This retelling of The Swineherd from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"
A retelling by J. Kearns
A story about a princess who prefers imitative novelties over the real thing.
Long ago, in the year 1215, on June 15th, at a place called Runnymede, a man by the name of King John of England was forced to sign a paper called the Magna Charta, which changed the authority of kings so that the people he ruled over--or at least some of them, such as those who made him sign the paper--were guaranteed certain rights. That's a very good story. But it has nothing to do with our tale, except to introduce the idea that though kings and queens, princes and princesses, figure prominently in many fairy tales, they were not always trusted by everyone to rule in a way favorable to them. Of course not, because different people want different things. But those who honor priority by virtue of wealth and privileged birth, very often come to believe that what they want is paramount, by virtue of their wealth and birth, and what they want often comes at great expense to others because the appetite of exclusivity tends to be large.
You would think all rulers would be rich. Nobles rule over kingdoms, or they used to, and even if a noble is only a figurehead like some modern nobility, and doesn't govern, would you still ever imagine that they might be poor? Still, this story is about a prince who was poor.
"He was poor in relationship to what?" you might say, which would show you are realistic and know about relativity. "It's a matter of relativity," you could say. This means that if this prince had a relatively nice house, but a neighboring king had a great big house, then you could say the prince was poor in relationship to the king. But if you compare this prince with his relatively nice house to someone who has no house because they can't afford to have one, then you could say the prince was rich in comparison to that person who couldn't afford a house.
The prince I'm going to tell you about was said to be a poor prince. He had a kingdom, but it was small. In fact, I've asked around about it, and the kingdom appears to have never been mapped. Therefore, it was beyond the measure of relatively large or small.
As this prince wasn't of significant material means, it might seem audacious of him to go to an emperor's daughter and ask her, "Will you marry me?" But this is what he did.
The prince's father had died, and on his grave grew a rose-tree. This wasn't an ordinary rose-tree. For four years it wouldn't give one single bloom, so if you went by it daily you might think it wasn't a very good rose-tree at all. Every fifth year, however, it would bloom. And oh what a bloom it would give, which more than made up for the four years it didn't bloom. Every fifth year, it would produce a single rose, just one ultra-magnificent rose. Its scent was so sweet that if you smelt that rose you forgot all your cares and troubles. That is what I call some rose. Not only was it beautiful, this rose had the power to change you. If you were unhappy and smelled the rose it would fill you with happiness.
The prince also had a nightingale. Nightingales are birds renowned for singing more beautifully than possibly any other bird. This nightingale was even better. This nightingale could sing as if all the beautiful melodies in the world were shut up in its little throat, and when he opened his little beak those beautiful melodies would flow forth, and anyone who heard this nightingale sing never felt alone. Anyone who heard this nightingale was filled with love for everyone, and they were assured the entire universe loved them. But, just like the rose-tree only gave a few rare blooms, this nightingale was usually silent, or it only sang songs like the other nightingales.
The prince had his eye on an emperor's daughter. He watched her for a while, and after watching her for a while he decided the emperor's daughter should have the rose-tree with the rare, precious rose it had just bloomed, and the nightingale as well.
He had a silversmith prepare two silver cases, one for the rose, and one built especially for the nightingale so it wouldn't be uncomfortable in it. He put the rose in one case, and the nightingale in the other, and he sent these cases to the emperor's daughter.
When the two silver caskets arrived at the emperor's palace, the emperor had them brought into the great hall where the princess was playing, "Here comes a duke a-riding" with her ladies-in-waiting.
Do you know this rhyme? I don't think I do. Maybe it was something like this:
This is the way the ladies ride,
Nimble, nimble, nimble, nimble;
This is the way the gentlemen ride,
A gallop, a trot, a gallop, a trot;
This is the way the farmers ride,
Jiggety jog, jiggety jog;
And when they come to a hedge--they jump over.
And when they come to a slippery space
They scramble, scramble, scramble,
This kind of nursery rhyme you sing while jumping a child up and down on your crossed legs. The child faces the adult and the adult holds the child by his or her hands. On the last line, the child is slipped down one's leg and over one's toes to the ground.
Another rhyme like that is:
Here goes my lord,
A trot, a trot, a trot, a trot;
Here goes my lade,
A canter, a canter, a canter, a canter;
Here goes my young master,
Jockey-hitch, jockey-hitch, jockey-hitch, jockey-hitch;
Here comes my young miss,
An amble, an amble, an amble, an amble;
The footman lags behind to tipple on ale and wine,
And goes a gallop, a gallop, a gallop, a gallop to make up his time.
I don't know. Maybe the emperor's daughter, who wasn't a young child after all, was playing with her ladies-in-waiting like they were galloping and then they would fall to the ground on the last line. I don't know. Seems a little silly for a grown girl to play such a game with her ladies-in-waiting, but that's what they were said to be doing.
The emperor's daughter was playing with her ladies-in-waiting in the great hall when the two silver caskets were brought in to her. When she saw them, knowing that in them were presents for her, she clapped her hands for joy.
It's been written that when she saw the silver caskets the first words out of her mouth were, "If only it were a little pussy cat!" I have serious doubts this is what she wished for. She was a princess; she could have gotten a little pussy cat very easily if she wanted one. Even the poorest person in her kingdom could have gotten a pussy cat very easily if they wanted one, not to mention two or three and probably as many pussy cats as they might want. I imagine the princess said something more like, "I hope each of these caskets is filled with beautiful jewels." Except that giving pearls or rubies to an emperor's daughter means nothing at all. They already have them all. A novelty made of pearls and rubies would be better.
The princess eagerly opened the first casket and saw in it the rose-tree with the beautiful rose.
"But how prettily it is made!" said all the ladies-in-waiting.
But the princess, touching the rose, sighed. "Oh, this rose isn't artificial, it is real!"
"Ugh!" said all the ladies-in-waiting, "it is real!"
Uninterested, apparently untouched by the rose's scent, the princess closed the casket before anyone else had the opportunity to catch a whiff of the rose's beautiful perfume and become sublimely content.
The princess then opened the other silver casket. Out hopped the nightingale which sang, if not one of its magical songs, a song still more beautiful than any other nightingale could sing.
"Oh, superb! Charmant!" declared the ladies-in-waiting, for they all chattered French, each one worse than the other. We know by this they weren't French. At the time, in all the noble's courts, French was considered the language to speak. It was extremely fashionable. You couldn't walk down any palace hall without hearing chorus after chorus of, "Superb! Charmant!" If you were French, it was particularly annoying to hear it spoken so badly.
"Anyone can have a real rose-tree, just like anyone can have a real bird. These aren't special gifts at all," said the princess, and she would not on any account allow the prince who had sent her these gifts to come and visit her.
When the prince heard the reaction of the emperor's daughter to the rose and nightingale, he dirtied his hands and face, and put on dirtied, tattered clothing. He put on a dirty, tattered cap and pulled it down well over his face.
He went and knocked on the palace door and asked for work. He asked for the position of Imperial Swineherd.
Believed to be a peasant, the disguised prince was given the position of Imperial Swineherd. For lodging, he was given a repulsive little room close to the pigsties. Tending the pigs, the whole day long he sat working out in the open where all could see, and by the time evening came he had made a pretty little pot. All around the pot's rim were bells, and when the pot boiled they jingled most beautifully and played the old tune, Where is Augustus dear? Alas! He's not here, here, here!
Do you know this tune? I don't. To be august is to inspire reverence or admiration. It is to be venerable. Maybe that's all we need to know.
The most wonderful thing about the melodious pot was this, that when you held your finger in the steam of the pot, then at once you could smell what dinner was cooking in any fireplace in town.
The princess heard about the melodious pot and went to see it, bringing her ladies-in-waiting with her. Standing at a distance, when she heard the tune it played, her face beamed happily, for she could also play, "Where is Augustus, dear?" It was the only tune she knew how to play, but that she could play with one finger on the harpsichord. "Why, that is what I play!" she said. "He must be a most accomplished swineherd! Go down and ask him for the pot. I must have it. "
One of the ladies-in-waiting put on wooden clogs to protect her feet around the pigsties and went down to ask the swineherd about the pot. "The princess desires you to give her the pot," she said.
"The princess already has more gifts than she could ever need," said the swineherd. "If she wants it, she shall have to buy it."
"All right then," sighed the lady irritably. "Tell me how much the silly pot costs and I'll arrange to have the price paid if it's too much for me to give here and now."
"I will have ten kisses from the princess," answered the swineherd.
"Heaven forbid!" said the lady-in-waiting.
"I will sell it for nothing less," replied the swineherd.
The lady-in-waiting returned to the princess.
"Well?" asked the princess.
"I really hardly like to tell you," answered the lady-in-waiting.
"Then whisper it to me," said the princess.
The lady-in-waiting whispered to the princess what the swineherd would have for the pot. "Oh, even one kiss from me is worth all the silver in this kingdom," the princess exclaimed, aghast. She started to go away, but had only gone a few steps when the bells on the boiling pot rang out, Where is Augustus dear? Alas! He's not here, here, here!
"I must have that pot!" said the princess. "Go and ask him whether he'll take ten kisses from my ladies-in-waiting."
The lady-in-waiting who had originally gone to the swineherd put on her wooden clogs again and went down to the pigsties.
She asked him if he would take the ten kisses from the ladies-in-waiting.
"No," said the swineherd. "Ten kisses from the princess, or else I keep my pot."
When the princess heard this, she was irritated with the swineherd, but as she had decided she could not do without the musical pot she agreed. With her ladies-in-waiting she went to meet the swineherd. "Put yourselves around the swineherd and me so that no one can see me kiss him," she told the ladies-in-waiting, who circled the princess and swineherd, spreading out the voluminous skirts of their rich dresses so no one could see between. "You will have your ten kisses," the princess told the swineherd.
The swineherd got his kisses and the princess went into the palace with the pot.
What a great entertainment the pot was! The princess ordered that the pot be kept boiling all day and all night, so there wasn't a fireplace in the whole town where she and her ladies-in-waiting didn't know what was being cooked. They danced about the pot, clapping their hands in delight. Because of the magical pot, they knew who was going to have soup, and who was going to have pancakes. They knew who would have porridge, and who would have sausages. They thought this was ever so wonderful to be privy to such knowledge. It was a little like spying, and oh what a wonderful game spying was!
"But don't say anything about it to anyone, for I am the emperor's daughter," said the princess.
"Oh, no, of course we won't," said everyone.
The prince, disguised as the swineherd, didn't let a day pass without making something different.
One day he made a peculiar rattle which played all the dance tunes which had ever been known since the world began. The princess, learning about it, of course went to hear it.
"Oh, but that is such fun!" she said when she heard the rattle play. "Go down and ask the swineherd what this instrument costs, but if he wants kisses tell him I have sworn not to kiss him again."
A lady-in-waiting went down in her wooden clogs. When she returned, she told the princess, "Now he wants no less than a hundred kisses from you."
"That is insane!" said the princess. She started to walk away in disgust when she heard the rattle play again.
"One ought to encourage art," the princess said, "and I am the emperor's daughter and so it's really my duty to encourage art as an example to everyone else. Tell the swineherd he shall have ten kisses, and the other ninety from my ladies-in-waiting. Indeed, ten kisses from me would be worth more than all the gold in the kingdom."
"We wouldn't at all like being kissed by him," said the ladies-in-waiting, "even for art."
"Unless he's a good kisser," piped up one.
"Nonsense," the princess told them. "If I can kiss him, you can too. Remember, you are subject to me!"
All the ladies-in-waiting, unhappily anticipating having to kiss the swineherd, went down with the princess to the pigsties.
Well, all of them wore dismal expressions of unhappy anticipation except for the one who wouldn't have minded a few good kisses in exchage for a work of art. And none of them minded at all the princess kissing the swineherd, because they found it great entertainment.
"I don't want any kisses from your ladies-in-waiting," the swineherd said when he was told the plan. "Only from the princess will I have my hundred kisses, or I keep the rattle."
The princess sighed but conceded. "My ladies-in-waiting, surround us again and spread your skirts wide so no one may see," she told the women. So all the ladies-in-waiting again surrounded the pair and the swineherd began to kiss the princess.
The emperor happened to be standing on a balcony from which he could hear the commotion of the ladies-in-waiting tittering and giggling down by the pigsties. "the ladies-in-waiting are playing their games," he said. "I must go down and see what the entertainment is."
So he went down to the pigsties.
The ladies-in-waiting were so busy counting the kisses the princess was giving the swineherd that they never noticed the emperor coming up behind them. "What game are you playing?" he asked standing on tiptoe and looking over their shoulders at the pair. When he saw the princess kissing the swineherd he yelled and threw one of his slippers at the pair just as the swineherd was taking his eighty-sixth kiss.
The princess cried out in surprise and the ladies-in-waiting all gasped as one. Furious, the emperor ordered, "Swineherd, you are not only banished from my palace, but the kingdom. And as for that girl, take her with you if you desire. She's no daughter of mine. No daughter of an emperor stoops so low as to kiss a swineherd."
The emperor stormed away. The ladies-in-waiting poured sympathy upon the princess, not believing the emperor, but then several of them also fled, not wanting to offend the emperor either. The princess wept though she didn't believe the emperor, knowing he was just as capricious as she, and exclaimed to her ladies-in-waiting, "See the price this swineherd's lured me into paying for his creations! Yours is an enchanter's art!" she accused the Swineherd. "Who do you think you are with your ridiculous demands?"
"I am the one who sent you the rose and nightingale," the Swineherd replied. "But your heart is so hard, you failed to smell the sweetness of the rose and because of it you lost your chance for true contentment. You failed to understand how much more precious a real nightingale is than a mechanical bird, when the music of that nightingale would have filled your heart so fully you would never have felt alone again, had you given it permission. And, at last, you are so in love with artifice that you would exchange for toys your kisses which you say are worth more than all the silver and gold in the kingdom."
For all of this, the princess was heard to say, as the Swineherd departed, "But they were such marvelous toys."
And they were marvelous toys, too. But not so marvelous as the rose-tree and the nightingale. And the rose-tree and nightingale, marvelous though they might have been, are not as marvelous as you.
Retelling by j. m. Kearns based on the original by Hans Christian Andersen.
© Copyright 1999 j m Kearns