Hello, everyone! It’s getting rough out it there in the political sphere, or in any sphere (take your pick), which means it’s time to retreat from reality and head for the sanctuary of bizarre 17th century fairytales. Our tale today is called The Royal Ram and comes from the fabulous Madame D’Aulnoy, who originated the term “fairytale” and according to Wikipedia, had a very exciting life in pre-revolutionary France.
I chose this fairytale because it’s a super strange take on King Lear with some animal romance thrown in, and has a surprisingly sad ending. Reading this as a child definitely left me feeling confused. Anyone who says that fairytales have clear moral lessons clearly never read this one!
Our story starts off like with a classic scenario: a king with three beautiful daughters. Since there can be no uglies in fairytale royalty, they’re all hot, except for the youngest, named Wonder like a 90s popstar, who is the nicest, the hottest, and gets all the presents from her dad. But it’s cool, because she shares them, so no one hates her, right?
Once, the king had to be away at war for a long time. When the girls heard he’d won the fight at last, they dressed gaily to welcome him home. One wore green….one wore blue…the youngest wore white.
At supper that night, the [king] said to his eldest daughter, “Tell me, why did you wear a green dress tonight?”
“Sire,” she said,” we heard of your great bravery in battle. I wore green to show my pride and joy at your safe return.”
“Sire,” [said the next daughter], “I wore blue to show how we begged heaven to keep you safe. Your return is as joyful as the blue skies at morning.”
“And you, Wonder, in your white, why did you choose that dress?”
“Because it makes me look pretty,” she said at once.
After his other two daughters’ fawning, the king is disappointed at Wonder’s answer. Perhaps he doesn’t like people to be as narcissistic as he. Reminds me of an English king I once knew, who liked to behead women who supposedly betrayed him. But that’s not this guy! No, he just likes “to feel like his girls adored him” and is not motivated by any sort of frightening egotism that would spur him to violence.
“Father, my reason was only the wish to be as pretty as possible. For the least we, who love you, can do, is to delight your eyes as much as we can.”
“A clever answer, indeed!” cried the king.
Perhaps we have different ideas of cleverness, but Wonder’s explanation satisfies the king, so he moves on to more interrogation and asks them about what they dreamt last night. The first two girls say that they dreamt of gowns and dresses, and the king is satisfied, because he can’t see his daughters as anything besides stereotypes (as a good princess should be).
But Wonder, being her authentic self, has to tell the truth instead of lying like her sisters. She can’t read a room as well as they can.
Wonder said “I dreamed it was my second sister’s wedding day. You, sire, called me, and said ‘Come, I myself will pour water for you to wash your hands!”
A normal dad would have just brushed this off, but King Dad is not happy! Convinced that Wonder’s dream hints at a plot to usurp his throne, which is definitely NOT a stretch at all, King Dad orders the captain of his guard to take Wonder into the forest, cut her throat, and bring back her heart and tongue as proof.
It’s a totally reasonable request from a totally normal king who isn’t a psychotic narcissist at all, right? RIGHT?
Terrified for his own life, the captain pulls a Snow White and takes Wonder into the forest, where he tells her to run for her goddamn life and kills a deer instead. I assume King Dad never took a biology class, and so he is appeased.
Meanwhile, poor Wonder, who only wanted to live her truth, wanders the forest until she hears a sheep bleat. Thinking it might be a friendly shepherd, she runs towards the sound, and comes across a ram “whiter than snow, golden horned, flower garlanded, and decked with jewels.”
A golden tent shaded him. A hundred sheep and rams, decked with jewels only a little less handsome, stood near. They weren’t cropping grass. They were drinking lemonade, and eating iced strawberries and cream. There were two tables of bridge players, and several pairs of sheep were playing chess.
Did Wonder come across the prototypical version of sheep Coachella?
After a few moments of confusion, the head ram beckons her over, assuring her that she has nothing to fear from gentle sheep. Instead of running away screaming, Wonder, who smartly remembers that she has nothing better to do, goes to him, and is whisked away in his big pumpkin carriage. He takes her to a cavern, which has been transformed into a type of paradise.
There were beautiful fountains of delicious tasting liquid. Stores of food in fantastic designs were set out in imitations of the strangest trees imaginable. There were oaks of hams, and pines of chickens, and maples of cheeses, and copper beeches of lobster. There were flower-like piles, too, of cakes, and cookies, and jars of jams and syrups. There were hedges made of diamonds and pearls, gold and silver. The air was so pure that nothing spoiled.
Good, because that’s what was bothering me. Perhaps the food security of a life in 21st century America has made me immune to the charms of tree-shaped meat piles, but isn’t this whole situation really strange? What are the chances that Wonder escapes a brutal death and stumbles upon a kingdom of anthropomorphic sheep who live in a magical cavern with unspoiled food? I guess to a peasant in 17th century France, this would seem like the type of magic worth believing in. Better to be killed by a sheep with a chicken in your mouth than die starving in the woods. After all, they did overthrow their monarchy because of famine and food insecurity. But for me, it’s all a bit strange, and I would definitely have thought twice about following that talking sheep into the cavern that defies the laws of decomposition.
“This place is for you, my princess,” said the ram. “Here you may live in peace. Your every order will be obeyed.”
“How kind and generous you are, Sir Ram,” said the princess. “But I admit I’m rather dazed and a little frightened at this strange world of yours. Please take me back to my own world now.”
Finally, some sense! Wonder may be the Gwyneth Paltrow of her time, but even she can see the weirdness in this sheep colony. Sir Ram knows it looks bad, so he implores her to wait a moment so that he can explain. Of course, it comes down to a tale as old as time: a regrettable feud with a fairy.
“Once I ruled happily over a large realm, in peace and plenty…One day, hunting a stag, I went so fast I left my friends behind. The stag leaped into a lake, and I followed…the lake dried up and opened into a pit of flames. I was tossed down a cliff into a hole surrounded by fire. There I saw a fairy I’d dreaded for years, a ghastly creature named Ragtag.
“You’ve insulted me too often,” she cried. “I want revenge. You’re going to be one of my sheep, for as long as I please. My sheep are as smart as you, and can talk, too.”
“With a wave of her wand, I found myself changed into the ram you see before you. The rest of the flock made me their king. All of them are unlucky people who once displeased Ragtag.”
Wow, there is so much to unpack here. First, who jumps after a stag once they go into a lake? That seems like bad hunting to me.
Second, what fairy is powerful enough to dry up a lake and have it transform into a volcano? Is Ragtag actually Satan? That seems more likely.
Third, is her name actually Ragtag, or is that just a mistranslation? I feel like her name is probably more intense than that. Ragtag reminds me of the name of a college jazz band.
Fourth, what did Sir Ram do to insult her? Clearly their history is long and storied, because she says that he’s insulted her for long enough. Did he make the classic mistake of not inviting her to an important court function (à la Sleeping Beauty)? Did he not thank her when his child was born (à la The White Deer)? Did he accidentally drink water from her fire lake? We will never know, because the story is completely uninterested in this backstory.
All that matters is he’s a ram now with a kingdom of talking sheep and he needs a wife, damnit!
“Often as I roamed the forest with my flock I saw you, princess, walking with your ladies. I longed to speak to you. But it would have been ridiculous. You would have laughed, if a ram had leapt up and declared his love for you.”
It’s a sad story, truly. A princess who can’t express her true feelings to her father, and a ram who can’t express his true feelings to that girl he sometimes spies on when she’s walking through the forest. Trapped between a father who wants to kill her, and a ram who is madly in love with her, Wonder chooses the safer option and decides to stay in the ram’s kingdom.
As time goes on, Wonder starts to appreciate Sir Ram for who he is inside. They have a pleasant life full of picnics, chess, and spirited sheep gossip, and Wonder starts to fall a little bit in love with Sir Ram. That is until she hears that her eldest sister is getting married.
“Oh I would love to see her wedding!” said Wonder.
“Why not?” said the ram. “But please, please promise to come back.”
It’s kind of sad that the ram has to beg Wonder to come back to his sheep kingdom. It shows the imbalance in their relationship. At the same time, I bet that she feels trapped in his sheep kingdom, pleasant as it is.
So she sets off in Sir Rams’ beautiful carriage, and when she arrives at the wedding, she sets those royal tongues wagging. Her father, certain that his daughter was good and properly murdered, suspects nothing and thinks that she is only a beautiful foreign princess. Wonder, on the other hand, is terrified of being found out and actually being killed this time, and leaves before the ceremony is over. What a fucked up world it is when princesses and sheep can’t be their true selves.
King Dad, who must be in control of everything, including his daughter’s thoughts and dreams, is angry that the mysterious princess left before he could meet her, so he instructs his guards to keep the princess in the palace if she resurfaces again for the next wedding. This seems ominous, doesn’t it? Really, who hurt this man as a child to make him act like this?
Back with Sir Ram, everything is beautiful and happy. But not long after, word comes that Wonder’s second sister is getting married, so Wonder promises to come back as quickly as she did before.
But this time, King Dad orders his goons to trap her.
The king came to find her. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “I should like you to come to the wedding reception with my other guests.”
He led Wonder into the banquet hall. Taking a golden basin and pitcher, he said, “Come, I myself will pour water for you to wash your hands.”
Apparently Wonder’s dreams are prophetic now? Feeling vindicated, she reveals herself to her father, and he begs her forgiveness, assuring her that he only tried to have her murdered because he “thought [she] plotted to remove [him] from his throne.” Seems like a shitty apology to me, but she accepts, because that’s how the children of narcissists act to keep their parents happy.
King Dad decides to make his apology count by putting Wonder on the throne. Her sisters rejoice to discover that their long-lost sister has returned, and Wonder spends the whole banquet regaling the guests with the hilarious story of how she escaped her father’s murder attempt and was forced to live with talking sheep.
But Wonder’s happiness was not shared by Sir Ram.
Meanwhile, the ram waited and waited. The hour of Wonder’s expected return had long passed.
“I’m too ugly. She’s left forever,” he mourned. “I can’t live without her. Ragtag, witch-fairy, your revenge on me is too cruel to bear.”
Chill, dude! Just because she doesn’t text back immediately doesn’t mean the relationship is over. I get that losing your kingdom and being turned into a ram can do a wonder on one’s self esteem, but he a bit too self-pitying for my liking. Makes me wonder what their marriage would be like if she wanted to go on a solo vacation or something.
Sir Ram runs to the palace to try to see Wonder, but the guards refuse to admit him, because, to be honest, he’s a talking ram. Instead of just being patient for like a few more hours, Sir Ram dies “in a transport of grief.” As a child this made me really sad, but now I see it in a different light. Sir Ram is too clingy and needy. He needs to let Wonder have a chance to live her truth and thrive instead of holding her back in his sheep kingdom. Frankly, he needs some therapy.
Wonder had no idea what had happened. She’d forgotten time in her pleasure at being with her family.
As [she] left the palace, Wonder chanced to look down. There on the ground near the gates lay the body of her beloved ram…when she saw that he would never breathe again, or leap or laugh again, she wept bitterly.
She learned, too, that even the most royal, most lucky persons suffer like everyone else. And sometimes the greatest pains come amid the greatest joys.
So the moral of this story is…what exactly? I’m having trouble figuring it out. I guess, in the end, it’s a tale of extremes. How even after your father has tried to murder you, you can find happiness in a halcyon sheep kingdom. But on the other hand, once your father apologizes for trying to murder you and crowns you queen, your sheep beloved can die, just like that.
The dubious moral: So I guess, um, don’t take what you have for granted? Learn to live in the present, speak your truth, predict the future, love a sheep, watch him die, etc, etc. I don’t think these life lessons are widely applicable, but if they apply to you, I hope you can make use of them.