The Uses of Disenchantment:
A Fable for Our Time

Lear's, November/December 1988

see also


THERE ONCE WAS A KING who had a beautiful daughter. The king was rich and the lands he ruled stretched away to the blue hills as far as the eye could see. The king loved his daughter very much but he was getting on and he wanted to see her safely married. So he sent heralds to the courts of his cousin kings inviting true princes of blood and wealth to lay suit to his daughter's hand.

Soon princes of the blood were as thick around the palace as Cream of Wheat. The little princess was as fair as the sun and as kind and gentle as a summer's day, so that in addition to falling in love with her rich lands, all the princes fell hopelessly in love with the princess herself. They wooed her with deeds of prowess, promises of undying devotion, visions of trips to the islands of the Hesperides and midnight snacks served on silver salvers in bedchambers all of silk.

To a prince they were handsome and strong and straight and blue-eyed and yellow-haired, as princes of course should be. But the beautiful princess would have none of them. The king was in despair. "Why can't you love one of them, at least a little?" he said to her. "They are as fine a flock of princes as I've ever seen."

"I feel threatened by them," said the princess. "I do not want to leave my latency period just yet. They're all so tall and proud and waspy. Not a bit like my small, darling, furry little ocelot, who snuggles with me in bed at night and purrs and lets me pick him up and kiss him."

The king sighed. For his daughter was nearly 15 years old and it was high time she gave up childish pets for princes of the blood. But nothing could be done. So the princes wooed and the princess would have none of them. Months passed. The leaves of summer turned yellow, red, and at last brown. The winds of fall flicked them one by one from the dancing twig tips and sent them tumbling into the corners of the palace garden.

Then one morning, as the princess was playing ball beside the yew trees, she heard a sound that stirred her heart. It was the sound of crying.

She thought it might be a hurt animal and so she went to look. But when she rounded the end of the trees, what should she find but one more handsome prince. He was tall and fair and blue­eyed like the rest of them, but he was crying.

"Oh!" exclaimed the princess angrily. "I suppose you want to marry me too?"

"Boo-hoo-hoo," sobbed the prince. Tears rolled down his smooth cheeks and fell on his fine velvet doublet.

"And promise me trips to the islands of the Hesperides," continued the princess, "and royal bedchambers filled with flowers, and a life of beauty and passion forever?"

"Oh, n-no, my lady," sniffed the prince. "I am but a poor, humble creature and would never so presume." And he cried so hard that after a while his blue eyes began to turn pink.

"Then why are you crying?" asked the princess. And she sat herself down beside him.

"B-b-because of the s-s-spell that was cast upon me," said the prince. "The handsome, proud shape you see before you is but a deceptive sleave of flesh into which my wicked stepmother had me transformed. I hate it. I long to revert to what I really am."

"And what is that?" the princess asked him.

"One of God's smallest and basest creatures," said the prince. "A bare, forked animal not fit to touch the hem of your gown."

"Poor, dear animal," said the princess, not unkindly, and she gave him a little pat on the top of his head. "Can anything be done?"

"N-no," said the prince, wiping his nose. "Y-you were my last hope. According to the spell, I can be returned to my true self only if a kind princess will overlook my tall, proud, waspy exterior and take pity on me. But there are so few princesses anymore, you know. And I have heard that you feel threatened by all these straight, strong princes who look just like me."

"Don't cry," said the princess.  "When my ocelot seems sad and longs for his home in the far-off jungle, I cheer him up by cuddling him and kissing the tip of his nose and coaxing him with warm milk. Would that help?"

"Not really," said the prince. "According to the spell a princess can save me only if she takes me into her bedroom and chains me in a kennel by her bed for seven days. And then for seven days lets me sleep at the foot of her bed. And then for seven days places me beside her in the bed, with a sword between us. And even then, for seven days more, she must never kiss me on the tip of the nose."

"And what if she does?" asked the princess, opening her eyes very, very wide.

"The spell will go on for years and years and years," said the Prince. "For then it will be broken only when the princess at last accepts me for what I really am."

"No fear that I shall kiss you," the princess retorted with a fine toss of her head. "If you were small and furry and helpless and had a gracefully waving tail, I might be tempted, but as it is you're tall and too threatening. Let us go off to my rooms and have that kennel built."

This was done. A big chain with a metal collar was attached to the kennel beside the princess's bed. The princess herself snapped the collar around the prince's fine neck and he crawled into the kennel and lay down on some fresh straw. There he stayed, except when the princess brought him a saucer of milk. Then he would come out on all fours, drink the milk, and look long and gratefully into her eyes. "Thank you," he said each time. "I am but a poor creature and your humble servant."

After seven days the princess put him at the foot of her bed, where he slept, still as a stone, waking only to take more saucers of milk from her hand when she brought them and sometimes gratefully licking her fingers when he had finished lapping up the milk. "I hope you revert to your true self soon," said the princess. "You're so big at the foot of the bed that there's hardly any room left for my legs."

After seven more days the princess let the poor prince lie on the other side of her great, canopied bed, with a sword between them. "I must say," remarked the princess the first morning, "you don't seem threatening. In fact you're rather sweet, poor cursed, humble creature. But you are far too big for cuddling, and you are not soft and furry like my ocelot."

"I am not yet in my true form, gracious majesty," said the prince.

On the second morning the princess lay looking at the poor prince for a long while. She seemed lost in thought. "I must say," she said finally, "that the way those soft curls come down over your forehead seems very cuddly. If only you had a graceful tail like my ocelot I think we could be friends."

On the fourth morning, as the two lay with the sword between them, the princess took her red India rubber ball and threw it to her ocelot to play with. But the provoking little creature took the ball behind the curtain and would not come out, say what she might.

"Could you get the ball for me?" asked the princess. Quicker than any wink the prince leaped out of bed, caught the ball, and tossed it to the waiting princess. And when she threw it for him to chase again, he leaped high in the air, trapping the ball with one hand, and brought it back to her.

"My ocelot never did that," said the princess.

On the seventh morning there was deep snow outside the palace. The light in the princess's bedroom was bright with its reflection. She pulled the bell to call for breakfast and the prince's saucer of milk - but no servant came. The cord had frozen to the wall!

The prince leaped out of bed onto the cold floor.

"May I serve you, your highness?" he asked, making a deep bow. "I may only be a poor enchanted creature, but I can bring your breakfast."

And he did, straightaway, sitting beside her as she took her tea and daintily munched her toast, for he would not touch a drop of milk until she had finished and given him leave.

"My!" exclaimed the princess. "Thank you, sweet creature.

My ocelot never did that."

All through the day the snow fell. The palace grew colder and colder. The princess called her servants and they put 20 royal comforters over her, but still her breath seemed to freeze as it left her mouth. Her ocelot curled furrily around her neck as always on wintry nights, but it did no good. She fell to shivering.

"Sweet creature," she called to the prince. "I think we would be warmer if we cuddled together. My ocelot is not warm enough and I am perishing of the cold."

"I would serve you if I could, your highness," said the prince. But the sword is between us."

"Oh, pooh to the old sword," said the princess, and she held out her poor cold arms to him.

"My lady," said the prince, "the spell distinctly says that a sword should separate the princess and this poor creature only until the stroke of midnight on the seventh day. That is but a few hours off. Until then, shall I rub your feet and wrists to keep you warm, and tell you a story to help you forget the cold?"

"Yes," said the princess in a small voice.

So the prince leaped out onto the cold marble floor once more and came round the bed and stood beside the princess and put his hands under the covers and ever so respectfully rubbed her feet until they were warm and then gently rubbed her wrists until they glowed. He told her a very warming story about a gentle knight who served a beautiful lady in a far-off land full of palm trees and peacocks and a burning sun.

"My ocelot never told me stories," said the princess to herself. And when the chimes in the chapel began to strike twelve she said, "Sweet prince, you have warmed me mightily. But you must be cold yourself. Come here now beside me and I will do my best to warm you."

On the morning after the seventh night the princess woke up late. Her ocelot had retreated to the foot of the bed and was looking at her reproachfully.

"My!" she said to the prince. "Who would have dreamed that such a terrible, tall, proud-looking thing like you could be so cuddly? It's a shame the nasty old spell keeps me from kissing you on the tip of your nose, as I used to kiss my ocelot." .

"Sweet lady," said the prince. "If I recall it right, the spell distinctly requires that the princess still refrain from kissing this poor creature on the tip of his nose."

"Good," said the princess. "For there is a spot I would like to kiss just where that lock of hair curls down over your forehead. You are not as cute as my ocelot, it is true, but I find I'm rather fond of you." So she kissed the spot and several others in quick succession, mnh, mnh, mnh, like that, just as she used to with the ocelot.  And suddenly, without thinking, she kissed the prince on the tip of his nose.

"Alas and alack!" cried the prince, sitting up in bed. "Woman, what have you done?"

"But you look just the same," said the princess quickly.

"That's the whole point," growled the prince. "Now I'll have to spend years like this, blond and strong and handsome and arrogant-looking."

"I was only trying to help," said the princess.

"You could have shown some restraint," said the prince.

For a while they sat in silence on the bed. At last the princess said: "Well, I suppose the least I can do is marry you."

And she did.

The prince and princess soon went to live in their own small castle. The years passed. Other princes, whom she had spurned, sometimes stopped by in the course of taking their princesses to winter on the islands of the Hesperides. The princesses chattered on about midnight snacks on silver salvers in brocaded bedchambers strewn with gardenias.

"That sounds like fun," said the princess to her prince. But he always replied: "I can't afford such things, my dear. I am in reality one of God's poorest creatures, a small, bare, forked animal. Besides, those are all the things you told me you hated."

"I thought I did," said the princess.

So the two stayed in the palace and had many children. Hard times fell on the kingdom and the servants left and eventually the princess was mending socks and cooking and caring for cases of royal whooping cough, day after day, year after year. The king, her father, died in his own far-off castle, but so poor were they that the princess could not even go to his funeral.

One night she quarreled with her husband.

"You tricked me," she said most bitterly. "You are not enchanted at all. You got me to marry you out of sympathy." And she put her head down into her dirty apron and cried.

But then she thought about the prince. How handsome he still was. How tall and splendid he had always been. And she decided she would dwell on the good there was between them and cuddle him each night, instead of getting angry. So that night she did. And in the darkness she heard herself saying, "Dear prince. Forgive me. Of all the handsome princes you were the most handsome and the most clever and the most kind. I'll always love you just the way you are."

At these words the prince groaned mysteriously in the darkness. The next morning when she awoke, there beside her on the pillow was a large, middle-aged frog.

"Hi," it said nervously. "This is the real me."