Laurence Housman (1865-1959) led a creative life as prolific and varied as Sabine Baring-Gould. An artist and writer, Housman penned fantasy, drama, poetry and—for our current consideration—fairy tales. As with the talented Benson family, the Housman clan produced artistic siblings. A. E. Housman (1859-1936) was a respected scholar and poet, known for A Shropshire Lad. Their sister, Clemence Housman (1861-1955) was also an author, but is best remembered as an illustrator.
“The Crown’s Warranty” comes from The Field of Clover (1898), a collection of original fairy tales written by Laurence and illustrated by Clemence. As with the best of the genre, the tale presents not only an entertaining narrative for the wonder-filled child, but offers a profound subtext for the world-weary adult. Here, we encounter a fantastic, but dangerous place, where a series of theological truths open before the reader like budding flowers.
A Fairy Tale
Five hundred years ago or more, a king died, leaving two sons: one was the child of his first wife, and the other of his second, who surviving him became his widow. When the king was dying he took off the royal crown which he wore, and set it upon the head of the elder born, the son of his first wife, and said to him: “God is the lord of the air, and of the water, and of the dry land: this gift cometh to thee from God. Be merciful, over whatsoever thou holdest power, as God is!” And saying these words he laid his hands upon the heads of his two sons and died.
Now this crown was no ordinary crown, for it was made of the gold brought by the Wise Men of the East when they came to worship at Bethlehem. Every king that had worn it since then had reigned well and uprightly, and had been loved by all his people; but only to himself was it known what virtue lay in his crown; and every king at dying gave it to his son with the same words of blessing.
So, now, the king’s eldest son wore the crown; and his step-mother knew that her own son could not wear it while he lived, therefore she looked on and said nothing. Now he was known to all the people of his country, because of his right to the throne, as the king’s son; and his brother, the child of the second wife, was called the queen’s son. But as yet they were both young, and cared little enough for crowns.
After the king’s death the queen was made regent till the king’s son should be come to a full age; but already the little king wore the royal crown his father had left him, and the queen looked on and said nothing.
More than three years went by, and everybody said how good the queen was to the little king who was not her own son; and the king’s son, for his part, was good to her and to his step-brother, loving them both; and all by himself he kept thinking, having his thoughts guarded and circled by his golden crown, “How shall I learn to be a wise king, and to be merciful when I have power, as God is?”
So to everything that came his way, to his playthings and his pets, to his ministers and his servants, he played the king as though already his word made life and death. People watching him said, “Everything that has touch with the king’s son loves him.” They told strange tales of him: only in fairy books could they be believed, because they were so beautiful; and all the time the queen, getting a good name for herself, looked on and said nothing.
One night the king’s son was lying half-asleep upon his bed, with wise dreams coming and going under the circle of his gold crown, when a mouse ran out of the wainscot and came and jumped up upon the couch. The poor mouse had turned quite white with fear and horror, and was trembling in every limb as it cried its news into the king’s ear. “O king’s son,” it said, “get up and run for your life! I was behind the wainscot in the queen’s closet, and this is what I heard: if you stay here, when you wake up to-morrow you will be dead!”
The king’s son got up, and all alone in the dark night stole out of the palace, seeking safety for his dear life. He sighed to himself, “There was a pain in my crown ever since I wore it. Alas, mother, I thought you were too kind a step-mother to do this!”
Outside it was still winter: there was no warmth in the world, and not a leaf upon the trees. He wandered away and away, wondering where he should hide.
The queen, when her villains came and told her the king’s son was not to be found, went and looked in her magic crystal to find trace of him. As soon as it grew light, for in the darkness the crystal could show her nothing, she saw many miles away the king’s son running to hide himself in the forest. So she sent out her villains to search until they should find him.
As they went the sun grew hot in the sky, and birds began singing. “It is spring!” cried the messengers. “How suddenly it has come!” They rode on till they came to the forest.
The king’s son, stumbling along through the forest under the bare boughs, thought, “Even here where shall I hide? Nowhere is there a leaf to cover me.” But when the sun grew warm he looked up; and there were all the trees breaking into bud and leaf, making a green heaven above his head. So when he was too weary to go farther, he climbed into the largest tree he could find; and the leaves covered him.
The queen’s messengers searched through all the forest but could not find him; so they went back to her empty handed, not having either the king’s crown or his heart to show. “Fools!” she cried, looking in her magic crystal, “he was in the big sycamore under which you stopped to give your horses provender!”
The sycamore said to the king’s son, “The queen’s eye is on you; get down and run for your life till you get to the hollow tarn-stones among the hills! But if you stay here, when you wake to-morrow you will be dead.”
When the queen’s messengers came once more to the forest they found it all wintry again, and without leaf; only the sycamore was in full green, clapping its hands for joy in the keen and bitter air.
The messengers searched, and beat down the leaves, but the king’s son was not there. They went back to the queen. She looked long in her magic crystal, but little could she see; for the king’s son had hidden himself in a small cave beside the tarn-stones, and into the darkness the crystal could not pry.
Presently she saw a flight of birds crossing the blue, and every bird carried a few crumbs of bread in its beak. Then she ran and called to her villains, “Follow the birds, and they will take you to where the little wizard is; for they are carrying bread to feed him, and they are all heading for the tarn-stones up on the hills.”
The birds said to the king’s son, “Now you are rested; we have fed you, and you are not hungry. The queen’s eye is on you. Up, and run for your life! If you stay here, when you wake up to-morrow you will be dead.”
“Where shall I go?” said the king’s son. “Go,” answered the birds, “and hide in the rushes on the island of the pool of sweet waters!”
When the queen’s messengers came to the tarn-stones, it was as though five thousand people had been feeding: they found crumbs enough to fill twelve baskets full, lying in the cave; but no king’s son could they lay their hands on.
The king’s son was lying hidden among the rushes on the island of the great pool of sweet waters; and thick and fast came silver-scaled fishes, feeding him.
It took the queen three days of hard gazing in her crystal, before she found how the fishes all swam to a point among the rushes of the island in the pool of sweet waters, and away again. Then she knew: and running to her messengers she cried: “He is among the rushes on the island in the pool of sweet waters; and all the fishes are feeding him!”
The fishes said to the king’s son: “The queen’s eye is on you; up, and swim to shore, and away for your life! For if they come and find you here, when you wake to-morrow you will certainly be dead.”
“Where shall I go?” asked the king’s son. “Wherever I go, she finds me.” “Go to the old fox who gets his poultry from the palace, and ask him to hide you in his burrow!”
When the queen’s messengers came to the pool they found the fishes playing at alibis all about in the water; but nothing of the king’s son could they see.
The king’s son came to the fox, and the fox hid him in his burrow, and brought him butter and eggs from the royal dairy. This was better fare than the king’s son had had since the beginning of his wanderings, and he thanked the fox warmly for his friendship. “On the contrary,” said the fox, “I am under an obligation to you; for ever since you came to be my guest I have felt like an honest man.”
“If I live to be king,” said the king’s son, “you shall always have butter and eggs from the royal dairy, and be as honest as you like.”
The queen hugged her magic crystal for a whole week, but could make nothing out of it: for her crystal showed her nothing of the king’s son’s hiding-place, nor of the fox at his nightly thefts of butter and eggs from the royal dairy. But it so happened that this same fox was a sort of half-brother of the queen’s; and so guilty did he feel with his brand-new good conscience that he quite left off going to see her. So in a little while the queen, with her suspicions and her magic crystal, had nosed out the young king’s hiding-place.
The fox said to the king’s son: “The queen’s eye is on you! Get out and run for your life, for if you stay here till to-morrow, you will wake up and find yourself a dead goose!”
“But where else can I go to?” asked the king’s son. “Is there any place left for me?”
The fox laughed, and winked, and whispered a word; and all at once the king’s son got up and went.
The queen had said to her messengers, “Go and look in the fox’s hole; and you shall find him!” But the messengers came and dug up the burrow, and found butter and eggs from the royal dairy, but of the king’s son never a sign.
The king’s son came to the palace, and as he crept through the gardens he found there his little brother alone at play,—playing sadly because now he was all alone. Then the king’s son stopped and said, “Little brother, do you so much wish to be king?” And taking off the crown, he put it upon his brother’s head. Then he went on through underground ways and corridors, till he came to the palace dungeons.
Now a dungeon is a hard thing to get out of, but it is easy enough to get into. He came to the deepest and darkest dungeon of all, and there he opened the door, and went in and hid himself.
The queen’s son came running to his mother, wearing the king’s crown. “Oh, mother,” he said, “I am frightened! while I was playing, my brother came looking all dead and white, and put this crown on my head. Take it off for me, it hurts!”
When the queen saw the crown on her son’s head, she was horribly afraid; for that it should have so come there was the most unlikely thing of all. She fetched her crystal ball, and looked in, asking where the king’s son might be, and, for answer, the crystal became black as night.
Then said the queen to herself, “He is dead at last!”
But, now that the king’s crown was on the wrong head, the air, and the water, and the dry land, over which God is lord, heard of it. And the trees said, “Until the king’s son returns, we will not put forth bud or leaf!”
And the birds said, “We will not sing in the land, or breed or build nests until the king’s son returns!”
And the fishes said, “We will not stay in the ponds or rivers to get caught, unless the king’s son, to whom we belong, returns!”
And the foxes said, “Unless the king’s son returns, we will increase and multiply exceedingly and be like locusts in the land!”
So all through that land the trees, though it was spring, stayed as if it were mid-winter; and all the fishes swam down to the sea; and all the birds flew over the sea, away into other countries; and all the foxes increased and multiplied, and became like locusts in the land.
Now when the trees, and the birds, and the beasts, and the fishes led the way the good folk of the country discovered that the queen was a criminal. So, after the way of the flesh, they took the queen and her little son, and bound them, and threw them into the deepest and darkest dungeon they could find; and said they: “Until you tell us where the king’s son is, there you stay and starve!”
The king’s son was playing all alone in his dungeon with the mice who brought him food from the palace larder, when the queen and her son were thrown down to him fast bound, as though he were as dangerous as a den of lions. At first he was terribly afraid when he found himself pursued into his last hiding-place; but presently he gathered from the queen’s remarks that she was quite powerless to do him harm.
“Oh, what a wicked woman I am!” she moaned; and began crying lamentably, as if she hoped to melt the stone walls which formed her prison.
Presently her little son cried, “Mother, take off my brother’s crown; it pricks me!” And the king’s son sat in his corner, and cried to himself with grief over the harm that his step-mother’s wickedness had brought about.
“Mother,” cried the queen’s son again, “night and day since I have worn it, it pricks me; I cannot sleep!”
But the queen’s heart was still hard; not if she could help, would she yet take off from her son the crown.
Hours went by, and the queen and her son grew hungry. “We shall be starved to death!” she cried. “Now I see what a wicked woman I am!”
“Mother,” cried the queen’s son, “someone is putting food into my mouth!”
“No one,” said the queen, “is putting any into mine. Now I know what a wicked woman I am!”
Presently the king’s son came to the queen also, and began feeding her. “Someone is putting food into my mouth, now!” cried the queen. “If it is poisoned I shall die in agony! I wish,” she said, “I wish I knew your brother were not dead; if I have killed him what a wicked woman I am!”
“Dear step-mother,” said the king’s son, “I am not dead, I am here.”
“Here?” cried the queen, shaking with fright. “Here? not dead! How long have you been here?”
“Days, and days, and days,” said the king’s son, sadly.
“Ah! if I had only known that!” cried the queen. “Now I know what a wicked woman I am!”
Just then, the trap-door in the roof of the dungeon opened, and a voice called down, “Tell us where is the king’s son! If you do not tell us, you shall stay here and starve.”
“The king’s son is here!” cried the queen.
“A likely story!” answered the gaolers. “Do you think we are going to believe that?” And they shut-to the trap.
The queen’s son cried, “Dear brother, come and take back your crown, it pricks so!”
But the king’s son only undid the queen’s bonds and his brother’s. “Now,” said he, “you are free: you can kill me now.”
“Oh!” cried the queen, “what a wicked woman I must be! Do you think I could do it now?” Then she cried, “O little son, bring your poor head to me, and I will take off the crown!” and she took off the crown and gave it back to the king’s son. “When I am dead,” she said, “remember, and be kind to him!”
The king’s son put the crown upon his own head.
Suddenly, outside the palace, all the land broke into leaf; there was a rushing sound in the river of fishes swimming up from the sea, and all the air was loud and dark with flights of returning birds. Almost at the same moment the foxes began to disappear and diminish, and cease to be like locusts in the land.
People came running to open the door of the deepest and darkest dungeon in the palace: “For either,” they cried, “the queen is dead, or the king’s son has been found!”
“Where is the king’s son, then?” they called out, as they threw wide the door. “He is here!” cried the king; and out he came, to the astonishment of all, wearing his crown, and leading his step-mother and half-brother by the hand.
He looked at his step-mother, and she was quite white; as white as the mouse that had jumped upon the king’s bed at midnight bidding him fly for his life. Not only her face, but her hair, her lips, and her very eyes were white and colourless, for she had gone blind from gazing too hard into her crystal ball, and hunting the king’s son to death.
So she remained blind to the end of her days; but the king was more good to her than gold, and as for his brother, never did half-brothers love each other better than these. Therefore they all lived very happily together, and after a long time, the queen learned to forget what a wicked woman she had been.
Introduction: copyright 2020 by Christopher Tompkins
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