Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont is best known to English readers for her compact retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” which, with a few small edits from Andrew Lang, became the best known version of that tale, and more recently, the basis for a film that brought in more than one billion dollars at the box office even though Angela Lansbury failed to appear in it.
But Madame de Beaumont—frequently desperate for cash—did not content herself with writing just one fairy tale. She wrote seventy books, including Le Magasin des Enfants (1756), a collection of didactic fairy tales aimed at older children. In “Beauty and the Beast,” she stressed the need for girls to distinguish between appearances and reality. In another tale in the collection, “Prince Desire and Princess Mignone,” she took another look at this theme—this time, warning against the dangers of flattery and self-deception.
It all starts with an attempt to harm a cat.
No, really. As the story starts, a king has fallen in love with a beautiful princess, as fairy tale kings do when they are not sending out their sons on impossible magical quests or imprisoning their daughters in towers. Only one problem: the princess is under a spell, and can only be released if someone steps on the tail of her cat.
I am sorry to say that the king leaps to this challenge. I can only assume that he (a) dislikes cats, and (b) doesn’t know all that much about cats. The cat, like any proper cat, is not at all thrilled by the idea of a mere human stepping on his tail, and easily evades the king for a week. That is, until finally the king manages to find the cat asleep. And he doesn’t just step on the cat’s tail, he STOMPS on it.
The cat, naturally, is beyond furious about this. A little less naturally, the cat—who turns out to be an evil sorcerer in disguise, and let me just say, I approve of his choice to spend his life focusing on cat naps and tuna instead of evil magic, not to mention his choice to force the enchanted princess to adopt him instead of marrying him—decides to curse not the king, but the king’s son. I may have to rethink my previous kind thoughts about this cat sorcerer. After all, the king’s son hasn’t stepped on any cat tails. Yet. In any case, the cat sorcerer announces that the king’s son will never be happy until he finds out that his nose is too long, and if the king even mentions this, well. The king will die.
I’m even more sorry to say that the king’s response to this is to laugh. King! This guy isn’t just an evil sorcerer. He’s a DIGNIFIED CAT WHOSE TAIL YOU STOMPED ON. SHOW SOME RESPECT. On the other hand, it’s probably safe to assume that as a fairy tale king, this guy has heard much more dire threats in his time: “Your kid will have a long nose” is a lot less dire than, say, “your daughter will die after touching a spinning wheel.”
In due course, the king and his new wife have a son, Prince Desir. (The story does not tell us if they also have a cat. I like to think that they had a few arguments about this, and the annoyed sorcerer just sent another cat, who, being a cat, decided to stay whether or not they wanted him. But I digress.) The son, as cursed, has an enormous, enormous nose. Given that the curse specifically states that the kid will be unhappy until he finds out that his nose is too long, you would think that both parents would go to extreme efforts to let the kid know this as early as possible. Say when he’s three. Then again, the king can’t tell anyone about the curse, and the queen has decided to listen to comforting courtiers, who assure her that her son’s nose isn’t overly long, it’s just Roman.
And soon, this becomes the approach of the entire court: to lie to the Queen and her son. Only long nosed people are allowed anywhere near Desir. He is told dreadful tales about people with short noses, and assured that all great leaders and beautiful princesses had long, long noses. The various courtiers go to great lengths to lengthen their own noses, and his room is filled with pictures of long nosed people. Desir grows up believing that his giant nose is a mark of beauty and distinction.
This is all very kind and reassuring, no doubt, and at least ensures that Desir won’t grow up with major self-confidence issues—kinda big for a potential king. But at the same time, it also means that Desir grows up believing a complete lie—and also grows up with no awareness of how those outside the court might view him or mock him.
Which becomes an immediate problem when Desir falls in love with the portrait of a beautiful princess—a princess with a little upturned nose. A nose that Desir’s courtiers, now trained for twenty years to mock, quite understandably do mock—only to find themselves banished from the court as a result. Another courtier hastily adds that noses are completely different for women, plus, Cleopatra apparently had a tip tilted nose; this nice bit of wisdom and fake history gains him a nice monetary award.
Meanwhile, Desir heads off to meet the princess, who is immediately captured by the sorcerer, apparently still sore about the whole cat tail thing. (I feel certain that all of my readers who have been honored with the friendship of cats, or failing that, honored with the presence of cats who have graciously agreed to adorn their homes, can understand this.) Off Desir heads to find her, only to run into an elderly fairy who laughs at his nose. He laughs at hers. They have a long and increasingly tense conversation about noses before Desir stalks off, wondering why everyone keeps bringing up his nose.
The fairy, deciding that it’s about time to get to the end of the story, captures Princess Mignone, and places her into a crystal palace—where Desir can see her, but not kiss her, because, well, the nose. And with that truth finally admitted, his nose shrinks down to normal size, he and the princess live happily ever after, and Beaumont has just enough time to sneak in a nice moral about how self-love can keep us from seeing important truths about ourselves.
Which—ok, as said, nice moral, but in this case, Desir seems to be suffering not so much from misguided self-love, as brainwashing. He’s been trained to think that his large nose is delightful. His problem is not so much failing to see his own flaw, but in being unable to break out of years of conditioning. And his real problem is that so many courtiers were so desperate to flatter him that they created an alternative reality based on falsehoods.
Which makes this a story not just about self-deception, but about the evils of flattery—and the dangers of listening to only one viewpoint.
Andrew Lang included the tale in The Blue Fairy Book (1889), thus including it with the famous tales of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss-in-Boots, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and, Beauty and the Beast. As he had with Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Lang made a few changes to the tale. Prince Desir, for instance, became the more child friendly Prince Hyacinth, and Princess Mignone became the Dear Little Princess, which—ok, it’s a fair enough translation, but it still feels like leaving her without a name. The moral at the end of the story was tucked into the fairy’s final speech, making it feel a little less like a tacked on moral and a little more like part of the tale. For the most part, however, Lang stayed close to the original version, making fewer changes than he had to “Beauty and the Beast”—perhaps out of admiration for the original. And as if to emphasize its importance, Lang placed the tale second in the collection—before such tales as “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”
And yet, for whatever reason, “Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess” never seemed to enter the public consciousness in the same way as these other tales. Children and parents not liking the idea that stepping on a cat could remove a spell? The lack of danger in the rest of the tale? Its focus on gentle sarcasm, instead of magic? Or its illustration of how easy it can be for children, and even clever adults, to believe in constructed realities and lies? How easy it to make someone believe something objectively untrue—and how difficult it can be to break free from those beliefs, even when encountering other opinions?
I don’t know. I only know that as an illustration of the power and dangers of conditioning and propaganda, “Prince Desir/Prince Hyacinth and Princess Mignone/the Dear Little Princess,” if lacking some of the terror and trauma of other, better known fairy tales, still resonates today.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.