropf (Folklore Society Publications, 1889). It incorporates elements recognisable from Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and the Scottish tales Mollie Whuppie or Maol a Chliobain (in which the youngest child of a group of siblings defeats a giant), but although the ingredients may seem familiar and similar variants are told across Europe, this tale has a freshness and interest of its own. Wicked stepmothers and weak fathers are standard fare in fairy tales: sometimes the tales explore such relationships a little further but often, as in this case, the reader has to accept them as given and move on. I think you'll enjoy the surreal nonsense opening (intended to catch the attention of perhaps a rather raucous audience) and I love the mischievous manner in which the heroine gets her own back on her sisters on her final ride to the palace – and the bargain she strikes before agreeing to marry a particularly bloodless prince.
Once – I shan’t tell you where but you’d better believe me – there was a broken-down oven in splendid condition barring the sides, and it had cakes baking in it. One of you has eaten them! Well then, on the Komáran mountains, on the glass bridges, on the beautiful golden chandelier, there was once a Debreczen cloak with ninety-nine tucks in it, and in the fold of the ninety-ninth I found this tale…
There was a king with three daughters, but the king was so poor he could hardly keep his family; so one night his wife, who was the girls’ stepmother, told her husband that in the morning she would take the girls deep into the forest and leave them where they wouldn’t be able to find their way home.
But the youngest overheard her, and as soon as the king and queen fell asleep she hurried off to her godmother, who was a magic-worker, to ask her advice. Her godmother’s pony was waiting at the front gate, and taking her on its back it ran straight to the magic woman, who knew just what the child needed. She gave her a reel of cotton which she could unwind in the wood and so find her way back; but she made the condition that the girl was not to bring her elder sisters back with her, for they were very bad and proud.
Next morning the girls were led by their stepmother far into the wood to gather twigs, so she told them – and when they had wandered about for a long time she told them to rest. They sat down under a tree and soon all three fell asleep. Seeing this, the stepmother hurried home.
When they woke and discovered their mother was gone, the two elder girls began to cry, but the youngest was quiet. Then she said she knew how to find her way home but could not take them with her, upon which her sisters began to beg and implore and scold her, till at last she gave in. On their arrival home their father received them with open arms while their stepmother feigned delight. Next night she told the king that she would lead them even deeper into the wood. Again the youngest overheard the conversation, and just as before she rode the little pony to her godmother, who scolded her for having brought home her bad sisters. Making her god-daughter promise to obey this time, she gave her a bag full of ashes to scatter along the path as they went in; so the girls were led into the wood again and left there. And this time too, the youngest took her sisters home.
On the third night the stepmother once again schemed to lose them in the forest; and this time the girl didn’t have the courage to speak to her godmother; she thought she could help herself, so she took a bag full of peas, which she threw behind her as they went. When the mother abandoned them the two elder girls again began to cry, but the youngest said laughing that they could find their way home just as easily as they had before – but she could not find a single pea, for the birds had eaten them all.
Now the three outcasts wandered all day through the wood hungry and thirsty, for until sunset they did not find so much as a spring of water to quench their thirst. Here they found an acorn lying under an oak tree under which they chose to spend the night. They planted the acorn, and carried water to it in their mouths to water it, and by next morning it had grown into a tree as tall as a tower. The youngest girl climbed it to see if she could spy any house or dwelling from the top, but she saw nothing, and they spent the whole day crying and wandering about.
On the following morning, the tree was as tall as two towers, and still the girl could see nothing from its summit; but by the end of the third day the tree was as high as three towers, and from its topmost branches she saw a lighted window shining far away. She led her sisters in the direction of the light. They walked for three days and three nights, until at last they came to a beautiful castle. And now, far from being grateful, her sisters began to beat and bully her, and told her that when they knocked at the door she was to say that they were grand ladies and she was their servant.
What a fright they had! The door was opened by a woman as tall as a tower, with an eye as big as a plate in the middle of her forehead and teeth a foot long, which she gnashed at them. “What lovely girls!” she said. “What a splendid roast dinner you will make!” All three were terrified, but the youngest spoke up and told the giantess how skilled they all were at needlework, and described the beautiful clothes they could make for her, if only she would let them live.
The woman with the big teeth listened and agreed, and she hid the girls in a cupboard so her husband would not see them when he came home. But the giant sniffed about and demanded the human flesh he could smell, and his wife had to bring the girls out. Now the youngest again spoke up and told the giant what good cooks she and her sisters were, and described the wonderful food they could prepare for him, if he would spare their lives.
The giant’s mouth watered, but he thought to himself that he would let the girls cook the food first, and then eat them afterwards. So the three sisters began baking and roasting: the two eldest kneaded the dough, and the youngest built up the fire in the oven, which was almost big as hell, and when it was red hot she popped a pot of lard into it and called the giant to taste the lard with his tongue to see if it was hot enough and if the oven had reached its proper heat.
This tower of flesh tried it – but the moment he put his head in the oven, the girl gave him a push and he was a dead man in the fiery furnace. The giantess flew into a rage at this and would have swallowed them up at once, but the youngest sister begged her to wait until they had beautified her, which she agreed to do.
“First let me comb your hair,” said the girl, and she took a ladder and climbed it, but instead of combing the giantess’s hair with the big iron comb, she knocked her on the head so hard with it that the creature dropped dead on the spot. The girls had the giants’ bodies carted away by twenty-four pair of oxen, and now they were the owners of the magnificent castle.
Next Sunday, the two eldest dressed up in their best clothes and went to a dance in the royal town. But they left their younger sister behind to do the housework. While they were gone, the young girl set out to explore all the rooms, passages and closets in the castle, and during her search she saw something shining in the flue of a fireplace. Knocking it free with a stone, she found it was a beautiful golden key. She tried it in every door and cupboard, but it fitted none of them until in the end she managed to open a small wardrobe full of beautiful dresses, all of which seemed made to fit her. She flung on a silver dress, the little pony was waiting for her outside, and like a hurricane she galloped away to the ball.
Here every eye was turned on her, gentleman vied to dance with her, and her two sisters, who until her arrival had been the belles of the ball, were set aside. But before the dancing ended, the young lady suddenly disappeared and was waiting in her servant’s clothes to greet her sisters when they returned. They told her they had enjoyed themselves very well at first, until some impudent female had stolen all the attention. The youngest sister laughed and said, “Suppose that had been me!” but they boxed her ears and called her names.
Next Sunday the same thing happened again, but this time the girl was dressed in gold, and on the third Sunday she appeared in a dress all covered in diamonds. Now the young men kept such a close eye on her that when she made her escape she had no time to pick up a shoe she had accidentally dropped in a corridor: she only just got back in time to receive her sisters. But the prince of the land found the shoe and kept it carefully.
A few days later he fell ill. No one could tell why or find a cure for him, until at last one foreign doctor announced the cause: he had fallen in love with the mysterious lady who had lost the shoe, and would not recover until he married her. So it was proclaimed throughout the realm that all the ladies of the country should come to the palace next Sunday to try on the shoe, and whoever it fitted should be the prince’s wife. The two eldest sisters joined the crowds swarming to the capital: they felt they has a good chance, since their younger sister had scraped their heels raw to make their feet smaller.
But after they’d gone the youngest sister wrapped the second shoe of the pair in a handkerchief, jumped on the pony’s back in her best dress, and galloped off to the palace. She overtook her sisters on the way, and jumping the pony into a puddle, splashed them all over with mud. The moment she was seen approaching, a hundred cannons were fired off and all the bells were rung, but she wouldn’t acknowledge the shoe as her own without a trial. It fitted exactly on her foot, and when she produced its mate, three hundred cannons greeted her as the future queen.
She accepted the honour on one condition, that the king should restore her father’s conquered land. Her wish was granted and she became the prince’s wife. Her sisters returned to their royal father who was now rich and powerful once more. And if they are not dead yet, they are living there still.
As I couldn't find any illustrations of this particular Hungarian tale, the one at the top of the post is from the fairy tale 'Mollie Whuppie' and it's by Errol le Cain.