The Serpent Prince

Edmund Dulac July 23, 2017
27 min read
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Once, a very long time ago, before aeroplanes emulated eagles and motor cars ran along swifter than the foxes, there lived on the outskirts of a great forest an old couple who were poor and childless and lonely.

Matteo was the name of this worthy pair, and the old man was called Cola and his wife was known as Sapatella. Now Matteo was a forester, and, because his duties kept him roaming from early morn until late in the evening through the deep dark glades of the forest, his wife, who had to stay at home and mind the cottage and prepare the meals, and never go out, not even to see the pictures on Saturday evenings, was very lonely indeed and wished more than ever that she had a son, so that he could go to the pictures and tell her all about them when he came home.

But wishes do not make horses or sons, nor even daughters, and so this poor old woman had to live a very lonely life indeed, which gave her a great deal of time to think and to envy

The old woman who lived in a shoe,
Who had so many children she didn’t know what to do,
who lived about the same time in another part of the country.

One evening, when the days were growing short and the nights were correspondingly long and chilly, Matteo was on his way back to the cottage, when he remembered that Sapatella had asked him to bring home some faggots with him to cook with and to keep them warm, because, of course, when you are a forester and live in a forest, you cannot expect to have coal to burn in your grates, like those who live in towns and villages.

There was plenty of brushwood, and heaps of twigs and fallen boughs lying about, and, as he had his axe with him, which all good foresters carry to clear a path for themselves through the dense undergrowths, it was not long before Matteo had collected a great bundle of faggots which was just as much as he could carry on his back.

But Matteo carried home with him on his back more than a mere bundle of dry boughs and twigs, although he did not know it. Neither did Sapatella, not until the next morning after Matteo had gone off to his work, when she went to the wood pile to get some sticks to put under her pot to boil the nice rabbit which Matteo had shot for her the day before. She picked up a bundle and was about to place it on the fire when a tiny serpent, oh, ever so tiny! slithered and wriggled its way out of the twigs and coiled itself up on the rug.

Being a forester’s wife, Sapatella was not the least bit frightened of serpents or mice or beetles or other dreadful beasts; besides, it was such a tiny serpent, all yellow as can be; and, when the firelight danced on it, it shone bright and gleaming like gold.

‘Ah me, said the good woman with a sigh, ‘even the serpents have their young ones, but I have no one.’

Then the serpent uncoiled and stretched itself out towards her and spoke. All kinds of animals spoke in those days, as you will notice if you read the story through, though not so frequently but that the good woman was surprised and startled to hear it.

‘You may have me for your child if you will,’ it said.

‘Keep me warm and feed me well,
And fortune will upon you dwell.’

Sapatella was, as I have already said, considerably startled to hear a baby serpent talk like that; but she was a kind-hearted woman and very, very lonely, and she quickly made up her mind to adopt the little serpent and bring it up as her own.

The forester, her husband, who was also kind-hearted, agreed to let her have her own way in the matter, and so the little serpent found a home and care and affection.

They kept him warm and fed him well,
And fortune did upon them dwell.

From that time on, peace and contentment and prosperity brightened the little cottage. Everything went smoothly and comfortably, though whether the little serpent had really anything to do with it or not, I cannot say.

Serpents grow up very quickly, and, what with the warmth and the good food and the affection, the little serpent soon grew to be a big one, oh, monstrous big! so that when he lay in front of the fire he took up the whole of the rug, and Sapatella had to scold him in order to make room so that she could attend to her cooking.

One day when she had nearly tripped over his tail and fallen with a pot of boiling water in her hands, Sapatella said to it: ‘You are grown too big to be lying about before the fire all day. You must get up and do something.’

‘Very well, mother,’ said the serpent—it always called her mother, and Cola it called father, just as a son would. ‘Find me a wife and I will get married and settle down.’

Sapatella did not very well know how to set about finding a wife for a serpent, even an adopted one; but she agreed to speak to Matteo her husband about the matter when he came home that night.

After supper, accordingly, she put the serpent’s request to the forester.

‘Our serpent wants to get married, Cola,’ she said; ‘so you must find him a wife.’

‘Very well,’ said Matteo. ‘I will hunt through the forest when I am out, and try and find another serpent for him to mate with.’

‘Oh, that will not do at all,’ said the serpent, who had been listening very intently to its adopted parents’ conversation, though it seemed to be sleeping peacefully all over the floor in front of the fire. ‘I do not mate with serpents. You must get the King’s daughter for me. To-morrow you must set out to the palace, and tell the King that I require his daughter in marriage.’

Naturally Matteo did not at all care about his errand; but his wife entreated him to go, and so on the morrow the good man set forth, the serpent watching him depart from the cottage door, chanting all the while:

‘To the King my message tell,
And fortune will upon you dwell.’

Well, Matteo walked along through the forest on his way to the King’s palace, and the nearer he got to his journey’s end the more difficult and dangerous his errand seemed to grow. He thought the King would be sure to be very angry, and he might even order him to be hanged for a knave, or beaten off the palace grounds for a fool.

But he kept thinking of what the serpent had said, and, as good fortune dwelling upon us is something we all like to have, the forester kept on his way and resolved faithfully to carry out his errand.

He came at last to the palace gates, and as, in those days, in that country, any one who wanted to could walk in and speak to the King, this simple old fellow passed in with the crowd who were going to seek help or justice, and in due time he came before the King.

‘O great King!’ he said, ‘a serpent who is my adopted son has sent me to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage.’

The King stared, and then he frowned, and then he stared again. Kings are accustomed to receiving strange requests; but never anything so strange as this.

Fortunately for Cola, the King was a good-humoured, easy-going man, and, thinking that he had to do with some harmless old lunatic, he only laughed, as did all the courtiers and people who stood about him.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I will grant your request, only your adopted son must first of all turn all the fruit in my orchard into gold. Then will I give him my daughter in marriage.’

Matteo thanked the King for his great clemency and kindness in not having him hanged or beaten out of the palace, and then started off home again.

‘I am well out of that,’ he thought to himself; ‘but my adopted son will have to be contented with a wife of less degree. Who ever heard of turning apples and flowers and cherries into gold? Why, they can only make copper and silver of them in Covent Garden.’

But the serpent didn’t seem in the least bit concerned when the forester told him the result of his errand.

‘That is a small matter,’ it said. ‘To-morrow morning you must go into the city with a basket, and gather up all the fruit-stones you can find, and take them and scatter them in the orchard.

‘Do this thing and do it well,
And fortune will upon you dwell.’

So Matteo went once more to the town and did exactly as the serpent had told him. Not knowing anything of magic, he did not in the least expect anything to happen; so you may imagine his surprise when not only the fruit, but every tree and leaf and bough in the whole orchard, turned into solid gold, and glittered so in the sunlight that one could scarcely bear to look at them.

It chanced that the King was walking on the terrace with his courtiers when Matteo entered the orchard.

‘There is that silly old man come back again who wants me to wed my daughter to a serpent,’ he said. ‘Is he going to turn my fruit into gold by stealing it and selling it in the market-place?’

The courtiers laughed at this excellent jest, as courtiers will; but the next moment they stopped laughing, and each one rubbed his eyes and ejaculated in astonishment and delight at the marvellous beauty and value of the King’s orchards.

The King himself could say nothing, and he said nothing, until Matteo came before him and humbly begged his Majesty to fulfil his promise now that the serpent, his adopted son, had done the task assigned to him.

The King was in a quandary. He was not greedy or avaricious; but to have a serpent for a son-in-law was, for a king, clearly impossible.

‘Softly,’ he said. ‘You have fulfilled your task, it is true; but so fair an orchard requires a better setting. Golden trees should not grow out of common ground and be enclosed by common walls. Let your adopted son first turn all the ground and the walls into diamonds and rubies and precious stones, so that I may have orchards whereof the like is not known in all the world, and then will I give him my daughter to wife.’

The forester again thanked his Majesty for his great condescension and retired, while the King and his courtiers went into the orchard and picked golden apples and plums and peaches from golden boughs, and marvelled at the wonderful thing that had been done before their eyes.

It was in the King’s mind that this could be no common or forest serpent, and he was troubled to think what his position would be if the second task was performed as readily and thoroughly as the first had been.

When Matteo reached home and told the serpent what had befallen him, the serpent shook his tail and seemed about to fly into a passion.

‘You see how well kings keep their word,’ it said angrily. ‘But it is a small matter after all. Do you go again to the town on the morrow, and gather all the broken bits of china and glass you can find. These you must take in a basket, and lay a piece on each wall and between each tree and bush.

‘Do this thing and do it well,
And fortune will upon you dwell.’

So Matteo set out at daybreak, and did exactly as the serpent had told him. He had no difficulty in finding plenty of material for his purpose, and it was still early when he reached the orchard with a heavy load of broken tea-cups and plates and oddments of basins and teapots and water-jugs.

Early as it was, it was not too early for the King to be present. The wonder of this new possession had kept his Majesty awake nearly all night, and he was impatient until he could get into the orchard and satisfy himself that it was all really and actually true.

When he saw Matteo approach and lay down his fragments of china, he grew thoughtful, for he realised that it was all true enough, and that the second condition would be likely to be performed. But he said nothing, and Matteo walked from tree to tree, dropping here a piece of cup, there a fragment of plate; and, wherever the china fell, the ground between the trees turned to diamond or sapphire or ruby. With the walls it was just the same. Every kind of precious stone known and unknown was to be found in that wonderful orchard, even to a carbuncle which grew on a courtier’s toe in consequence of his incautious action in putting his foot just where Matteo was dropping a tiny bit of china.

The King was delighted and depressed at the same time. He had got orchards surpassing in beauty and value anything that was known to be in the whole world; also he had to give his daughter in marriage to a serpent, and the last seemed to the poor King of greater consideration than the former.

‘Tell the serpent, your adopted son, that, although he has accomplished the task I set him, yet will I not give him my daughter to wed unless he also turns my palace into gold,’ he said to Matteo, and again the forester thanked the King for his great clemency and condescension, and returned to his home.

Again the serpent grew angry and said shrewd things concerning the value of the word of kings, and the trust which is not to be found in princes—not even German princes.

‘But,’ said he, ‘it is a small matter. Do you go at daybreak and gather in the forest herbs of this kind and that, and make them into a broom, and sweep therewith the whole length of the palace walls, and so shall it be even as the King wishes.

‘Go do this thing and do it well,
And fortune shall upon you dwell.’

So Matteo went into the forest and gathered herbs of this kind and that, and swept the palace well round as the serpent had directed, and when the King and his courtiers and the servants—even down to the scullery wench—arose, the whole palace was golden from the front step of the main entrance to the topmost ridge of the chimney. And it was not gold plate either: it was all solid gold of the purest kind.

This time the King saw that there was no way of escape when Matteo asked for the fulfilment of the royal promise, so he called his daughter to him and told her of the matter.

‘My dear Grannmia,’ he said, for that was her name, ‘for your sake I have twice broken my royal pledge, and now I greatly fear you must keep it. It is a small matter—just to marry a serpent, the adopted son of a poor forester.’

The Princess, who was very young and very dutiful, and surpassingly fair to look upon, agreed cheerfully, as though marrying serpents was quite an ordinary everyday duty like laying foundation stones and receiving bouquets.

So the King told Matteo to send the serpent along and marry his daughter, and for goodness’ sake not to bother him any further with golden palaces, and jewelled orchards, and carbuncles on his favourite courtier’s big toe.

When the serpent heard this from Matteo, it seemed beside itself with joy, and there and then set off for the palace. But before it left the humble cottage in which it had received so much care and affection, it bade farewell to Sapatella and Matteo, and thanked them very heartily for all their goodness, finishing up with these words:

‘Now my task you have done full well,Good fortune shall upon you dwell.’

And it did; for, from that time till the day they died, both Sapatella and Matteo were happy and contented and prosperous, and never ailed or suffered pain or disappointment.

"When Grannmia saw her strange lover, she alone remained calm and courageous." Illustration by Edmund Dulac, published in Edmund Dulac's Fairy Book: Fairy Tales of the Allied Nations by Edmund Dulac (1916), George H. Duran Company.

“When Grannmia saw her strange lover, she alone remained calm and courageous.” Illustration by Edmund Dulac, published in Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book: Fairy Tales of the Allied Nations by Edmund Dulac (1916), George H. Duran Company.

When Grannmia saw her strange lover, she alone remained calm and courageous—the only one in the palace who did. All the servants ran shrieking when they saw the great golden monster entering the doors, and, when it got to the presence-chamber, the King and Queen fled in one direction and the courtiers in another. Only the Princess remained, trembling with astonishment, and awaited the pleasure of the serpent.

Slowly it came gliding towards her, and then, when it was almost near enough for her to touch it, it reared up—the golden skin fell apart, and a young and most handsome Prince stood bowing before her.

Now, of course, everything would have been happy and joyous if it had not been for the silly old King, who, partly out of anxiety for his daughter, but chiefly from curiosity, stole back and peeped into the room just as the Prince emerged from the golden skin which had disguised him as a serpent.

He did just what you should never do with disenchanted princes: rushed forward and threw the discarded skin into the fire, where it flashed and burned like a resinous torch.

At the sound of the crackling the Prince turned, and, when he saw what had happened, he was furiously angry, more angry, in fact, than he had been when, as a serpent, he had reflected on the unreliability of the promises of kings. Then, with a sad look at the Princess, he turned to the King and said:

‘This act of yours renews the spell,May fortune never with you dwell.’

And, turning himself into a dove, he circled three times round the Princess and then flew through the window. At least, he would have flown through the window, only it did not happen to be open. In consequence he broke the pane and very nearly his own head; but he got out, and flew straight away over the golden orchard, while the Princess, who had rushed to the window, stood gazing after him until he could no longer be seen. Then she turned and gave the unhappy King her views of his meddlesome prying. Then she burst into tears and cried until the sun went down, so that the tears formed a stream and ran down into the fountain-court, and all the poor little goldfish died because of too much salt in their fresh water.

But crying does not help any one, so, after all the palace servants had gone to bed, she gathered up all her treasures and set out to find her elusive husband, who had come to her as a serpent with a wriggly tail, and flown away as a dove with a bit of a broken window-pane in his head.

When she got out of the palace grounds into the woods behind, she met a fox who was also looking for a dove, or a fowl, or any other winged thing.

The fox said, ‘Good evening, pretty Princess. May I travel with you for company?’

‘Yes, do,’ said the Princess. ‘I am not used to the woods at night, and I may not be able to find my way.’

So the fox led her through the wood and far away from the palace until they had gone miles and miles, and the Princess was so tired that she would not go another step, not even to find a dove with a bandaged head. So they both lay down and went to sleep.

It was late in the morning when she awoke and heard the birds singing all around her.

Their song pleased her very much, and the fox, noticing this, remarked: ‘Ah, if you could only understand what they are saying you would be much more pleased.’

‘Oh, do tell me, dear fox,’ pleaded the Princess; and, after he had made her ask him a sufficient number of times, the fox replied:

‘Well, they are saying that the King’s son, who was turned into a serpent by his godmother to spite his father, has met with an accident that now threatens his life. The spell lasted for seven years, and, on the very day it ended, he was about to marry the daughter of another king, when her father rashly burnt the skin and thus caused him to be turned into a dove. In flying from the palace he has cut his head against a window-pane, and is now at his father’s palace lying so sadly hurt that none of the doctors can do anything for him.’

The Princess was greatly concerned at hearing this story.

‘But listen, dear fox, and hear if the birds say whether there is any way of curing this poor Prince,’ she said.

So the fox listened intently, and by and by he said to the Princess: ‘The blackbirds are saying there is no way, but the wrens say there is one. Whoever would cure the Prince must obtain the blood from these very birds and pour it on the head of the Prince, when he will immediately recover and be as well as he ever was.’

The Princess began to grow hopeful, and begged of the fox to catch the birds for her so that she might obtain the remedy and restore the Prince to health. She added a promise of reward for his assistance, and the fox agreed to help her.

So they waited under the trees until the sun had gone in and the birds were all asleep in their nests, and then the fox climbed stealthily into the trees and gathered the birds one after the other, just like a naughty schoolboy stealing apples from a farmer’s orchard.

Having obtained what she required, the Princess set forth eagerly to carry the remedy to the Prince’s palace.

But the fox, who had taken care to keep well out of her reach, suddenly sat down and began to laugh.

‘Why do you laugh, dear fox?’ asked the Princess. ‘Is it that you are overjoyed to think that the Prince who is to be my husband will soon be restored to health? But let us hurry: we may be too late!’

‘No, it is not that,’ said the fox, laughing again. ‘It is to think that your remedy will be of no avail without the other ingredient, which is the blood of a fox, and as I am not minded to supply it, I will skip the reward you promised and be off.’

Thereupon he started away, pelting as hard as he could go.

The Princess saw that her only hope was to outwit the fox, and she immediately thought of a plan to gain her end.

‘Dear fox, do not run,’ she said; ‘that would be a pity now that the remedy is in our own hands. The King is certain to reward us lavishly, and surely there are plenty of other foxes among whom we can find one willing to spare his blood to save the King’s son. Let us go on, then, and trust to our fortune.’

The fox, proud of the fact of being the most artful animal alive, never thought for one moment that he could be exceeded in cunning by a simple maiden, so he came back to the Princess, and together they walked through the forest to the far end where the palace of the King showed in the near distance.

‘That is the place,’ said the fox; ‘but we haven’t got the other ingredient!’

‘Oh yes, we have,’ said the Princess, and, before the fox could be any more artful, she hit him on the head with a stout branch she had picked up, and with such force that he did not in the least object to the necessary addition to the Prince’s medicine being drawn from his own veins.

Of course the Princess was sorry to have to do this. The fox had helped her a great deal; and besides, she was a tender-hearted little thing, and she wept like anything all the while she was compounding the remedy; but princes are of more importance than foxes, particularly when they are handsome princes who have been serpents and are wanted to make handsome husbands.

So the Princess took the phial containing the very strange cure for wounded heads, and proceeded straight to the King’s palace.

They were all so disturbed, with the servants running about distractedly, and the doctors quarrelling with each other, and the courtiers standing about trying not to look bored, that no one took the least notice of the Princess; but she was a pushing young lady, and seeing the palace doors all open, she made her way from room to room until at last she found the King himself.

‘And it please your Majesty,’ she said, dropping him a curtsy, ‘I have come to save the Prince.’

‘But how can you save the Prince when all the great doctors in my kingdom cannot?’ demanded the King.

‘The birds told me,The fox helped me,And I can save your son.But, if I do, I ask of youTo marry me to him when I’ve done,’

chanted the Princess.

The King was so overcome with grief and anxiety that he was ready to promise anything to anybody who could help him, so he gave the Princess the required promise, and, without more ado, she caused herself to be led into the chamber of the Prince, and poured the contents of the phial over his wound.

The Prince, who had been so nearly at the point of death that no one would have believed to see him that there was any life in him at all, immediately sat up, recovered and well.

He did not recognise the Princess, and when the King, his father, told him the terms on which she had saved his life, and presented the maiden to him, he refused.

‘For the great service you have rendered me I am grateful indeed,’ he said; ‘but I cannot marry you. My heart is already given to another, and not even for my life will I be false to my word.’

When she heard this the Princess was secretly overjoyed; but she pretended to be greatly displeased, and she disdainfully rejected all other offers of reward that were made to her by the King and the Prince.

‘Tell me who this other is, and I will go to her and get her to relinquish you in my favour,’ she said at length. ‘When she learns what I have done for you, I am sure she will agree that my claim is greater than hers.’

‘It is the Princess Grannmia; but that I am sure she will never do,’ said the Prince proudly. ‘Even if she would, I will not. What is life without love? and I would rather be a serpent again, and live in the cottage of a poor forester all my days, than rule this kingdom without my beloved Princess.’

On hearing this the Princess could no longer keep her secret.

‘You must love me indeed, dear Prince,’ she said, ‘if you do not recognise me when I come pleading to you to carry out your promise after saving your life, and marry me as you would have done when the King, my father, drove you away from me.’

Then the Prince recognised her, and he embraced her so heartily that the Princess wondered whether he was still a serpent or only just a strong young man who was very much in love with her, while the King went out and gave immediate orders to set the bells a-ringing, and have preparations made on the most lavish scale for the wedding feast.

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