Annotated Fairy Tale: The Deer Prince

We could probably all use a laugh today, and hopefully y’all aren’t sick of these yet…

Big thanks to reader Persephone_Kore for sending a link to this one (and a couple others I still need to check out, too!)

This one is short and sweet, and has a nice twist on some of the standard themes. It’s apparently from something called “The Danish Fairy Book.”


The Deer Prince

THERE was once a widower and a widow, who married each other. Now each of them had a daughter; but the daughter of the widower was lovely to look on, while the daughter of the widow was very homely. And the wife was jealous of her husband’s daughter because she was so much fairer than her own. Early and late her thoughts turned on how she might harm her, and she treated her very harshly.

Now her husband was away from home nearly every day, from morning till evening, and since he was never at home he did not notice how his daughter was treated.

Wicked stepmother, check. Ugly stepsister, check. Oblivious father, check.

One evening, after the door was locked and all had gone to bed, there was a knock at the door. The woman told her daughter to go and open the door, and see who was outside. This the daughter had no mind to do, but the woman insisted, and then the husband’s daughter offered to go to the door; but this did not suit the woman at all, and she insisted that her daughter go. So the girl went and drew the bolt, and there at the door stood a great antlered deer, or something of the sort.

I begin to suspect that the storyteller is not taking this entirely seriously. “It was a giant deer, or something. Might’ve been a dragon. Or a chicken. No, probably a deer. Something like that, anyway. I might remember specifics if someone gave me a beer.”

She picked up a broomstick and was about to beat the animal, but it at once disappeared. Then she went in again and told her mother what it had been. At night of the following day, after the door had been bolted, there was another knock, and this time the woman’s daughter did not dare to go down and draw the bolt, so the husband’s daughter had to do it. When she had unbolted the door she saw the deer standing outside, and she said to him: “Where do you come from, you poor fellow?”

“Little girl, mount on my back!”

Nothing sketchy about this, no sir!

No, that she would not do, said the girl, for it would be a shame, since the poor fellow had enough to do to carry himself. Well, she could not go along with him in any other way, replied the deer. So she climbed on his back, since she did not want to stay at home, and he ran off with her.

…walking next to him was right out?

They came to a meadow, and the deer said to her: “How would it be for us to enjoy this pretty spot together some time?” But the girl could not imagine how that could possibly come to pass or what it would be like.

I smell a euphemism!

Then they reached a wood, and here, too, the deer said, “How would it be for us to take a pleasant walk together in this beautiful wood some time?” But she could not imagine such a thing.

Two! Two euphemisms! Seriously, imagining a walk in the woods is very easy unless you’re imagining a “walk” in the “woods” with a “giant antlered deer or something of the sort” if you catch my drift. (Feel free to add nudges and winks as appropriate.)

At last they came to an enormous castle. The deer led her into it, and told her that she was to live there all alone; but that her every wish would be granted, and she could make her own plans for passing the time in whatever way she preferred. He would return to visit her before long. Yet there was one place in the castle which she must avoid: a place where there were three doors, one of wood, one of copper and one of iron. Under no consideration was she to unlock them but he thought to himself, that at the very first chance she would be quite certain to do what he had forbidden.

Oh my god, I love this deer. Seriously, in the history of fairy tales, how did it take until a Danish megaceros to understand human nature?

So she killed time all that day, quite alone as she was, until nightfall, and the following morning she began to look around. And she felt a great desire to open the iron door, and could not resist it and opened it.

I am shocked. Simply shocked.

There stood two men who were stirring a kettle of tar with bare hands and arms. She asked them why they were stirring with bare hands and arms, and they replied that they had no choice, but must do so until a Christian soul gave them something else with which to stir their tar. So the girl took a hatchet, chopped out a couple of flat wooden paddles, and gave them to the men to stir with.

The day passed, and night came, and the following morning she heard a great noise in the courtyard of the castle. Men were running about everywhere, grooms feeding the horses, and servants polishing the silver, all of them very busy, and they filled the entire courtyard And now she felt a desire to open the second door, and so she opened it. There stood two girls who were raking a glowing fire with their bare hands. She asked them why they raked the fire with their bare hands. The girls replied that they had no choice, until some Christian soul gave them something with which they could rake. Then the maiden gave them a pole, and the girls thanked her most gratefully.

On the following morning the castle was full of girls, sweeping and washing and polishing everything.

Waaaaait a minute….this is an entirely logical progression and outcome! And a grasp of human nature! And…well, there were the euphemisms. Still! How do you expect to say anything significant about the human condition if you are logical and understand how people think?

So that day passed; but she could not help herself, she had to open the remaining door, the wooden one. And there lay the deer on a pile of straw, and she asked him why he lay there. He said he had to lie there until some Christian soul took pity on him, and wiped the mud from his back. She took a handful of straw and wiped off the mud. And as she was doing it, he was changed into as handsome a prince as one would wish to see.

Well played, enchanted deer. Well played, indeed.

He explained to her that he and the whole castle had been enchanted; but that now all was well and they would celebrate their wedding. And a fine wedding it was, lasting several days.

Before we go any farther, I would like to take a minute to speculate on what might have happened if this girl had a little more imagination. I mean, the deer talks, so I’m not entirely sure if it’s bestiality at that point, or just…err…xenophilia. And he apparently propositioned her twice in the woods (leaving aside the “mount on my back, little girl” bit, ahem ahem.)

Is this the standard fairy tale wait-for-door-number-three thing? If she’d had a freaky talking deer fetish, would he have brought her home and married her? Would he have gone “Goddamnit, she’ll like me better as a deer, so we’re having none of that!” Did he not want to buy the cow when the euphemisms were free?

Hell, maybe he liked being a deer, and was checking to see if she was into it before deciding that reverting to human was the only option.

This just strikes me as a peculiar sequence of events, as if he went “Basic human curiosity about doors, not a problem. But if she loves me for my mind, I’m outta here.”

Now when some time had passed, the prince asked his wife whether she would not like to invite her stepmother and stepsister to visit her. She said she would like to do so very much.

Wait, what? Why? Are you crazy? Those people were horrible to you!

…unless this is one of those “By the way, I married an enchanted prince and check out my bitchin’ castle” visit, in which case you are probably allowed a certain degree of gloating, although given that it’s a fairy tale, I don’t necessarily recommend it.

So the prince told her, that when they came, he himself would not be with them at first, but that when she offered them wine, she was to spill a drop on her shoe. Then he would appear and dry it for her. And she must take care not to give her stepmother any one thing or three different things, but only a quantity of something, such as corn.

Okay, I retract my previous objections. This is the sort of stuff that screams “Element that might have made sense when first added but five generations later is completely nonsensical.”

So when the stepmother and stepsister arrived, the princess for of course she was a princess now—

Marrying into royalty turns one into a paragon of virtue. Well-known fact.

—was very kind to them. And when she poured the wine for them, she let fall a drop on her golden shoe, and that very moment the prince appeared and dried the spot with his handkerchief; and if the others had not already had eyes and mouth wide open, you may be sure they had when they saw the prince come in.

Then they went out into the garden, and the stepmother insisted on having an apple, though the princess would give her none. The stepmother, however, kept on insisting that she must have some apples, even though she had no more than three. But no, the princess merely said that when the apples were ripe her stepmother could have any number of them. Thereupon the stepmother grew furiously angry—

I will bet you a nickel that there was something that used to go here–maybe something like the “Spit in the sheath of my knife” thing from the one Russian Cinderella story—where some cultural element fit here and this made a lot more sense. Perhaps giving single items laid one open to witchcraft in some fashion, whereas giving a bushel basket didn’t.

If that WAS it (and without a Danish folklorist in the audience, I’m not sure if we’ll ever know) then boy, clever way to ward off the stingies, huh? “Sorry, you have to give me at least four or the Evil Eye gets you. Hey, I don’t make the rules.”

—and as she went off with her daughter, she was filled with envy to think that such good fortune had not come the latter’s way. And she could not resist telling her it was her own fault.

The daughter gave a saucy answer, and as usually happens, one word leading to another, they were soon quarreling violently, and in the end both of them burst into pebbles. And that is the reason that there are so many pebbles underfoot.

Okay, that is a far better closer than “Happily Ever After.” I don’t know if you could work it into a modern fantasy novel, but that’s pretty marvelous nonetheless.

6 thoughts on “Annotated Fairy Tale: The Deer Prince

  1. raff says:

    That ending. lol.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d call that a troll ending.


  2. tanita says:

    “Donna! You and Elena stop that bickering! We had to rake you up for DAYS last time!”

    Would that the quarrelsome burst into pebbles these days. That would have such high entertainment value.

  3. J_Hodgie says:

    That ending caught me off guard, I quite like it. “Now stop quarreling, or you’ll end up part of the driveway”.

    Also, I don’t think you should ever stop doing these.

  4. Ellynne says:

    I have to give this one credit for breaking all the fairy tale rules.

    Magical being shows up, makes a request of evil stepsister, evil stepsister refuses and . . . that’s it. No toads dropping out of her mouth. No doves pecking out her eyes. Just a polite acceptance that no means no and she has the right to say it (which almost makes up for the fact that his request for a girl to go off with him sets off my serial killer alert system, even if it turns out to be wrong this time.

    Comes back, good sister goes off with him, they reach the enchanted castle, where she can have anything she wants but is told not to break one rule. Of course, as in all fairy tales, that rule is bound to get broken. . . .

    . . . . Uh, which is just what the dear was counting on. Instead of getting carted off to the Castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon or someplace like that, he get freed from his curse and they get married.

    Can I say how impressed I am? Fairy tales are full of characters who either give some prohibition that they can’t explain that gets broken or they can’t state at all what the protagonist can’t do/needs to do and then get all bent out of shape when it gets done/doesn’t happen. This deer analyzed the problem. He probably was magically forbidden to tell the heroine how to break the spell. So, he analyzed what he knew about human nature, and told her not to do the one thing that would break the curse (I don’t know if answering her question about what she could do for him was another clever request that skirted around what he couldn’t say or if he could answer if she asked him directly).

    Has anyone ever done this in all of fairy tale history?

    Then, he tells her what to do and not to do when her stepfamily comes. Anyone who’s read Cupid and Psyche or a few dozen other stories knows how badly this ends. Except it doesn’t.

    This is a fairy tale that could be summed up as, “Once upon a time, there was a bunch of people who behaved quite sensibly, didn’t do anything stupid, evaluated their problems, found a sensible way of dealing with them, and lived happily ever after without any silly melodrama like hiking around the world till they’d worn out three pairs of iron shoes, the end.”

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