Wednesday, May 26, 2021

King Thrushbeard

King Thrushbeard has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. Top five, easily. (The top five, in no particular order: King Thrushbeard, Prince Lindworm, Donkey Cabbages, East of the Sun West of the Moon, and Beauty and the Beast.) This is partly because (spoiler) I'm a total sucker for secret identities (I blame this on early exposure to Robin Hood and The Princess Bride), and I think partly because of a blog post I read years and years and years ago, which analyzed King Thrushbeard as a Christian allegory. It was a really fascinating post, and I wish I could link it for you, but I first encountered it over a decade ago, and I wouldn't know where to even begin looking for it now.

So recently I reread King Thrushbeard for the first time in at least five years. Which. Kind of a mistake. Some things are just better in memory. (Which is why I no longer read favorite books from my childhood. Some things you just can't bear to have ruined by, like, good taste.) 

Anyway. Let's get into it.

Our story starts with a princess who doesn't want to get married, which. Fair. But we're in a setting, where,  like, you kinda gotta anyway. Princesses in this culture are not doing a lot of marrying for love, even in fairy tales. And our girl, she's being pretty much as difficult as possible about it. Her father keeps on bringing in suitors, and she keeps on rejecting them in the rudest ways possible. Mostly stuff about their physical appearances. "I can't marry this guy; he's so fat he looks like a wine barrel." "He's so red he looks like a rooster." "His chin is so crooked it looks like a thrush's beak." Etc., etc. Except that the thrush beak one - I'm glancing through the version as I write this post and that's what it says, but in other translations I know they've said his beard looks like a thrush's nest, which makes much more sense to me because facial hair is much more easily changed than chin shape.

Now, okay, I get that marrying a total stranger to strengthen your father's political alliances isn't fun. But insulting powerful men as you reject them is just not the best idea, hon. You're gonna cause problems there. People are gonna blame your dad for your rudeness and not want to be in treaties with him anymore. Which you should know.

So. Dad gets fed up with this whole thing after princess rejects the latest batch of suitors, and swears to marry her to the next beggar that comes to the door. Minstrel beggar comes by shortly afterwards, and beggar and princess are married despite strenuous objections by both. King kicks princess out, because it's "not proper for a beggar's wife to live in the palace."

Princess and beggar walk a ways. They pass through a number of beautiful places owned by King Thrushbeard (which is what we're calling chin/beard dude now), and princess bemoans her foolishness in refusing to marry him. Out loud, which her new husband points out is pretty rude, as she's married to him now. 

Eventually they reach the tiny hut where they're going to live. Princess is shocked and horrified by lack of servants. Beggar immediately sets her to cooking and housework, neither of which she has any idea how to do. And then he decides she needs to get a job.

(Once he gets married we never see him beg again, or do any other kind of work; he just expects his brand new wife with no marketable skills to provide for him and contributes absolutely nothing to the relationship. Fantastic. Real stand-up guy.)

Princess is set to weaving baskets, but the materials cut her delicate princess hands. She's set to spinning thread, but those materials also cut her delicate princess hands, and, like, what? Exactly how delicate do your hands have to be to be cut by thread? Apparently we just have a full-on Princess and the Pea situation here. Okay.

Beggar sets her to selling pottery in the marketplace. That goes really well; people buy her pots because she's pretty and sad and they feel sorry for her. This is apparently pottery that the beggar bought from someone else, making the princess sort of the middleman here. Which is where the trouble comes in; some drunk dude on a horse comes through the market and smashes all her pots. Which she and the beggar then have to pay for.

And of course, according to the beggar, this is all her fault, because of the part of the market she chose to work in? If she'd set up somewhere else the pots wouldn't have been trampled. And, like, I'm not liking the beggar. Not an appealing character. Kind of a jerk.

He gets the princess a job as a kitchen maid at King Thrushbeard's palace. She starts smuggling food home in her pockets, which will become relevant in a minute here, because she and her husband are very poor, and food is hard to come by.

All goes well until the king's wedding day. She's got her pockets full of food, and the king - King Thrushbeard, who she so rudely rejected - demands that she, a random kitchen maid, dance with him. While they're dancing, all her pockets burst, spilling the stolen food, and she's in filthy rags in a ballroom in front of a suitor she rejected, so she makes the only logical choice and runs right out of there.

The king follows her. He says, "Surprise! I'm your beggar husband and somehow you didn't recognize me just now? I orchestrated this whole big thing - the marriage, the broken pots, that fun little wardrobe malfunction you just had - to teach you a lesson. And now that you've learned it we can live happily ever after!"

To which the princess replies, "I suck and I'm not worthy to be your wife," which. Just. Oh, honey, no. You were really rude to him once, so he made the next several months of your life a living hell. You are not the unworthy one. Why do you think you're unworthy? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Do you have Stockholm Syndrome? Is that even how Stockholm Syndrome works? Probably not, but I am Concerned.

(One of these days I'd like to make it through a whole fairy tale summary without being Concerned. Hasn't happened yet.)

So. The wedding that's happening is her surprise wedding, she changes clothes quick before the ceremony, and they live happily ever after. Good times. Our beggar/Thrushbeard was a lot more likeable in my memory before this reread.

(This post was available early on my Patreon.)

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