|The princess walks with an iron stave.|
Illustration by Spanfeller, J.
Once upon a time, in Czechoslovakia, "there was a king who had three daughters. The two eldest ones were married but the youngest one could not choose a husband. She was beautiful and clever, and she didn't think much of the throngs of kings, princes, and high nobility who came as suitors." One day, a young man arrived who moved the princess' heart. He wore clothing of a fine and strange cut, and rode the mightiest steed anyone had ever seen. Still and all, the princess watched the man at court for one week before announcing that she wanted to marry him. At once, the young man begged for a private audience with her. He said, "My love, I have to reveal a secret to you. I am a King of a faraway country, ten times more powerful than your father. However, I can spend only the daylight hours with you. At night I must be alone, prisoner of the spell cast upon me by an evil magician because I rejected his daughter's hand in marriage. Yet I assure you, the spell will not last forever. One day we will travel to take possession of my kingdom." The princess told the young man that her love for him was strong enough to withstand this test, and that she would wait any length of time for him. They were married with the most magnificent feast in history, which is "still told in legends and sung by minstrels in many countries." Now the days passed delightfully for the newlyweds,. but the nights became a time of loneliness for the princess. As months passed and her husband showed no signs that the enchantment would end soon, the princess grew impatient. And "one day, the two lovers were so deeply immersed in a game of charades that the princess forgot about her predicament. It wasn't until dusk that she remembered, yet she was sure her husband wouldn't leave this time." She was wrong. Now the princess decided to follow him, and tippy-toed after. Peeping through the keyhole of his private chamber she saw, "to her amazement, her busband put on a scaly green skin and became a huge lizard. In that likeness, he coiled in front of the fireplace, sighed deeply, and went to sleep." The princess went back to her own lonely chamber, and began to plot. One day not long after, when she and the prince were engaged in a game of charades, he suddenly realized the time and dashed away. Now she grabbed hold of his hand and went with him to his chambers. Before he realized what she was doing, she entered with him, grabbed the lizard skin and threw it into the blaze on the hearth. "In the flames, the skin coiled into a tight knot, then sizzled and was burnt in a minute." At this the prince was grave, and told his love that her impatience would cost them both dearly. In just one month's time, he said, the spell would have been over. Now, cursed by the revenge of his former bride-to-be, she who was the daughter of an evil wizard, would cause the prince to vanish from view until his new bride came to find him. But this would not be easy, he said, "For to find me, you would have to wear out twelve iron sandals, break twelve iron staves, and eat twelve iron loaves of bread." And then he disappeared. Though the King sent messengers to the four corners of the world, and the princess sent her envoys out offering a reward, no sign was found of the strange young prince. That's when the princess knew what she must do. It was she who had caused the terrible events by her rash burning of the lizard skin. She remembered the words of her husband and "had twelve iron sandals made, twelve iron staves and twelve iron loaves of bread." She loaded these things into a pack, put on the first pair of sandals, and began her search. Her back nearly broke under the weight, and her feet grew blistered from the heavy iron shoes. At night, she nibbled from an iron loaf, "which seemed to have no end." But on she went, determined to set her beloved free. "After much suffering, the twelfth pair of iron sandals was wearing thin, the twelfth iron staff was bent, and there was only a mouthful of iron bread left in her knapsack." That morning, she reached a kingdom ruled by an evil and mysterious queen. The kingdom had lost it's king, though no one could say where he went, and in his place sat a wicked queen. This was the kingdom the princess in the iron sandals had sought. She strode to the gates of the palace, and waited until the haughty queen came out. Then she displayed her finest golden necklace, as though she were a peddler, and watched as the queen passed by. Just as the princess had hoped, the jewelry tempted the queen. When she demanded to know the price, the strange girl in the iron sandals insisted that it was not for sale, but only to be traded. In return for the necklace, she required one night spent alone with the king. Greed ruled over prudence, and the queen consented to this plan. Thus the princess was seated in her husband's bedchamber, and allowed to pass the hours of darkness there. But "instead of joy, the princess was seized with pain at the look of him, for his body was pierced with thousands of needles from head to toe. Only the faint twitching of his wounded eyelids proved he wasn't dead." Working frantically through the night, "ignoring the pain as her nimble fingers were pricked with needles, she kept at her task." With blood dripping from her fingertips, she cleared all of his body of needles, except for "his face and one hand." That's when the queen barged into the room and flung the curtains open. It was dawn, and the princess' time had run out. In desperation, the princess now bartered her earrings, studded with diamonds and filigreed in gold. Once again the greedy queen agreed, and for a second night, the princess labored with lacerated fingers to remove the needles from her love. To her horror, all of those of the previous night, and more, were now protruding from the prince. Again she plucked needles till dawn, and again the queen burst triumphantly in before she had finished. So she traded her ring, "worth more than the whole of your palace" the princess said. The queen agreed, and pushed her out of the palace door. The day passed in misery, but that evening, "as she walked toward the palace, she hurt her foot on a sharp stone." There was a hole in her shoe! The last pair of iron sandals had worn out. Digging out the last crumbs of iron bread, she ate them and it was soft and delicious. She felt strength flow into her, and set out for the palace. For a third night she pulled needles, her own eyes red from weeping, her fingers red with blood, but she kept on, and by dawn, "there was only one needle left in each of her husband's eyelids". The queen came in and laughed an evil, triumphant laugh. The princess reached out and grabbed one needle with each hand. When the queen called for the guards to push her out, she would not let go of the needles. That is how the last two needles were finally pulled out. Now "the king's voice rang young and resolute through the room." He commanded the guards to let his princess go, and, with great relief, they did so. Their king was come once more to himself! The wicked wizard queen "was burned at the stake the very next Sunday, while the young pair rejoiced at their happy reunion. They spent day after day recounting their love and the suffering of these long years. And if they haven't died, they live in bliss to this day."
From Twelve Iron Sandals and other Czechoslovak Tales by Vit Horejs, ilustrated by Jim Spanfeller. (1985) New Jersey: Prentiss Hall Twelve Iron Sandals and Other Czechoslovak Tales
Notes: This story carries on the motif of unusual footwear worn by the maiden. It is reminiscent of The Black Bull of Norroway (Cinderella #148), in which a princess wears iron shoes to reach the top of the glass hill and find her prince. I have always wondered the twelve sandals means six pairs, or twelve pairs. It seems it would be pairs, because we don't generally refer to individual shoes when taking inventory, for example. Think about how steel-toed boots worn by people in many trades to prevent injury by heavy objects falling on the feet are reminiscent of iron sandals. Ponder the fact that Wonder Bread, that squishy, marshmallow soft loft, claims its iron content providing health benefits to children. Think about iron loaves of bread the next time you see those red and yellow bubbles on the package! Final note: Q: What kind of lizard is man sized? A: Crocodile, of course! Or perhaps dino? Either way, the lizard is an ancient animal, and it appears as a magical being, an animal transformed, or an enchanted animal skin in many, many fairytales. Where else would Perrault have gotten the idea to use lizards for footmen?
Montessori Connection: Fundamental Needs of People/Shoes/Famous Shoes
1. Read this story and notice how important the shoes are, and what they are made of.
2. Think about whether you have ever heard of any kind of shoes with metal on them or in them. Hint: tap shoes, ice skates, roller skates, steel-toed boots.
3. Think about footwear throughout the ages.
4. Learn about some famous shoes of history.
Hint: King Tutankhamun, who was King of Egypt from the time he was 9 until he died as a young man, famously wore sandals painted with the images of his enemies, the better to crush them at every step. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure (King Tut)
Hint: The Greek god Mercury wore winged sandals, given to him by Zeus so that he could be truly fleet of foot. Learn how he got them. D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
5. Learn about fictional footwear. Hints: ruby slippers, Pippi Longstocking, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.