Once upon a time there was a King, so great, so beloved by his people, and so respected by all his neighbours and allies that one might almost say he was the happiest monarch alive. His good fortune was made even greater by the choice he had made for wife of a Princess as beautiful as she was virtuous, with whom he lived in perfect happiness. Now, of this chaste marriage was born a daughter endowed with so many gifts that they had no regret because other children were not given to them.
Magnificence, good taste, and abundance reigned in the palace; there were wise and clever ministers, virtuous and devoted courtiers, faithful and diligent servants. The spacious stables were filled with the most beautiful horses in the world, and coverts of rich caparison; but what most astonished strangers who came to admire them was to see, in the finest stall, a master donkey, with great long ears.
Now, it was not for a whim but for a good reason that the King had given this donkey a particular and distinguished place. The special qualities of this rare animal deserved the distinction, since nature had made it in so extraordinary a way that its litter, instead of being like that of other donkeys, was covered every morning with an abundance of beautiful golden crowns, and golden louis of every kind, which were collected daily.
Since the vicissitudes of life wait on Kings as much as on their subjects, and good is always mingled with ill, it so befell that the Queen was suddenly attacked by a fatal illness, and, in spite of science, and the skill of the doctors, no remedy could be found. There was great mourning throughout the land. The King who, notwithstanding the famous proverb, that marriage is the tomb of love, was deeply attached to his wife, was distressed beyond measure and made fervent vows to all the temples in his kingdom, and offered to give his life for that of his beloved consort; but he invoked the gods and the Fairies in vain. The Queen, feeling her last hour approach, said to her husband, who was dissolved in tears: “It is well that I should speak to you of a certain matter before I die: if, perchance, you should desire to marry again…” At these words the King broke into piteous cries, took his wife’s hands in his own, and assured her that it was useless to speak to him of a second marriage.
“No, my dear spouse,” he said at last, “speak to me rather of how I may follow you.”
“The State,” continued the Queen with a finality which but increased the laments of the King, “the State demands successors, and since I have only given you a daughter, it will urge you to beget sons who resemble you; but I ask you earnestly not to give way to the persuasions of your people until you have found a Princess more beautiful and more perfectly fashioned than I. I beg you to swear this to me, and then I shall die content.”
Perchance, the Queen, who did not lack self-esteem, exacted this oath firmly believing that there was not her equal in the world, and so felt assured that the King would never marry again. Be this as it may, at length she died, and never did husband make so much lamentation; the King wept and sobbed day and night, and the punctilious fulfilment of the rites of widower-hood, even the smallest, was his sole occupation.
But even great griefs do not last for ever. After a time the magnates of the State assembled and came to the King, urging him to take another wife. At first this request seemed hard to him and made him shed fresh tears. He pleaded the vows he had made to the Queen, and defied his counsellors to find a Princess more beautiful and better fashioned than was she, thinking this to be impossible. But the Council treated the promise as a trifle, and said that it mattered little about beauty if the Queen were but virtuous and fruitful. For the State needed Princes for its peace and prosperity, and though, in truth, the Princess, his daughter, had all the qualities requisite for making a great Queen, yet of necessity she must choose an alien for her husband, and then the stranger would take her away with him. If, on the other hand, he remained in her country and shared the throne with her, their children would not be considered to be of pure native stock, and so, there being no Prince of his name, neighbouring peoples would stir up wars, and the kingdom would be ruined.
The King, impressed by these considerations, promised that he would think over the matter. And so search was made among all the marriageable Princesses for one that would suit him. Every day charming portraits were brought him, but none gave promise of the beauty of his late Queen; instead of coming to a decision he brooded over his sorrow until in the end his reason left him. In his delusions he imagined himself once more a young man; he thought the Princess his daughter, in her youth and beauty, was his Queen as he had known her in the days of their courtship, and living thus in the past he urged the unhappy girl to speedily become his bride.
From The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, by Charles Perrault (London: Harrap, 1922).