I first read Fairer-than-a-fairy in Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book. Though apparently, the story was originally published in 1718 as Le Princ Arc-en-ciel. It was done so anonymously, however, it has often been attributed to the Chevalier de Mailly.
I will admit, I kept only a few elements from the original story. However, this reimagining of mine is still the tale of a young woman’s quest to rescue an imprisoned prince. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a good quest! If you do as well, then keep reading.
(Fair warning, all these tales are unedited, so there will be typos and grammatical errors. All artwork is still conceptual or in progress and may or may not appear in the final book.)
Fairer than a Fairy
Part 1 of 3
Once upon a time there was a small kingdom that stood at the edge of a fairy wood. It was ruled by a good king and a good queen who were just and kind. They had been married for many years and were happy in all things save one, they had no children. They had almost given up hope when wonder of wonders they were blessed with a lovely baby girl.
The king and queen were overjoyed. The king, in particular, thought she was the most perfect thing in the world. He loved her dearly and would tell all that would listen of her beauty, saying often that she was fairer than the Fairy Queen herself.
Now it never occurred to the good-natured monarch that his boasts might insult the Fairy Queen, bringing the hatred and jealousy of her court down on the little girl. But that is exactly what it did. And when the girl was seven years old, they stole her away.
The little princess had been playing not far from the wood’s edge, when the most handsome pony she had ever seen came dancing up to her from over the grassy meadow. He had fuzzy little ears, and a shaggy forelock that hung down over his face. He was so adorably round that she had no fear of him and was soon up on his back even though he had not a single bit of tack on him.
She quickly came to realize her mistake for it was not a pony’s back she had climbed onto, but a phooka’s. Away the fairy horse raced, faster than fastest steed in her father’s stable, straight into the fairy wood.
Around trees and over briers they sped, until they reached a tiny pond, shining mirror bright in the darkness of the deep wood. There the phooka stopped, and tossed her neatly into the water where she quickly sank out of the sight of mortal men.
He stood there considering her fate as he watched the ripples die away into stillness and thought it sad. The little princess had been brave, for although she clutched at his mane fearfully, she had shed not a single tear as he carried her away.
But it wasn’t to her death that he had carried her, for the little mirror pond was actually a doorway to faerie. And that is where she found herself, surrounded by a host of strange creatures. Whether fair or foul, they all looked on her with distaste.
“So this is the little mortal who is fairer than our queen,” they jeered and mocked her, calling her “fairer-than-a-fairy” as they pulled her along.
They left her in the care of Lagree, the oldest of their tribe whose cruelty was sly and subtle. She did not beat the little girl but instead set her to work, cleaning a house that would never stay clean and tending a fire that the old fairy warned must never go out. For if it did, the relighting of it would be so perilous a task that the princess would most likely not survive it.
The chores were arduous, but it was in the little torments that the fairies truly found their vengeance. So often did the young princess hear them call her “fairer-than-a-fairy” that she soon thought it her own name and forgot that she had once had another.
There were two bright spots in her otherwise deary life. Two friends that came in the form of a sleek tom cat and a monstrous hound. They were her near constant companions and when one was not there then to other was. In their company, the other fairy’s torments were less.
Many years passed, and the princess grew accustom to her lonely life. She obeyed the old Fairy’s orders, and by degrees forgot all about the life she had had before.
One day, whilst in the courtyard, sweeping the never ending dust that gathered on its flagstones, her eyes fell on the fountain in its center. The sun’s light shone on it in just such a way so that it produced the most brilliant rainbow. She stopped in her work, captivated by its dancing colors.
Wasn’t she surprised when the rainbow spoke to her!
From the center of those vibrant colors came the most pleasant voice. It was that of a young man, and the words he used were so kind that for a moment she found she couldn’t find any of her own to say back to him. It had been so long since anyone had spoken to her so gently that surely this was just a trick of her imagination. A fancy brought about by her loneliness, because there was no one visible in those bright colors.
Still, she answered the voice’s greeting, finding that it had been long enough that she didn’t care if it was her imagination or not. And so she found herself talking long into the day. She learned that the voice belonged to the eldest son of a powerful king who had, quite unwittingly, angered the fairy Lagree. Not being the forgiving sort, she took her revenge by depriving him of his natural shape, imprisoning him in the form of a rainbow. If he still had a body and what might have become to it, he had never known. Had, in fact, given up caring some time ago until he had caught a glimpse of Fairer-than-a-Fairy while she was going about her tasks. Since then he had hoped she would look his way so that he could speak to her. And finally that day had come. Now, he felt that his life once again held some meaning.
His declaration touched her deeply, for she felt that in the Rainbow Prince, as she had begun to think of him, there was someone who could truly understand what she herself had endured. So she shared all that had happened to her and what things she could remember from the life she had had before the one she now lived.
She had become so lost in the conversation that time slipped away from her. Thankfully, that was not so for her faithful friend the cat. He nudged and bothered her until she realized that she was quite late in tending the fire. It was hard to say goodbye to the Prince. But she promised to keep watch every day so that she might speak to him whenever the light fell on the water in just the right way.
It turned out that the cat’s reminder was timely indeed, because when she went to check on the fire, it was nearly out. She carefully added oil to the basin and trimmed the wick, all without letting the flame die. Gently closing the lantern door when she was finished to protect the flame from being blown out. All the while, she shivered at the thought of her fate had she let it go out.
The next day, and every day after that, the princess went to the fountain whenever the sun shone brightly to check and see if the Rainbow Prince was there. When he was, they would talk for as long as the light lasted. Their friendship grew quickly, and over time it deepened, becoming something much more.
Now it was bound to happen, and so it did one fateful day. The princess lost track of time while she was talking to the Rainbow Prince, which in and of itself was not an uncommon thing. However, this time neither the cat nor the hound were there to remind her of her tasks. The fire which Lagree had charged her to never allow to go out, did. Worst yet, it was Lagree herself who found the lantern, now dark and cold.
All the while her lovely prisoner sat unknowing in the courtyard still talking to her Rainbow Prince until a dark shadow fell across the sparkling fountain. The bright colors vanished. Fairer-than-a-Fairy turned to see Lagree standing there, a terrible glee gleaming in the old fairy’s single eye. Then the princess saw the darkened lantern in her hand and a cold shiver ran down her spine.
“So this is where you have been lazing about! Well we can’t have that,” Lagree said, but she didn’t sound angry at all. In fact she sounded almost happy as she reached out and easily cracked the fountain into pieces. The princess watched in horror as the water flowed away across the stones taking with it any chance she might have had to see her prince again.
“You let the fire die, and now you will have to relight it,” the old fairy said, handing the lantern to young woman, “and only the ogre Locrinos has the flame you need for such a task.”
“Ah, he so does find young meat the tenderest! But you would have to reach his house before worrying about such things,” Lagree continued, her one tooth glinting as she smiled her cruel smile. “Ah, the many interesting places you will have to travel through first. Every step through the Forest of Glass will cut your skin, and the Garden of Bells will drive you mad. So by the time you come to the Lake of Mirrors, well, you might welcome an end to your journey!”
“Then why should I go on the journey at all?” Fairer-than-a-Fairy asked. “As I see it, either way will prove an ill choice for me.”
Old Lagree let out a terrible laugh.
“Because I put a geas on that lantern, foolish girl” she said. “As soon as your hand touched it your fate was sealed. No matter what you do, you will have no choice but to continue your journey until the lantern is once again lit.”
“And if I die in the trying?” the princess asked.
“Well at least I will be rid of you!” Lagree said, then left her, still chuckling.
Fairer-than-a-Fairy went back to the small closet where she slept and sat on the meager pallet which was her bed. And there for the first time since she had been carried away, she wept.
That was how her friend the hound found her. He laid his head in her lap and she gently stroked his ears.
“You know, it is not the journey that lies before me, nor its possible end that makes me sad,” she said, tears still wet on her cheeks. “It is because now the Rainbow Prince will be all alone again, and most likely will never know my fate. He will think I abandoned him. That is why I am crying.”
“I do not doubt it,” said a voice that she did not recognize.
When she looked down it wasn’t the hound’s monstrous head in her lap, but rather that of a youth who smiled up at her with pumpkin-orange eyes. Gasping, she jumped up, leaving the young man stretched out on her bed.
“Who are you?” she demanded, and the youth sat up.
“Who am I? I have been your friend these many years. I am the hound that has lain at your feet. And the cat on your pillow who purred lullabies in your ear when sleep would not come,” he replied. “I am also the phooka who stole you away, and for that I am truly sorry. But if you will trust me as you have as you have so far, I hope to make amends.”
The princess could not think of anything to say, but she cried all the harder, feeling as though she had lost not only her love, but her friends as well, all in the same day.
The young man reached across to hold her hands, his eyes earnest and sad.
“I am sorry princess, and I swear since then I have done the best by you that I could. But, Lagree is old and powerful. If she had seen me here, she would have banished me from your side and you would have truly been alone!”
And it was true that the princess had rarely seen either the cat or the hound when the old fairy was at home.
“But now is not the time for tears,” he insisted, and his eyes shined with mischief. “The way before you may look dark, but as you well know, looks can be deceiving. This doom may actually be a boon, before this story is over.”
“How so?” she asked, hopeful despite herself.
“First let us fulfill this geas, to do that there are three things you will need: a pair of boots, a bag of cotton and a hand mirror. All of which you can find in the bottom of a trunk that sits at the foot of the old fairy’s bed. But how to get them, now that is sticky point.”
“Perhaps not, if you are willing to help,” she said, after some thought. “You know that Lagree has only the one good tooth, which she has to keep in a strengthening potion every night. And that she takes it out in the morning to eat her breakfast. If you were to steal this from her she would give chase for sure. Then I could steal into her room, take what we would need from the trunk, and she need never know.
When the morning came, Fairer-than-a-fairy woke and dressed, putting on every skirt she owned (of which there were only three), one on top of the other, then set forth on their plan.
The phooka waited patiently in his guise as a cat, and just as old Lagree was taking her tooth out of the potion, he leapt up and stole it away. She gave chase, as they had hoped, and the princess slipped into the old fairy’s room.
There at the foot of the bed was a trunk and in the bottom, just as the phooka had said, sat the boots, the bag and the mirror. She carefully tied the boots and the bag of cotton under her skirts in just such a way so that they would not clank or sway, and thus give her away. Then she slipped the mirror in her bodice. She feared at first that is would not fit, but it seemed to grow smaller and smaller until it fit perfectly. She was back in the kitchen before the Lagree returned and so old fairy was none the wiser.
When Lagree returned, tooth in hand and much annoyed, she sent Fairer-than-a-Fairy off on her journey with only a jug of water and a pocket full of hazelnuts.
The princess had worried for the phooka, but she needn’t have for there he was, just a little ways down the road, a lovely black horse with wild pumpkin-orange eyes. Quite different from the shaggy maned, round bellied pony she remembered. He snorted at her. She mounted on his back, and away they went.