: The Grey Fairy Book
There was once upon a time a king who was so much beloved by his
subjects that he thought himself the happiest monarch in the
whole world, and he had everything his heart could desire. His
palace was filled with the rarest of curiosities, and his gardens
with the sweetest flowers, while in the marble stalls of his
stables stood a row of milk-white Arabs, with big brown eyes.
Strangers who had heard of the
marvels which the king had
collected, and made long journeys to see them, were, however,
surprised to find the most splendid stall of all occupied by a
donkey, with particularly large and drooping ears. It was a very
fine donkey; but still, as far as they could tell, nothing so
very remarkable as to account for the care with which it was
lodged; and they went away wondering, for they could not know
that every night, when it was asleep, bushels of gold pieces
tumbled out of its ears, which were picked up each morning by the
After many years of prosperity a sudden blow fell upon the king
in the death of his wife, whom he loved dearly. But before she
died, the queen, who had always thought first of his happiness,
gathered all her strength, and said to him:
‘Promise me one thing: you must marry again, I know, for the good
of your people, as well as of yourself. But do not set about it
in a hurry. Wait until you have found a woman more beautiful and
better formed than myself.'
‘Oh, do not speak to me of marrying,' sobbed the king; ‘rather
let me die with you!' But the queen only smiled faintly, and
turned over on her pillow and died.
For some months the king's grief was great; then gradually he
began to forget a little, and, besides, his counsellors were
always urging him to seek another wife. At first he refused to
listen to them, but by-and-by he allowed himself to be persuaded
to think of it, only stipulating that the bride should be more
beautiful and attractive than the late queen, according to the
promise he had made her.
Overjoyed at having obtained what they wanted, the counsellors
sent envoys far and wide to get portraits of all the most famous
beauties of every country. The artists were very busy and did
their best, but, alas! nobody could even pretend that any of the
ladies could compare for a moment with the late queen.
At length, one day, when he had turned away discouraged from a
fresh collection of pictures, the king's eyes fell on his adopted
daughter, who had lived in the palace since she was a baby, and
he saw that, if a woman existed on the whole earth more lovely
than the queen, this was she! He at once made known what his
wishes were, but the young girl, who was not at all ambitious,
and had not the faintest desire to marry him, was filled with
dismay, and begged for time to think about it. That night, when
everyone was asleep, she started in a little car drawn by a big
sheep, and went to consult her fairy godmother.
‘I know what you have come to tell me,' said the fairy, when the
maiden stepped out of the car; ‘and if you don't wish to marry
him, I will show you how to avoid it. Ask him to give you a dress
that exactly matches the sky. It will be impossible for him to
get one, so you will be quite safe.' The girl thanked the fairy
and returned home again.
The next morning, when her father (as she had always called him)
came to see her, she told him that she could give him no answer
until he had presented her with a dress the colour of the sky.
The king, overjoyed at this answer, sent for all the choicest
weavers and dressmakers in the kingdom, and commanded them to
make a robe the colour of the sky without an instant's delay, or
he would cut off their heads at once. Dreadfully frightened at
this threat, they all began to dye and cut and sew, and in two
days they brought back the dress, which looked as if it had been
cut straight out of the heavens! The poor girl was thunderstruck,
and did not know what to do; so in the night she harnessed her
sheep again, and went in search of her godmother.
‘The king is cleverer than I thought,' said the fairy; ‘but tell
him you must have a dress of moonbeams.'
And the next day, when the king summoned her into his presence,
the girl told him what she wanted.
‘Madam, I can refuse you nothing,' said he; and he ordered the
dress to be ready in twenty-four hours, or every man should be
They set to work with all their might, and by dawn next day, the
dress of moonbeams was laid across her bed. The girl, though she
could not help admiring its beauty, began to cry, till the fairy,
who heard her, came to her help.
‘Well, I could not have believed it of him!' said she; ‘but ask
for a dress of sunshine, and I shall be surprised indeed if he
manages that! ‘
The goddaughter did not feel much faith in the fairy after her
two previous failures; but not knowing what else to do, she told
her father what she was bid.
The king made no difficulties about it, and even gave his finest
rubies and diamonds to ornament the dress, which was so dazzling,
when finished, that it could not be looked at save through smoked
When the princess saw it, she pretended that the sight hurt her
eyes, and retired to her room, where she found the fairy awaiting
her, very much ashamed of herself.
‘There is only one thing to be done now,' cried she; ‘you must
demand the skin of the ass he sets such store by. It is from that
donkey he obtains all his vast riches, and I am sure he will
never give it to you.'
The princess was not so certain; however, she went to the king,
and told him she could never marry him till he had given her the
The king was both astonished and grieved at this new request, but
did not hesitate an instant. The ass was sacrificed, and the skin
laid at the feet of the princess.
The poor girl, seeing no escape from the fate she dreaded, wept
afresh, and tore her hair; when, suddenly, the fairy stood before
‘Take heart,' she said, ‘ all will now go well! Wrap yourself in
this skin, and leave the palace and go as far as you can. I will
look after you. Your dresses and your jewels shall follow you
underground, and if you strike the earth whenever you need
anything, you will have it at once. But go quickly: you have no
time to lose.'
So the princess clothed herself in the ass's skin, and slipped
from the palace without being seen by anyone.
Directly she was missed there was a great hue and cry, and every
corner, possible and impossible, was searched. Then the king sent
out parties along all the roads, but the fairy threw her
invisible mantle over the girl when they approached, and none of
them could see her.
The princess walked on a long, long way, trying to find some one
who would take her in, and let her work for them; but though the
cottagers, whose houses she passed, gave her food from charity,
the ass's skin was so dirty they would not allow her to enter
their houses. For her flight had been so hurried she had had no
time to clean it.
Tired and disheartened at her ill-fortune, she was wandering, one
day, past the gate of a farmyard, situated just outside the walls
of a large town, when she heard a voice calling to her. She
turned and saw the farmer's wife standing among her turkeys, and
making signs to her to come in.
‘I want a girl to wash the dishes and feed the turkeys, and clean
out the pig-sty,' said the w omen, ‘and, to judge by your dirty
clothes, you would not be too fine for the work.'
The girl accepted her offer with joy, and she was at once set to
work in a corner of the kitchen, where all the farm servants came
and made fun of her, and the ass's skin in which she was wrapped.
But by-and-by they got so used to the sight of it that it ceased
to amuse them, and she worked so hard and so well, that her
mistress grew quite fond of her. And she was so clever at keeping
sheep and herding turkeys that you would have thought she had
done nothing else during her whole life!
One day she was sitting on the banks of a stream bewailing her
wretched lot, when she suddenly caught sight of herself in the
water. Her hair and part of her face was quite concealed by the
ass's head, which was drawn right over like a hood, and the
filthy matted skin covered her whole body. It was the first time
she had seen herself as other people saw her, and she was filled
with shame at the spectacle. Then she threw off her disguise and
jumped into the water, plunging in again and again, till she
shone like ivory. When it was time to go back to the farm, she
was forced to put on the skin which disguised her, and now seemed
more dirty than ever; but, as she did so, she comforted herself
with the thought that to-morrow was a holiday, and that she would
be able for a few hours to forget that she was a farm girl, and
be a princess once more.
So, at break of day, she stamped on the ground, as the fairy had
told her, and instantly the dress like the sky lay across her
tiny bed. Her room was so small that there was no place for the
train of her dress to spread itself out, but she pinned it up
carefully when she combed her beautiful hair and piled it up on
the top of her head, as she had always worn it. When she had
done, she was so pleased with herself that she determined never
to let a chance pass of putting on her splendid clothes, even if
she had to wear them in the fields, with no one to admire her but
the sheep and turkeys.
Now the farm was a royal farm, and, one holiday, when ‘Donkey
Skin' (as they had nicknamed the princess) had locked the door of
her room and clothed herself in her dress of sunshine, the king's
son rode through the gate, and asked if he might come and rest
himself a little after hunting. Some food and milk were set
before him in the garden, and when he felt rested he got up, and
began to explore the house, which was famous throughout the whole
kingdom for its age and beauty. He opened one door after the
other, admiring the old rooms, when he came to a handle that
would not turn. He stooped and peeped through the keyhole to see
what was inside, and was greatly astonished at beholding a
beautiful girl, clad in a dress so dazzling that he could hardly
look at it.
The dark gallery seemed darker than ever as he turned away, but
he went back to the kitchen and inquired who slept in the room at
the end of the passage. The scullery maid, they told him, whom
everybody laughed at, and called ‘ Donkey Skin;' and though he
perceived there was some strange mystery about this, he saw quite
clearly there was nothing to be gained by asking any more
questions. So he rode back to the palace, his head filled with
the vision he had seen through the keyhole.
All night long he tossed about, and awoke the next morning in a
high fever. The queen, who had no other child, and lived in a
state of perpetual anxiety about this one, at once gave him up
for lost, and indeed his sudden illness puzzled the greatest
doctors, who tried the usual remedies in vain. At last they told
the queen that some secret sorrow must be at the bottom of all
this, and she threw herself on her knees beside her son's bed,
and implored him to confide his trouble to her. If it was
ambition to be king, his father would gladly resign the cares of
the crown, and suffer him to reign in his stead; or, if it was
love, everything should be sacrificed to get for him the wife he
desired, even if she were daughter of a king with whom the
country was at war at present!
‘Madam,' replied the prince, whose weakness would hardly allow
him to speak, ‘do not think me so unnatural as to wish to deprive
my father of his crown. As long as he lives I shall remain the
most faithful of his subjects! And as to the princesses you speak
of, I have seen none that I should care for as a wife, though I
would always obey your wishes, whatever it might cost me.'
‘Ah! my son,' cried she, ‘we will do anything in the world to
save your life ----and ours too, for if you die, we shall die
‘Well, then,' replied the prince, ‘I will tell you the only thing
that will cure me ---a cake made by the hand of "Donkey Skin." ‘
‘Donkey Skin?' exclaimed the queen, who thought her son had gone
mad; ‘and who or what is that?'
‘Madam,' answered one of the attendants present, who had been
with the prince at the farm, "'Donkey Skin" is, next to the wolf,
the most disgusting creature on the face of the earth. She is a
girl who wears a black, greasy skin, and lives at your farmer's
‘Never mind,' said the queen; ‘my son seems to have eaten some of
her pastry. It is the whim of a sick man, no doubt; but send at
once and let her bake a cake.'
The attendant bowed and ordered a page to ride with the message.
Now it is by no means certain that ‘Donkey Skin' had not caught a
glimpse of the prince, either when his eyes looked through the
keyhole, or else from her little window, which was over the road.
But whether she had actually seen him or only heard him spoken
of, directly she received the queen's command, she flung off the
dirty skin, washed herself from head to foot, and put on a skirt
and bodice of shining silver. Then, locking herself into her
room, she took the richest cream, the finest flour, and the
freshest eggs on the farm, and set about making her cake.
As she was stirring the mixture in the saucepan a ring that she
sometimes wore in secret slipped from her finger and fell into
the dough. Perhaps ‘Donkey Skin' saw it, or perhaps she did not;
but, any way, she went on stirring, and soon the cake was ready
to be put in the oven. When it was nice and brown she took off
her dress and put on her dirty skin, and gave the cake to the
page, asking at the same time for news of the prince. But the
page turned his head aside, and would not even condescend to
The page rode like the wind, and as soon as he arrived at the
palace he snatched up a silver tray and hastened to present the
cake to the prince. The sick man began to eat it so fast that the
doctors thought he would choke; and, indeed, he very nearly did,
for the ring was in one of the bits which he broke off, though he
managed to extract it from his mouth without anyone seeing him.
The moment the prince was left alone he drew the ring from under
his pillow and kissed it a thousand times. Then he set his mind
to find how he was to see the owner---for even he did not dare to
confess that he had only beheld ‘Donkey Skin' through a keyhole,
lest they should laugh at this sudden passion. All this worry
brought back the fever, which the arrival of the cake had
diminished for the time; and the doctors, not knowing what else
to say, informed the queen that her son was simply dying of love.
The queen, stricken with horror, rushed into the king's presence
with the news, and together they hastened to their son's bedside.
‘My boy, my dear boy!' cried the king, ‘who is it you want to
marry? We will give her to you for a bride; even if she is the
humblest of our slaves. What is there in the whole world that we
would not do for you?'
The prince, moved to tears at these words, drew the ring, which
was an emerald of the purest water, from under his pillow.
‘Ah, dear father and mother, let this be a proof that she whom I
love is no peasant girl. The finger which that ring fits has
never been thickened by hard work. But be her condition what it
may, I will marry no other.'
The king and queen examined the tiny ring very closely, and
agreed, with their son, that the wearer could be no mere farm
girl. Then the king went out and ordered heralds and trumpeters
to go through the town, summoning every maiden to the palace. And
she whom the ring fitted would some day be queen.
First came all the princesses, then all the duchesses' daughters,
and so on, in proper order. But not one of them could slip the
ring over the tip of her finger, to the great joy of the prince,
whom excitement was fast curing. At last, when the high-born
damsels had failed, the shopgirls and chambermaids took their
turn; but with no better fortune.
‘Call in the scullions and shepherdesses,' commanded the prince;
but the sight of their fat, red fingers satisfied everybody.
‘There is not a woman left, your Highness,' said the chamberlain;
but the prince waved him aside.
‘Have you sent for "Donkey Skin," who made me the cake?' asked
he, and the courtiers began to laugh, and replied that they would
not have dared to introduce so dirty a creature into the palace.
‘Let some one go for her at once,' ordered the king. ‘ I
commanded the presence of every maiden, high or low, and I meant
The princess had heard the trumpets and the proclamations, and
knew quite well that her ring was at the bottom of it all. She,
too, had fallen in love with the prince in the brief glimpse she
had had of him, and trembled with fear lest someone else's finger
might be as small as her own. When, therefore, the messenger from
the palace rode up to the gate, she was nearly beside herself
with delight. Hoping all the time for such a summons, she had
dressed herself with great care, putting on the garment of
moonlight, whose skirt was scattered over with emeralds. But when
they began calling to her to come down, she hastily covered
herself with her donkey-skin and announced she was ready to
present herself before his Highness. She was taken straight into
the hall, where the prince was awaiting her, but at the sight of
the donkey-skin his heart sank. Had he been mistaken after all?
‘Are you the girl,' he said, turning his eyes away as he spoke,
‘are you the girl who has a room in the furthest corner of the
inner court of the farmhouse?'
‘Yes, my lord, I am,' answered she.
‘Hold out your hand then,' continued the prince, feeling that he
must keep his word, whatever the cost, and, to the astonishment
of every one present, a little hand, white and delicate, came
from beneath the black and dirty skin. The ring slipped on with
the utmost ease, and, as it did so, the skin fell to the ground,
disclosing a figure of such beauty that the prince, weak as he
was, fell on his knees before her, while the king and queen
joined their prayers to his. Indeed, their welcome was so warm,
and their caresses so bewildering, that the princess hardly knew
how to find words to reply, when the ceiling of the hall opened,
and the fairy godmother appeared, seated in a car made entirely
of white lilac. In a few words she explained the history of the
princess, and how she came to be there, and, without losing a
moment, preparations of the most magnificent kind were made for
The kings of every country in the earth were invited, including,
of course, the princess's adopted father (who by this time had
married a widow), and not one refused.
But what a strange assembly it was! Each monarch travelled in the
way he thought most impressive; and some came borne in litters,
others had carriages of every shape and kind, while the rest were
mounted on elephants, tigers, and even upon eagles. So splendid a
wedding had never been seen before; and when it was over the king
announced that it was to be followed by a coronation, for he and
the queen were tired of reigning, and the young couple must take
their place. The rejoicings lasted for three whole months, then
the new sovereigns settled down to govern their kingdom, and made
themselves so much beloved by their subjects, that when they
died, a hundred years later, each man mourned them as his own
father and mother.